Mobile's county commissioners lined up Thursday to take turns torching Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson and his administration for their handling of a proposal to shrink the city's police jurisdiction.
"This is one of few things you'll see all three of us agree on," said Commission President Jerry Carl. And while Carl insisted he didn't want to hear the word "retaliation" flung at the county, he made it clear that as city-county relations deteriorate, the city could find itself facing new expenses.
Carl and his fellow commissioners spoke during an open work session, not a full formal meeting. Consequently their words were not part of a formal resolution, and they were not voting on any related county action. The Commission's next meeting is Monday, a day before the Mobile City Council likely will consider the jurisdiction issue again, but it was not immediately clear whether the Commission will formalize its view on Monday for the council's benefit.
It might not be necessary: The commission already has sent a letter saying it would prefer for any change in the jurisdiction to be put off for a year, and its sentiment on Thursday certainly was clear enough.
District 2 Commissioner Connie Hudson said that she hoped the city "will take a different point of view and be willing to work with us."
"There's no hurry here as long as it happens before October first, there's no reason to rush this along," she said. "I don't know what the rationale or the reasoning is of the mayor and certain members of the council to do that, but I think it's unfair. And I think it's in a lot of ways insulting to us, that we have tried to work with them, and we're just asking for a little time to make sure that we get the problems worked out, and we're not trying to delay it. January first 2017 is their date, and regardless, that's when the rollback will happen."
A recent chance in state law makes it possible for Alabama municipalities to shrink their police jurisdiction from three miles outside the city limits to 1.5 miles, and Stimpson has proposed doing just that. Finance director Paul Wesch has said that in the outer 1.5-mile band, the city spends roughly $1.5 million more on services every year than it takes in on taxes and fees. Rather than a cash savings, the administration says it hopes to see police and fire service within the city improve thanks to resources being spread less thinly.
Mobile council votes down jurisdiction change -- but will get another shot
Stimpson rolled out the idea on Aug. 15, meaning the council could have voted to approve it as early as Aug. 23. And that initially seemed quite possible, given the number of City Council members who expressed support. But the Council voted for a one-week delay on Aug. 23, and did so again on Aug. 30. In a bizarre procedural scrimmage on Tuesday, the council first voted down an attempt to delay the measure yet again, then voted down the move itself. This result was so dissatisfying that a couple of members, including Council President Gina Gregory, expressed hope for a do-over, and Stimpson said he'd put the item back on next week's agenda.
Its prospects may be no more clear. With five votes needed, three City Council members have voiced strong support: Gregory, John Williams and Joel Daves. Three more, at one time or another, have expressed support provided transitional arrangements with the county are sufficiently spelled out: Bess Rich, Fred Richardson and Levon Manzie. On Tuesday, they split: Rich voted for the pullback, Richardson voted against it and Manzie, who said he was having second thoughts, abstained. C.J. Small, who hadn't previously revealed his position, voted against it.
District 1 Commissioner Merceria Ludgood praised Richardson, Small and Manzie for their "no" votes and abstention.
"I'd just like to say I really appreciate the council members who voted no, or abstained, to stop the rollback as it's currently presented," Ludgood said. "I trust their judgment, and if they decide not to roll it back, I think that would be a good thing. I think there are lots of issues that have been on the table and some not on the table about why this may not necessarily be a good thing.
"I'm glad they were willing to take that bullet," Ludgood said. "I know that they are now being attacked through social media, all the way and including from the mayor's office, which I think is wholly inappropriate. I'm just proud that they stood their ground and even as this pressure unfolds that they will continue to stand firm against the rollback."
"I'm glad you brought that up, commissioner, because this is a matter of professional courtesy," responded Hudson. She said the administration's eagerness to fast-track the change, combined with the repeated delays, didn't add up to an orderly process. "I think these three council members, even though they're getting beaten up in social media, have said, 'Wait a minute, we need to work with the county, there's no fire here, we need to wait and do this the right way,'" Hudson said. "And I appreciate their stance on this."
Carl described himself as angry and hurt by the city's action.
"I always try to find the humor in every bad situation, but I'm having a hard time finding humor in this one," he said. "There's been no bigger fan of Mayor Stimpson than myself, and I think everybody in this room knows that. But I'm extremely disappointed in the way this is going. Because what it is doing, it will start an avalanche."
Carl said that several months ago, he received a "punch list" of "things the city feels like they're paying too much money for." Having examined it, he said, "What we've found out so far, they're under-paying."
"However this vote turns out, and however we move on these other issues, I do not want it to say that we are retaliating in any way," Carl said, going on to describe a scenario that sounded suspiciously retaliatory. He said that on some matters where the city and the county share costs, such as Strickland Youth Center and Metro Jail, he thinks the county pays more than it should, and it might be less inclined to do that in the future.
"People in the city don't actually understand what the county does. We're the stepchild. And we accept that. We know that," Carl said. "But we're carrying a lot of the load for the city."
"I think the damage that's done here is the relationship between the city and the county," he said. "We will take that punch list and we will go through that punch list and we will be fair, according to the law. And when everybody starts screaming it costs too much, just remember, we used to pay it. Okay?"
Asked for response, Stimpson's director of communications, George Talbot, said: "We respect the county commission and appreciate the partnership we share. That said, our job is to put our citizens first. It's a simple fact: Reducing the police jurisdiction will allow us to better serve and protect the people who live in the City of Mobile. We will continue to work with the commissioners in good faith on this issue, and our hope is that they will respect our commitment to improving the quality of life for the people of Mobile"
Note: This story was updated at 4:05 p.m. with comment from George Talbot.