Imagine you have neighbors who call the cops on each other every Saturday night. During the week they seem like nice folks, but without fail on Saturday night MPD is out in the front yard trying to break up a fight.
And this goes on and on. They both have told you in passing how they’re seeing a marriage counselor and things are getting better, but as sure as Bud Light and Liberty Creek are on sale at Walgreen’s, you know what’s coming this weekend.
That’s kind of what it feels like watching Mobile’s mayor and council right now. Granted, no one appears to have been hammering beer all day, and no cops have been called in — it’s just an analogy! — but their fights have become as predictable as a BayBears rain out on Thirsty Thursday.
Last week’s scrap over pay raises for city employees was just another sign relationships between city leaders are as caustic as eight gallons of battery acid.
The fact that this kind of bickering and anger remain after five months of court-ordered mediation offers a pretty good barometer of how well that process is working. It doesn’t take Alan Sealls to know which way the wind is blowing.
After meeting with Mayor Sandy Stimpson and Councilmen Fred Richardson and Levon Manzie last week, I’m convinced the mediation phase of this fight needs to end. Only a judge’s ruling is going to substantively make a difference in how Mobile’s leaders relate to one another. And while nothing can force them to like each other, defining the powers of their specific offices might at least give them a chance to know when they’re out of their lane, so to speak.
This power struggle started early on in Mayor Stimpson’s administration. One of the first big skirmishes came when the council tried to bar the mayor from putting items on the agenda for weekly City Council meetings. That effort went poorly for the council, which ended up tucking its collective tail and retreating after the public outcry became too great.
But they’ve kept coming back, determined to exercise what they see as their legal level of power under state law. Of course the mayor’s office sees that as an encroachment upon its authority, so we’re off and running.
The Zoghby Act, the guiding legislation that created Mobile’s current form of government, is heavy on detail, but as with most things, attorneys can look at it and come up with multiple readings of the same law. Over the years this has created tension as mayors attempt to avoid the irritations of building consensus, winning over skittish council members or playing the “what will you give me if I vote for this?” game. At the same time, the City Council doesn’t want to simply act as a rubber stamp for any proposal that flows down from Government Plaza’s 10th Floor.
This all came to a head last year when Stimpson unceremoniously fired the council’s communications coordinator, Marion Steinfels. She had been originally hired by Stimpson for the council, a compromise that left her essentially an at-will city employee and kept the council from executing the contract to hire her — a power the mayor’s office has argued the council does not possess.
As irritations grew between the council and mayor, Stimpson fired Steinfels last year. Councilors saw the move as political retribution for having amended the mayor’s 2019 budget. The mayor’s office never officially offered a reason for her termination, but scuttlebutt from 10th Floor suggested the position was seen as having become used as a political weapon in the skirmishes between council and mayor. Regardless of the reason, she was let go and the council swiftly sought to execute a contract to hire her back. Thus began the battle over who has the power to hire and fire and the ensuing parachuting of lawyers into Government Plaza.
Stimpson’s office filed a lawsuit in Mobile County Circuit Court naming each member of the council as a defendant — even poor Joel Daves, who had voted with the mayor in the matter. But Circuit Court Judge Michael Youngpeter promptly slapped a gag order on both parties and sent the two sides to mediation last December, and that’s where things still sit.
Both the mayor and council make the point the city is still moving forward despite the lawsuit, but tend to tap dance around the fact that lots of money — more than $60,000 in attorneys’ fees so far — and time are being wasted. This latest dust up has had an obvious effect on more than 2,000 city employees who are now in the position of waiting for the mayor and council to stop fighting before they can have the 2.5 percent raise Stimpson proposed and the council passed — kind of.
Councilors voted to withhold the raises from 53 (or 113 depending who you ask) non-merit employees — essentially those hired at-will to work for the mayor — after being advised by their attorney not allow across-the-board increase to apply to those employees. Councilors have said they believed Stimpson would have somehow used a vote for the non-merit employees’ raises against them in court.
Stimpson quickly put all of the raises on hold, likewise saying legal counsel had advised him not to allow a salary increase to go forward unless it included all city workers.
It’s simple to say both sides are acting childishly in these matters — and they have moments when I’d like to hand them a lollypop. In meeting with them, both parties appear exasperated with one another on a personal level. At the same time it’s also true they are relying on lawyers to tell them what to do.
Combine that with the way both sides talk about “when this all goes to court” as a fait accompli, and I can see no way in which they’re going to come out of mediation singing “Kumbaya” and in total agreement as to who gets to drive the car on which days.
There are many great things happening in Mobile right now, and to take full advantage of that we need the mayor and council to be able to step back from the backbiting and bickering. Any court ruling is bound to be appealed, so time and expense are already baked into this bitter cake. There’s no reason to delay the process any more by continuing mediation.
Mediation also can’t codify a solution for future mayors and councils. A legal ruling will at least provide concrete answers to some of the ambiguities in the law that have led us to where we are.
It’s time to get this show on the road.
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