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Just Ahead of Primary, Mobile Councilmembers Fight Over Email

After refusing to take cybersecurity training, Councilman Fred Richardson’s emails were shut down for two weeks, a situation he compared to Jim Crow-era discrimination. Richardson is also a mayoral candidate in the upcoming primary.

(TNS) — Mobile, Ala., City Councilman and mayoral candidate Fred Richardson’s emails are restored after being shut down for two weeks because he refused to take cybersecurity training, ending a dispute that is steeped with Mobile mayoral politics 22 days from the August 24 election.

But Richardson’s attempts to make sure future councils are allowed “unhindered” access to their official city email accounts proved fruitless on Tuesday. The Mobile City Council, with two members missing, voted down a resolution that would have prevented the city’s administration from shutting off the email accounts of elected council members if they refuse directives from the mayor’s administration, such as cybersecurity training.

The vote came after a wild council meeting in which Richardson accused some council members of being “gutless” and another council member shouting “November 1st” at Richardson – the current council, if not re-elected, will depart city office on that day. For the second week in a row, Richardson also likened the situation to Jim Crow-era discrimination.

It also comes with a mayoral race heating up as challengers continue taking swings at two-term incumbent Mayor Sandy Stimpson. Richardson, who has been on the council since 1997, is not running for re-election to his council district seat and is instead taking his first crack at running for mayor.

“If the time should come that I am mayor of the city, I would never interfere with the council,” Richardson said. “I would appoint a liaison.”

Councilman Joel Daves then accused Richardson of “campaigning” during the council meeting, which Richardson shouted back, “I ain’t campaigning. I am saying what I would do. I am not against saying what you would do. If you would not do nothing, then say nothing. I’m opposed of the mayor interfering with the council in anyway.”

‘Unhindered’



The heart of the issue has to do with Richardson’s refusal to complete cybersecurity requirement by a department that Stimpson oversees. Richardson was one of only 18 people, or 1 percent of the 1,748 Mobile city employees required to take the cybersecurity training who did not do so. That included the six other members of the Mobile City Council, who did so, and Mobile municipal judge Karlos Finley, who is also running for mayor. Stimpson also completed the training.

Richardson’s email account was suspended last month because he did not complete the requirement that involved watching five 10-minute modules and answering questions after each one.

His email was restored on Monday after Council President Levon Manzie spoke about the issue with Stimpson. The two agreed to have Richardson’s emails restored if he agreed to take the cybersecurity training. Richardson said his email account was restored before he completed the training that had led to them being cut off in the first place.

“At this point, the matter is resolved,” Manzie said. “Mr. Richardson’s emails are unhindered.”

Stimpson, in a statement, said Richardson was the last person to complete the training. It was the first time the city’s IT department requirement cybersecurity training for employees.

“All across the country, cities and counties have been targeted by malicious actors attempting to breach their cyber systems, often at the expense of taxpayers,” Stimpson said. “This administration and our IT department are tasked with managing the city’s email system and computer network. Like Councilman Richardson’s colleagues on the City Council, I never viewed this required training as a directive from a city employee. Instead, I saw it as the experts telling us what we needed to do to protect the system and the private information of our city employees and citizens. It was simply the right thing to do. If I had not completed the training, they would have — and should have — restricted my access to the city’s email system as well.”

‘Rubber Stamps’



Richardson’s concerns about his email also revived old issues seemingly unsolved from a legal spate that occurred in 2019, over differences of authority between the council and the mayor’s administration. Richardson said that as a council member, elected to the legislative body, he does not need to take directives from the administration.

Council attorney Chris Arledge agreed.

“I don’t think the employee should be directed elected officials on what to do,” Arledge said, referring to Scott Kearny, the city’s chief technology officer who requested the cybersecurity training in March.

Councilwoman Bess Rich said she was concerned that the issue raised by Arledge wasn’t the “first time” in which she felt the administration had involved itself in something that was a council matter. She referenced the city’s lawsuit in 2019, in which Stimpson and the council were at legal odds of their respective authorities and differing viewpoints of the Zoghby Act, which was adopted in 1985 and establishes the city’s council-mayor form of government.

The lawsuit was settled in October 2019, but not until after several heated months in which the two sides were at odds over budgeting and personnel.

“We’ve seen this build up and activity (by the administration) that basically makes the council a rubber stamp,” said Rich, who is not seeking re-election. “None of us should be elected to be rubber stamps, ever. It’s a disservice to our citizens.”

Mobile’s requirement for council cybersecurity training is different than in Birmingham, according to a city review of what is required by other Alabama cities. Birmingham does not require council members to partake in cybersecurity training, but the city council and the city’s administration have email accounts on separate servers. In Mobile, both branches of government share the same server.

Daves said the training requirement is a “very simple matter” that is born out widespread hacking into computer systems nationwide, including Mobile County. The county’s systems had to be shut down for three days in late May after a malware virus was discovered, and county officials have since notified all employees – more than 1,600 people – that their Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and other sensitive information could have been compromised.

“Cities and counties and corporations across the country have had their email systems hacked,” Daves said. “Most of the time it occurs because an employee has not understood the dangers of … downloading the wrong thing. This training was designed to alert all city employees of the dangers they might encounter and to help make sure the city of Mobile wasn’t hacked and the city of Mobile wasn’t subject to ransomware.”

Discrimination



Richardson, like he did last week, compared the directive from the mayor’s administration to discrimination occurring decades ago. Richardson, who is 81, said he’s been “directed too many times in my life by people who should have directed me” by telling him which “bathroom to in and what water fountain to drink out of.”

He added, “I will not be directed anymore.”

His comments drew a response from Councilman John Williams, who is not seeking re-election, “Some things never change. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Mark this down, November 1.”

The city’s elections are this month, but runoffs will occur on October 5. The election winners will be sworn into office in November.

Richardson said that council members who voted “No” against the resolution agreed that their fellow council members should not have unhindered access to their city emails. He then added, “Voting it up and down will show who is gutless and who is not.”

Daves then said he “objected strenuously” to him allowing Richardson to make a “slur” at himself and Williams. Manzie said, while he did not support Richardson’s comments, was unable to control what the councilman said.

Richardson had wanted to defer the vote for one week, but was unable to do so because Williams and Daves supported having the matter immediately voted on. Councilman C.J. Small and Councilwoman Gina Gregory were absent.

Daves and Williams voted “No” and Richardson was the only “Yes” vote. Manzie did not vote, and Rich voted to abstain. The resolution needed five votes to pass.

But at the end of the meeting, Richardson said his “30,000 constituents in District 1” can now email him, noting that his city account was back up and running again.

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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