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Mobile's Super Majority:
Bridge or Barrier?

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Perhaps unique among municipal governments in the Southeast U.S., Mobile's mayor/council form of government requires "a super majority" or five of the seven council members' affirmative votes to pass virtually any measure, with the notable exception of the city budget which requires a simple majority for adoption.

The late state Sen. Michael Figures, D-Mobile, added the wrinkle to legislation that ultimately led to the adoption of a mayor/council government for Mobile in 1985. An attorney with about a decade's worth of political experience in Mobile, Figures wanted to ensure that a black minority wasn't merely mollified with the appearance, but not the reality, of influence at City Hall. In that era, on the three-member county commission and the five-member school board, black officials all to often found themselves on the short end of 2-1 and 3-2 votes.

Figures likely anticipated a dust-up over such a potentially powerful tool in the hands of a minority. Furthermore, it seemed contrary to the spirit of the 'one man, one vote' ideal. Yet, it breezed through with hardly a grumble.

How did that come about?

The late Arthur Outlaw, a former city commissioner, had just returned to public office, winning a special election to fill the unexpired term of City Commissioner Gary A. Greenough who had been ousted following his conviction and sentencing in a federal public corruption case. Joining his longtime ally City Commissioner Bob Doyle, Outlaw instantly assumed a dominant position at City Hall. As such, he was the person approached by the city's various political representatives in Montgomery in the process of vetting the bill. With Outlaw a heavy favorite to run and win election as mayor, should that form of government prevail in a pending referendum,  he would have to live with the City Council and whatever legislative peculiarities were attached to it. Outlaw told legislators who inquired about his views on the super majority that he had no qualms with it. So, with nary a peep of protest, the super majority became the restrictor plate on the engine of the legislative process in Mobile.

The super majority provision has been variously cheered and jeered, loathed and praised, reviled and revered, but, maybe most of all, accepted and/or ignored.

Still, some veterans of local politics believe the "super majority's" effect on city affairs has run silent and has run deep, in a way that is not measurable. It's like the crazy uncle in the attic. He's never far from your thoughts, but you're always hoping he'll stay put and not pop out and cause a scene during a dinner party.

On the other hand, it has been compared to a conscience helping compromise and inclusion triumph over power plays and resentment.

But what do the officials who have lived below or near "Uncle Chester"/Better Angel think?

Ann Bedsole:
Mrs. Bedsole is a former state senator who has remained active in civic endeavors through her administration of the Sybil H. Smith Foundation. She is running for mayor on Aug. 23.

"Well, we (the local legislative delegation that included state Sen. Bedsole, R-Ala.) worked on that bill, as you know. The super majority part came up in the process. Before we approved anything -- Arthur had been elected (city commissioner) at that point -- we thought it was appropriate to go to him with amendments and changes that were being put into the bill since almost certainly he was going to be mayor. There really was no one else in city government to go to to ask, 'do you approve of this?' As best I remember, he had absolutely no problem with it and I know we discussed it. Be that as it may, the people voted for the mayor/council (form of government over the three-member districted commission) and the voters knew it was in there. None of us had ever had any experience with such a thing. It was a blank. We didn't know how it would work at all. It's probably another case of the 'law of unintended consequences.' Things just never worked out just like you thought. I recall discussing it with Michael afterward. A white minority was able to use the super majority against a black/white majority. It's really been used a lot more by white minorities than blacks because blacks had to pick up white votes to do anything. Just one (vote) wouldn't do it. It just didn't work out that way (regular 4-3 votes along racial lines). It came to be accepted and sometimes people were able to use it to their advantage. From both races I think, but I think whites have used it more. It's faded from the scene but every now and then it crops up. Something cropped up a year or so ago (an affordable housing dispute) and we almost went back to court.  

"I don't foresee it being a problem. If it's a problem, it'll be a very small problem if it is a problem at all. Of course, if it's a problem for one side it's probably not a problem for the other. I just don't see that it has made a lot of difference to tell you the truth. When you try to pass something, you've either got people with you or against you. I don't mind working to get five votes and maybe along the way I'll get six or seven."

Bess Rich:
Mrs. Rich served on the City Council from 1993-2001 when he unsuccessfully challenged Mike Dow for the mayorship. She is again running for mayor in municipal elections this summer.

"In a quick blush, you have to understand the budget requires just a simple majority and that sets the tone. For changing the budget and passing ordinances, it requires a super majority. That means more people are involved in building a consensus. And the more people are being heard and the more thoughts we have on how to go about something is not disruptive. It can be very positive because it allows and encourages the Council to negotiate.

Asked if she crafted her initiatives with the super majority in mind, Mrs. Rich said, "no, it never crossed my mind. Everything I undertook when I was a council person, I would hope and I kind of took the attitude that it would go on its own merits. The more people buy into something, the more stabilizing it is and the more consensus you have. I like bottom up anyway. It's a better form of leadership style. I would have no problem with the super majority. It brings more people to the table and I savor those situations. You represent so many people with so many needs that you want to minimize the possibility of excluding any citizens from having their points of view respected and addressed."

John Peavy:
Peavy, 51, served as the District 7 city councilman from 1985-1993. He won a special election for his old city council seat in September, 2004, defeating Rick Collins to fill out the remainder of former Councilman Stephen Nodine's term. Peavy is now a candidate for mayor in municipal elections this summer.

"It doesn't bother me. It was designed originally to facilitate compromise, to ensure that there was black participation in the process. At the time and in those circumstances, it was a safeguard against a white majority steamrolling a black minority.

For the eight years I was down there, 1985-93, it was never an issue. The system worked the way it was designed. Or maybe we just had more trust in one and other back then.

Now it is almost the opposite effect. Before it was intended to guarantee a level of black involvement in the process. Now it has evolved into a protective tool of some white council members. In recent times, Steve (Nodine), Connie (Hudson) and Ben (Brooks) have used it more to their advantage than the other way." 

Sam Jones:
Jones has been a Mobile County commissioner since 1987. He is also a contender in the Mobile mayor's race:

"I think it has proven to be a good thing for the city and has delivered something very similar to what was intended. It seems that it has given a voice to the minority, and by minority voice that isn't limited to just a racial minority opinion. It can apply to anything and any combination on the Council. It just depends on what side of the issue you're on. I don't think it's always worked one way. Sometimes it has involved blacks and whites together and sometimes it has been blacks on one side and whites on the other. So it has been employed by both. I don't think it has been an impediment to the concept of conducting business by the City Council.
It really brings people together on the issues rather than having one group just run over another. The potential for division always exists. It depends on the character of the people serving together. I think we've seen a tremendous amount of consensus and I would give some of the credit for that to the "super majority" rule.

"From 1985 until now has probably been the most progressive time in our city's history. And yes, I think (the super majority) does deserve some credit."

"I don't think any other city in the Southeast has this (super majority element in government), so it may have been an original idea of his (Figures). Those were times when the lone minority member (on governmental bodies) did not have a voice at all. He just got run over by the majority. So that was put in there originally to make sure that the minority would at least be able to be heard. If you examine it in its application, it just depends on which side of the issue you're on. People who think it is a problem assume that all whites vote together all the time and all the blacks vote together all the time and that has never really been the case, especially when you are voting on the merits of an issue."

Charles Chapman:
Chapman represented District 4 on the City Council from 1985-93. He served as president of the Council during his two terms in office. He ran for mayor unsuccessfully in 1993.

"I think it served an excellent purpose initially. Its greatest contribution was initially when the new form of government and the new Council first went into office and for a period of time after that. Its purpose was to ensure black participation in government and that was the intent of it to begin with. I think it's probably outlived its usefulness. I don't think black participation has to be guaranteed anymore. I think it's pretty well accepted and established.
Speaking of the effect of the super majority on efforts to annex areas of west Mobile to the city, Chapman said "common sense tells you if you're trying to annex an area that's predominantly white, the term 'super majority' definitely has a negative connotation among those people. I just believe common sense tells you that. I don't know that it has any factual meaning but the point is 'super majority' just has a negative ring to it.

"Something I haven't heard mentioned that a lot of people are overlooking is that any time you require more than a simple majority with any governing body, it makes it more difficult to do business in the first place. It makes city government more difficult to function. By requiring five of seven votes without regard to race whatsoever -- put the racial issue on the back burner -- any time you have to have five rather four out of seven, it makes it more difficult to conduct business.

"Let's apply percentages to Council consensus on any given issue. Some issues come before the council and its 100 percent to zero. Others are 80-20. These are pretty easy. But what about those issues that are 51-49 or even 60-40 that are important? When the pros outweigh the cons by a few percentage points, none of these issues get handled."

"I remember one. Here's a classic example of how a super majority had an impact. It depends on who you are whether or not it was a positive impact.
We had a simple majority of four for and three against to adopt a citywide storm water management system to address Mobile's drainage problem. We couldn't get a fifth vote and since the city had to have money for drainage at the last hour on a Tuesday morning, the city passed a one cent sales tax. The other plan was to directly tie the cost of addressing the problem to the chief creators of the problem, development and blacktopping which create the runoff that overburdens the system. I do know that the fairer plan would've passed if it wasn't for the super majority. It had nothing to do with race and everything to do with the super majority. The black council members will back me up on this because they know it's true. The city today would have a storm water management program and those generating the storm water runoff would be paying for it instead of the little old lady hobbling along to the grocery store for a loaf of bread. She contributes percentage wise (to fixing the problem) as much as the big time storm water developers do."
Jane Q. Baxter (now Conkin):
Then Councilwoman Baxter served two terms from 1985-93.

"The whole reason for the super majority was to make sure there was black representation on all votes on the City Council. It doesn't include the budget because a simple majority is all that's required for it. But the intent was to ensure that blacks would have a fair voice.

"Ironically enough, it worked to help defeat things the black council members wanted that at least three of the whites didn't want. Still, in my opinion we got along fabulously well. We mostly aired our dirty laundry behind closed doors. We talked about our differences among ourselves in private. We really just worked things out. We got along so there weren't that many disputes. From the first time we had a meeting, we wanted so badly to show unity and cohesiveness, to bring the city into the 21st century. We wanted to look professional and intelligent and make this new system work, this mayor-council form work. We were idealistic. The super majority really didn't affect us.

"Super majority just sounds bad. I don't know (if the super majority was removed) that votes we would be 4-3, 4-3, 4-3 along racial lines today. I just don't know that that would happen.

"I remember when we got back from Charlotte, NC where we toured and studied a children's science museum, I traded (Councilman) Clinton (Johnson) $263,000 in resurfacing monies which I didn't need that year. I needed his vote for our Exploreum. Marian Pfeiffer had put her heart and soul into that project and she was counting on me to deliver the vote. So I did what I had to do and I'm proud of it. It's just politics. That's the way it operates. It worked. I traded off this for that. What's the big deal? Sometimes that's what you have to do and it creates a partnership."     
Stephen Nodine:
Nodine is serving his first term as a Mobile County commissioner. He defeated incumbent Mobile City Councilman Charlie Waller for the District 7 seat in 2001. He left the Council before completing his first term when Gov. Bob Riley appointed him to fill the County Commission vacancy created by the federal conviction of ex-Commissioner Freeman Jockisch

"I think it was a necessary law at the time, but I also know it has outgrown its usefulness. It's a detriment when it comes to running a government. It's a detriment when it comes to economic development.

"If you live in a diverse society as we do in Mobile, people, in particular people such as the minority residents in say District 7, are not going to be represented if somebody of a different color is their elected representative. It's an odd thing, an unfortunate thing. But it's the sad truth. Let me explain it. That's because the practice in Mobile with the super majority elevated the standing of minorities in three districts while largely ignoring the minorities in the other four districts. It was like the minorities in Districts 4-7 didn't count. When it came to distributing monies that they were as entitled to as people in Districts 1-3, they got shortchanged.

"I believe in equality. I also know we have changed a great deal since 1985. I opposed the super majority when I was on the City Council. As (City Councilman) Fred Richardson said in the BID (Business Improvement District) debate -- and of course he contradicts himself -- he himself said this country runs according to a majority vote. I've seen how it (the super majority) has been used as a tool to divide the community. It's an unnecessary law. It is one of the things that needs to be addressed that's holding the community back. It's a serious detriment to annexation. There's no question about that.

Irmatean Watson:

Mrs. Watson was the District 1 City Council representative for two terms from 1985-93. She lost a race for a third term to now state Sen. Vivian Figures who followed her late husband into the state Senate after his death.

"It was a very valuable tool in government because it forced us all to be closer and work together. It made us interact with each other and understand our differences so we could make progress together. Everybody had to deal with each other. You had to deal with more people for whatever your program was. We really didn't have a whole lot of racial differences, not enough to create a problem. That was one good thing. Our conflicts were over different things for our districts and what were going to be priorities.

"I think the super majority made us stronger and more united. You had to cross that fence and understand each other's situation.

"One of the things we did -- and I understand they haven't followed up with it very well -- when we first got on board we came up with some rules and procedures to guarantee minority participation in the city's business. I came up with a plan and we hired a director to monitor the expenditure of city funds to minority contractors and vendors and also to aggressively try to find qualified minorities for city business. We wouldn't have passed that if we hadn't had the super majority as leverage. It worked well and brought in a lot of minorities and women into the business of city government. I think it's pretty much ignored now.

"I think overall we had our discussions. We didn't have fights. We got to where we understood one another well enough to know what to expect from one another and what not to expect. You kind of knew where everybody was. If something sports-related came up and I wanted to support it, I knew to go to (City Councilman) Reggie (Copeland). It forced you to deal because you needed more votes. I think it really makes us stronger, not weaker. If you lose that, you fall back to the same ways that caused us to have to change the form of government in the first place."