Birmingham City Councilor Valerie Abbott was first elected to represent District Three in the fall of 2001 and has handily won re-election twice since. Serving as Abbott’s administrative assistant during the councilwoman’s almost dozen-year tenure, Martha Espy manages day-to-day responsibilities for what are often 12-hour days and seven-day work weeks.
Espy holds a degree in history, Abbott, a master’s in public and private management. Both women came to the Council with career skills developed in the business world. Active in neighborhood life across Birmingham’s District Three, both are praised by neighborhood officers for their accessibility to constituents and finely tuned senses of humor.
Weld: The two of you exhibit such a sense of teamwork in carrying out your City Council responsibilities as well as being visible presences at a variety of events in your District Three neighborhoods. Are you both lifelong residents of Birmingham?
Abbott: I spent my early childhood living in Glen Iris Park, where I live today. My grandparents lived in #19, the Frazier House, and my family lived in a house behind their house until my father bought the house when my grandfather died.
Espy: I grew up in a small Tennessee town north of Memphis. After graduating from Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans, I went to work for National Cash Register in Dayton, Ohio. I asked for a transfer back to the South in the early 1980s and moved to Birmingham. Valerie and I met when we were Five Points South and Glen Iris Neighborhood presidents in the late 1980s. Valerie was elected to the City Council in 2001, and I’ve been at City Hall as her administrative assistant ever since.
Weld: While Council administrative assistants have full-time, five-day-a-week positions at City Hall, most Council members have additional “day jobs.” How do you achieve a balance?
Abbott: Being on the City Council pays a salary of $15,000 plus $10,000 for expenses, so it’s difficult for most people to live on those wages. As a contract manager for AT&T, I have to make up for the Council time that I miss on my “real” job. The fact that I work across the street makes it easy for me to go back and forth. Flexibility is important, but for me location is a huge advantage. Sometimes I’m at my day job desk at eight in the evening.
Weld: What parts of the city does District Three encompass?
Abbott: For 11-and-a-half years I have represented parts of 14 neighborhoods stretching from Green Springs Highway to Oporto Madrid Boulevard. Under the new districting plan I represent only seven neighborhoods.
Espy: We try to attend all of the monthly neighborhood meetings, so this will make our jobs much easier.
Abbott: District Three covers a wide range of socioeconomic and educationally advantaged and disadvantaged citizens. Our district includes both the wealthiest in the city as well as two public housing communities.
Weld: Are expectations in city government changed by disparity in income and education?
Abbott: No. People at all income levels want the same things: potholes in streets repaired, crime halted, good neighborhood schools (whether or not they have children in school) and responsive fire and rescue services. People in all neighborhoods want the city to enforce ordinances relating to issues like derelict houses.
Weld: What is the oddest request you’ve had for help from a constituent?
Espy: The roach tree! A lady called our office and said that her neighbors had a “roach tree” in their yard and that the roaches were crossing the property line and coming into her house.
Abbott:Martha and I drove out and looked at it. I think that what she really wanted was to have the neighbor clean up the vacant property next door. We explained to her that under the Mayor-Council Act, all city services are actually handled through the mayor’s office and that we did not have the authority to hire an exterminator.
Weld: What is the best procedure for getting the City of Birmingham to handle day-to-day issues such as pothole repairs and trash pickup?
Abbott: Call 311 if it’s not a crisis.
Weld: Explain how the Mayor-Council Act relates to city government and city services.
Abbott: The act defines responsibilities. The City Council is the City of Birmingham’s legislative body. We approve all spending, write, edit and amend ordinances, and decide where resources will be allocated when resources are meager and requests unlimited. The budget starts with the mayor and goes to the Council for approval. The Council can modify the budget as long as the budget remains balanced, which sometimes means cutting one side to add to the other. Only the mayor’s office can direct city employees. While we can pass along to the appropriate person in the mayor’s office a request for street paving that is emailed to our office, we can’t direct the street department to pave a street.
Weld: How effectively do you think the Neighborhood Association system functions?
Abbott: A lot depends on what kind of leadership the neighborhood has in place. It would help if we could hire more community resource officers to attend the neighborhood meetings and provide some oversight. Neighborhood Associations can be very effective for the good of the community. For example, in Glen Iris, neighbors worked together to restore an old springhead in George Ward Park to its natural state. Working under three successive neighborhood presidents, residents of Glen Iris now have a beautiful pond and a stone structure in place in the park.
Weld: What does city government see as a focus for the future?
Abbott: The mayor is eager to make Birmingham a destination rather than a “pass through” city. This year, the 50th anniversary of the events of 1963, the spotlight is on Birmingham as the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement in America.
Espy: While District Three has very little commercial enterprise, we have three of the city’s major attractions in our district: Vulcan, the Zoo and the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
Weld: What’s the future of downtown Birmingham?
Abbott: The mayor is trying very hard to make downtown better. There is always an ongoing debate over spending money in the neighborhoods versus spending money on downtown. The neighborhoods don’t generate the revenue that downtown produces. The neighborhoods need a vibrant downtown bringing in funds to carry out their projects.
Weld: In more than 11 years on the job, what have been some of the most out-of-the-ordinary aspects of your jobs?
Espy: We’ve visited almost every place in Birmingham and have gotten to know every nonprofit. We’ve attended many funerals, a few weddings and one memorable church service where we sat on the dais for four hours with no rest room breaks.
Abbott: The uniform includes black tie evening wear, because we’ve been invited to a great many nonprofit benefit evenings. We’ve had a chance to become involved in people’s lives. One of the funerals we attended was for a Gate City woman whom Martha drove to her cancer treatments because she didn’t have transportation.
Weld: Being unafraid to speak your mind has become something of your trademark on the Council. Does this ever make the job uncomfortable?
Abbott: I view things as either right or wrong, and if something is wrong you have to speak up without being afraid of what might happen as a result. I was sued over alleged conflict of interest through my job with AT&T, and the court ruled in my favor. I always felt that my opposition to bingo was the real basis of a frivolous lawsuit.
I’ve only been afraid a few times. When I was first in office I made a point of going anywhere that anyone invited me to go. One night I reached my destination to realize that it was probably not an area where I needed to be alone at night. Another night I was riding with a police officer who got a report of a shooting. He and I followed a trail of blood down an alley. He had a gun. I didn’t.
Weld: What is your proudest accomplishment?
Abbott: Improvements to city parks in District Three. I am most interested in quality of life issues, which can mean different things to different people. Parks are areas that can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of income.
Espy: It’s been extremely interesting. We’ve gotten to meet a lot of people we might not otherwise have met.
Weld: Tell our readers something they would be surprised to learn about you.
Abbott: I studied architecture and interior design at Auburn. Thirty-eight years ago when I started working for South Central Bell, I did their renderings and site models. I was also a member of an all female ROTC unit at Auburn. I resigned when they refused to let the females fly a plane. At one time I was on the dog show circuit showing champion Chinese Shar-peis.