The current Mobile City Council impasse over electing its new president isn’t the first time the five-vote majority rule in the law that created the city’s current form of government has been questioned, but leaders at the time of its inception still believe it’s a positive rule for Mobile.
The five-vote majority stipulation in the Zoghby Act, which provides the blueprint for how city government runs, recently became the subject of controversy when Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson was denied the body’s presidency despite winning a simple, 4-3 majority vote of his fellow councilors. Richardson and other councilors argued the council bucked tradition when he was denied the seat by saying he needed a supermajority of five votes. He accused the body of changing the rules to prevent him from obtaining the presidency.
Councilman John Williams argued that four years ago, the official council leadership vote was unanimously in favor of Councilwoman Gina Gregory after she won a split, simple majority vote in what he called a legal, closed-door meeting. Williams said he refused to participate in a closed-door meeting this year because of the vote’s added scrutiny and press coverage.
Mary Zoghby, one of the authors of the law, told Lagniappe that regardless of how it was handled in the past, the vote for council president, like almost all other council actions, should be decided by the five-vote majority. She added that those past decisions probably could have been challenged.
“The affirmative vote of at least five members of the council shall be sufficient for the passage of any resolution, bylaw ordinance, or the transaction of any business of any sort by the said council or the exercise of any of the powers conferred upon it by the terms of this chapter or bylaw, or which may hereafter be conferred upon it,” the act reads.
Zoghby said the only exception to the five-vote majority would be on a vote to approve the city’s budget. At the time the law was written at the state level, this was added so the financial aspects of city government would not be delayed.
Other actions have since been added to this exemption, such as votes for council attorney and the selection of municipal judges.
The five-vote majority was unsuccessfully challenged more than a decade ago by a group of Mobile residents known as the Citizens for Referendum. Joe Ringhoffer, who was a member of the group, said they presented then-Circuit Court Judge Herman Thomas with a petition that included signatures equal to 10 percent of the number of voters in the last municipal election, which was legally required. The result the group was hoping for, Ringhoffer said, was to put a referendum on the ballot and let the citizens decide if they wanted a simple majority, or to keep the five-vote majority rule.
Thomas ruled against the group, Ringhoffer said. The Alabama Supreme Court decided not to the hear the case because the court decided the group had no legal standing, he said.
Ringhoffer said the citizens of Mobile never truly got to decide on the city’s form of government after the commission was dissolved. He claimed Zoghby wrote the legislative act before folks in Mobile had a say in it.
“We wanted to allow people to vote on it,” Ringhoffer said. “It’s been decided for us since 1985. We wanted to allow people to vote and let the chips fall where they may.”
The Zoghby Act was created in 1985 and only applies to Class 2 municipalities. Mobile is the state’s only Class 2 municipality. The law was created after a federal judge in the late 1970s dissolved the city’s commission form of government — where three commissioners were selected at-large from a pool of candidates citywide — because it lacked diversity and “worked an unconstitutional dilution of the votes of black Mobilians.”
“The case was about the fact that a minority candidate had never been elected to the City Commission,” Zoghby said. “We had a vote in 1973 to change the form of government to a mayor-council form. It failed.”
The case, Bolden v. City of Mobile, was filed soon afterward, Zoghby said. The case was later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but legislators were already working on a solution.
Zoghby said a legislative committee came up with a remedy initially in 1983, but it died. A federal judge then issued a decree stating that if the Legislature couldn’t come up with a solution by 1985, the city’s government would revert to a system with districted commission seats. It was time for a mayor-council system, she said.
“People were restless,” Zoghby said. “They felt the city was too big for a three-member commission to run it. People were tired of two people running the city.”
At the time the House version of the bill was introduced, a Senate version was introduced by Michael Figures, Zoghby said. The Senate passed the House version, written by Zoghby and Beth Lyons, first. It is for this reason the bill has Zoghby’s name on it and not Figures’.
The five-vote majority rule came into being once it was discovered how the city would be split into districts, Zoghby said.
“We knew with the population of Mobile and the way the districts were set up that we had three districts that would probably be [majority] minority districts,” she said. “The other four seats — because most were west of I-65 — would be held by the majority.”
The reason for the five-vote majority at the time was because Zoghby and others wanted to have minority participation in the winning vote. At that time, Mobile’s population was predominantly white.
“We knew that if it was a simple majority it could lead to disenfranchisement,” Zoghby said. “We knew that. We had issues with the school board.”
The move to create a majority-plus-one scenario didn’t seem odd to Zoghby, she said.
“Most of the time the decisions made [by council] are unanimous,” she said.
Reggie Copeland, one of the city’s first seven councilors and former council president, said the first council ran smoothly under the five-vote majority rule.
“It hasn’t been a real problem until we got to where we are this year,” Copeland said, referring to the new council’s inability to elect a president. “I’m sorry it’s so contentious. I wish they could work it out.”
For the good of the city, Copeland said, he hopes the current council can find a solution.
“There’s so much going on in the city,” he said. “So many companies coming in … We’ve got a good team.”
Copeland said he thinks the five-vote rule and the council form of government are good for the city, especially when compared to the old commission form of government.
“When you had the three commissioners, two could vote over one,” he said. “I feel like by having a council form of government, citizens could reach me faster.”
Clinton Johnson, another former council president and an original council member, did not return a call seeking comment.
Debi Foster, who worked as a radio news reporter in the 1980s and was a member of Mayor Arthur Outlaw’s administration, said there weren’t many growing pains in the transition from the commission form of government to the mayor-council form. The biggest “sticky wicket,” she said, was getting the city’s employees used to the change. As far as the general population, Foster said, it was a positive move.
“Before there were sections of the city that had no voice,” she said. “Now, you had people who had a voice who had never had it before.”
The issue of the five-vote majority came up a few times in the past, she said, but she always supported it.
“I personally have always believed in a five-vote majority,” she said. “I still believe in a five-vote majority.”