After a year-long battle and over a hundred grand spent in legal feels, Mayor Sandy Stimpson and the Mobile City Council have reached an agreement, which has resulted in the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Stimpson over which body had the authority to do what under the Zoghby Act, a state law that governs the operation of our municipal government.
At issue was Stimpson’s firing of the council’s media specialist, Marion Steinfels, for what has been repeatedly described as “political reasons.” The council argued he did not have the authority to do this, while he claimed he did. Under the agreement Steinfels will be re-hired with back pay, and she will also have the option to become a merit employee, which affords her more protections than an appointee.
Another issue in the lawsuit was if Stimpson could pay certain members of his executive staff who are outside of the merit system more than $100,000 per year. The council argued there is a clause in the Zoghby Act that seems to suggest he could not pay them more than $100,000. There are currently 11 non-merit Stimpson appointees who make more than that amount. Obviously, the administration disagreed with the council’s interpretation.
Under this new agreement, the mayor will send appointment letters to the council regarding employees outside the merit system, ending the argument over salaries … for now.
Every member of the council except Councilman Fred Richardson and Councilwoman Bess Rich were in favor of this agreement, which gave the council the “super majority” it needed to come to this resolution. The five members in favor of ending this dispute said it was time to move on, as this had started affecting their ability to get their jobs done. Richardson and Rich said without a judge’s ruling, “clarity” was still lacking on who had authority on some issues.
Judge Michael Youngpeter, who presided over the case, said since the council had filed as a group and not as individuals and since five of their fellow councilors had agreed to this, the suit could not move forward with just Rich and Richardson.
Though this wasn’t part of the official agreement, the settlement seemed to also solidify enough votes for the council to finally elect a president and vice president after two years of arguing over that, with Councilmen Levon Manzie and C.J. Small respectively winning those spots. They also finally passed the 2020 budget for the city of Mobile.
So now that both sides have gotten what they wanted (at least in the immediate future), who are the winners and losers in this whole sordid saga? As with any compromise, it’s not exactly a win-win for anyone except the attorneys, who racked up some hefty billable hours and didn’t even have to see it through to the bitter end. Enjoy your new boats, counselors!
But for everyone else, well, let’s take a look ….
Winner: Mayor Sandy Stimpson
Stimpson was allowed to keep his executive staff in place at the salaries he deemed fit. It ends what was certainly going to be a protracted legal battle and allows him to get back to making the city the “safest, most business- and family-friendly city in the nation by 2020,” which is just right around the corner. Funny, when he first said that, 2020 seemed so far away. Time flies when you’re having fun! Is this fun?
In any case, Stimpson’s legacy will most certainly be that he has righted the city’s ship financially, and now he can get back to continuing that work.
Loser: Mayor Sandy Stimpson
There seems to be no clear answer on if he actually had the authority to fire Steinfels, so if another issue like this comes up down the road, it seems likely will we be back at square one and have to restart litigation. And that’s no good.
This also did not look good for Stimpson, as he campaigned on being able to have a better relationship with the council than the previous mayoral administration, which he often criticized for communication problems and for having a “closed door” policy.
Right after he was first elected, Stimpson went so far as to remove the door to the mayor’s office to symbolize a new day for the mayor and council’s relationship.
One could argue this settlement does indicate they were ultimately able to work together. But after a year of legal wrangling and disputes, if Stimpson should choose to run again, it will be a tough case for him to make that he’s the mayor who can be the “council whisperer.”
Losers: Fred Richardson and Bess Rich
The lone holdouts on the settlement, it makes Rich and Richardson appear to be in a position of weakness and pettiness, like they aren’t willing to work with their other councilors in the best interest of the city and their constituents, but rather for their own interests.
In addition, this deal also cost Richardson any chance of the council presidency, which he felt he deserved after winning what was ultimately deemed an illegal straw poll. The “Rich” duo lost Small and Manzie’s support in Richardson’s presidential quest, who joined the other four in the settlement, budget and council leadership vote, which makes R&R look like poor political tacticians.
Winners: Fred Richardson and Bess Rich
Politically speaking, this gives Richardson, who is certainly running for mayor in 2021, a great wedge issue to rile up his base. He is already doing an excellent job of that on his Facebook page.
He is well regarded by his constituents in District 1 as being a very responsive and effective councilperson. After all, as he says, “when you ring, I spring.” As one of his constituents, I can attest to that.
But his main problem has always been his fiery and divisive rhetoric, which often goes too far and not only turns off his own constituents in District 1, even the ones who like him, but more so the people outside of his district. Will he be able to control himself and run a broader, more inclusive campaign that will appeal to more than the folks who comment how great he is on his own Facebook page? That remains to be seen.
There are people — even people who are fans of Stimpson — who think Rich was spot-on saying this did not need to end in a settlement because it doesn’t offer any definitive answers on what they were fighting over, especially for future councils and administrations. So for those who did not want to see this can kicked down the road, this was a win for Rich.
Winner: C.J. Small
Small comes off looking like an elder statesman in this.
“The residents I represent are more concerned about paving streets, blighted property … ,” Small said. “The city has a bright future when the two branches work together.”
And, of course, he ended up with the council vice presidency once he left the Rich/Richardson camp and joined the other side. Pretty sweet deal for him!
Loser: C.J. Small
Some will call him a sellout for switching sides and appearing to get the VP spot in exchange. Manzie could get this criticism too but he did stay a little more neutral throughout this process.
Losers: Our local delegation on the the Zoghby Act
This well-intended piece of 35-year-old legislation needs to be updated and amended by our local delegation. While there seems to be zero appetite to do this among state legislators, it needs to happen.
Most do not want to touch the “super majority rule,” and fear any changes at all could open the door to that. That is just political cowardice! This act often needs a team of legal scholars to interpret it and they often disagree, as was the case with Stimpson and the council and this whole mess.
Our delegation could certainly clear up some of these murky areas while keeping the super majority rule in place. And it wouldn’t have to be done in a court of law if issues arise again. And what better time is there to do it than when there is a peace accord in place?
But I guess it is easier FOR EVERYONE to just keep kicking this can of political worms on down the road.
Again, enjoy your new boats, lawyers
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