Mobile review

Sunday, 31 August 2008
Edit Note:  Tulsans may learn a great deal from other cities that utilize different forms of city government.  Tulsa Today began with the Little Rock review (click here for that news article).  Today we continue the review of how Mobile, Alabama deals with the ongoing challenges of urban administration and progress.  This is the second in a series that profiles individual city governments within the region.
Isaac Newton seemed to illustrate the sentiment best. "I do not know what I may appear to the world. I seem to have been only…playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then, finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."  

Hundreds of miles are traveled each summer to reach the pristine waters of Mobile, Ala., the largest metro area along the Gulf of Mexico, located between New Orleans and Tampa. They travel to see the 300 year old tree, still standing, and the Victorian mansions. They take a drive through the I-10 tunnel onto roads so white, it’s blinding. Then, quietly and anxiously, retreat to the beach, where sounds of the ocean float up to the condos, all lined in a row.

Seldom do travelers see the side of Mobile, where current Mayor Sam Jones, elected in 2005, is busy orchestrating it all.  No time like the present to enjoy a cup of coffee, adjust the seat and get acquainted.

Jones serves in a governmental system where he is the Chief Executive Officer responsible for city affairs.  He holds the power to appoint eight of the nine members of the planning commission, all members of the Industrial Development Board, the Airport Authority, the Housing Board, City Attorney and others.

He is assisted in his duties by a Chief of Staff, who works to coordinate the activities of the four Executive Directors and their senior staff. Municipal elections are held every four years.

"Our system is what you call a strong mayor form of government," Jones said.  "The advantage is that it is a lot easier to get programs implemented as it offers total control of service delivery and the management of government.  It’s good, but requires different levels of accountability."

On the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it seems fit to say even government has rebounded nicely.  Not long ago, it was a completely different scene.

"It changed in 1985," Jones said.  "We were once a three commissioner system and there was absolutely no diversity in city government.  I am the first African American mayor this city has ever elected."

He describes a series of lawsuits. One was against the school board, another against the county commissioner, and one other, Bolden vs. the City of Mobile.  He makes a poignant notation. "The lawsuit was brought about because no African American could get elected here. It was impossible to be represented by government."

A compromise was reached and a legislative task force worked to establish the current mayor council form of government that consists of a mayor and a seven member city council–where the mayor is elected at large and council members are elected from each of the seven council member districts and a super majority of five votes is required to conduct council business.

In this system, city council members make ordinances and approve budgets.  "They have no connection to administration. It’s a misdemeanor for them to direct any city employee," Jones said.

This form of government, according to former Mobile Mayor Mike Dow, Executive Vice President of Centralite, allows the Mayor Chief Executive Powers and enables him to operate the city like a Fortune 500 company.

"He can directly hire and promote employees. He is in there long enough to be strategic and to develop goals. That makes it possible to treat business like a business."

Dow, who also works with the Ala. Motor Sports Park, sees city government as a service industry that can be operated like a business with public employees or through private methods.  "However it is done, it requires a good balance," he said.

Garbage collection in Mobile becomes the prime example. "I found city employees could deliver the same service and support that private industry delivers and that city employees could do it cheaper.  We went to one person garbage trucks during my term and we were able to save 1.2 million and 70 employees," he said.

Those improvements were a victory for a system that has had its share of controversy over the three commissioner system that rotated members every year.

"How in the hell can I be strategic with that kind of zoo?" Dow asks. "No one was in charge long enough to make it happen. It was a mess."

Another ineffective form of government, he says, is having a part-time mayor for medium to large cities.  "To do things right, you need a full-time executive. You can’t have someone choking up or someone who is controlling everything too much. You need someone in charge of each section," he said.  "I believe that each area is a separate discipline."

Dow connects the fundamental areas of politics to business with one thread. That would be the notion of trust.

"For one, you have got to have trust in relationships. Be trustworthy and build trust. Build relationships," he said.  "We have to get beyond partisan divides and things like demographics that we think define government. Look at national government.  Being a democrat or a republican is more important than getting the job done and that saddens me a great deal."

In this city, with a reported population of 575,250 residents, 67% of residents are white, .5% American Indian, .30% African American, .6% Asian, and .3% other. The median income is $42,508 and the greatest percentage of residents, according to the Chamber of Commerce, is in the 35-64 age bracket.

However united or divided, there’s a lot of reason for Mobilians to be proud. The city is ranked by Money Magazine as one of the best places to live and the cost of living is reported to be one of the 10 lowest out of 80 US metro areas.

Those visiting might feel the French, British, Spanish, African, Creole, and Native American influences here–possibly even a hint of the strong Roman Catholic parish, which was established shortly after Mobile was founded in 1702.

As for area business, AT&T is here, handling telecommunications needs of the residents. In addition, there’s more than 65 motor freight carriers transporting interstate shipments to and from the area as well as six railroads and new cruise ships, a strong aerospace industry, and significant manufacturing and construction, such as the four billion dollar steel plant planned for late 2009.

Mobilians are also looking forward to a new interstate bridge that will allow drivers the opportunity to bypass the tunnel and heavy traffic on Highway 10 comprised of people coming from Texas trying to get to Florida.

"It is all in the works. The new bypass will be at least 180 feet high," Jones said.

It’s all part of a strategic plan for reconstructing and continuing the long, rich history of Mobile.  "We’re the number one city for economic growth and expansion.  The one key is globalization. Major companies and international companies have an interest in us because of the port of Mobile."
The port, which is recognized as a hub for the region, links US markets to emerging markets in Central and South America.  According to the Chamber of Commerce,  "It was cotton that made Mobile a major seaport and commercial center before the Civil War."

More than 500,000 bales were handled each year, which made Mobile second only to New Orleans in cotton exports for the nation. Along with a successful cotton market, ship building grew to be quite a significant industry as well.

Current success, in many ways, springboards from the history of the town and Jones is working diligently at continuing its advancement.  Part of how he does that involves a program he refers to as "City Smart," which he says enables him to effectively manage his departments. Under this program, each director reports to the mayor every two weeks, where they examine progress and set goals.

It is much more effective, Jones says, than a system with no accountability.

"One of the things that has been really positive for this community is that we do everything in partnerships. We work in concert with one another to achieve economic development," he said.

Dow mentions the significance of competent staff. Well remembered by the company he kept, he’s notated for employing what’s been called, "a million dollar staff."

Filled with coast guard professionals, highly trained engineers, and other people who have proven themselves; they’re described as people who could walk right out of a movie scene in The Guardian.  However far their legacy reaches, Dow says their employment was about improving the quality of life in Mobile. "A business needs an experienced, capable staff."  

It’s what the city had and has.  Perhaps the people are the great secrets of this thriving area, surrounded completely by water.

"It is what is so unique about the state of Alabama," Jones said. "Our area is appealing to people who move from other areas because of the hospitality, the location, and the other activities that take place. The atmosphere and climate of the community has been one of our strongest selling points."

One of his primary functions in government is preserving and improving those selling points and the quality of life Mobilians love.

With attractions such as the nine million dollar Hank Aaron Stadium, named for Mobile’s Home Run King, that serves the AA baseball farm team for the San Diego Padres as well as the GMAC Bowl, a NCAA College Division One bowl game, which is held at the Ladd-Peebles Stadium, in addition to a significant amount of area golf, he shouldn’t have any difficulties.

There’s also the Alabama Contemporary Dance Company, a world class arts council, and so much more–here at the edge of the inland and inter-costal waterways; where back at the beach, far from the politics of this all, a father has taken a day to enjoy some fishing with his small son.

It’s perhaps the greatest portrait of all, here in Mobile.

The two cast a line. Joggers pass by. Couples walk and talk. Children are at play. Just a few feet away, in one of the newly built condos, there’s a weight room with a man inside. He’s watching Ice Road Truckers, or maybe the lady in the pool nearby. Simple, innoncent lesiurely activites.

Someone in route to the beach from the condos, says, "I need a cup for sand."

For there are castles yet to build in Mobile…

Oh, sweet home…that’s true.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 18 September 2008 )