Things are kinda quiet here on the back page. Insulated from the hurly-burly in the rest of the issue by “Active Life,” “American Life in Poetry” and the crossword puzzle, we are left in relative calm to tend our little truck patch of prose and hope aphids don’t get to our gerunds.
The pace of punditry is obviously slower back here, and as we amble along, sometimes we pick up an odd topic some zippy passerby has tossed out en route to a stirring conclusion elsewhere. For example, there’s the City Council’s recent effort to change its own tax bracket with a gigantic and surreptitious pay raise.
You might think it impossible to get away with skullduggery so blatant except under cover of night, but you’d be underestimating the resourcefulness of the Birmingham City Council, which carried off the daring stick-up in broad daylight. During a City Council meeting, in fact.
I live in Birmingham proper and am thus entitled to participate in its governing, but I have never even attended a City Council meeting, relying instead on the good offices of local journalism to keep me informed. On the fateful Tuesday of August 4, apparently not even Woodward and Bernstein would have been able to catch these rapscallions in the act of being themselves, thanks to a clever stratagem that could have been inspired by an episode of I Love Lucy.
In this instance, Lucy, played by Council President Johnathan Austin, needed a way to keep reporters out of the way while setting up a vote on the big pay raise. She — I mean, he — pondered what might seem most irresistible to a dedicated journalist on the municipal beat. The answer: a photo opportunity involving a great big check.
According to AL.com, working the barn detail after the palomino theft, some unsung artisan at City Hall printed up an oversized prop check made out to “Our Neighborhoods” for $6.5 million, the sum allocated to them by the newest city budget.
As per official video of the proceedings, after the council approved a consent agenda of 40 items for action, rules were suspended for a special presentation. The giant prop check appeared in the chambers and neighborhood officials were invited to the podium to hear the council congratulate itself for its epic appropriation. After several minutes of oratory, the check and the neighborhood officials moved into an adjacent hallway, followed, apparently, by every journalist with a cell phone or camera available to capture the moment of the ceremonial giant prop check presentation.
Then something odd transpired. During the moments the journalists were diverted, Austin brought up a hitherto unspecified item, item 41, for a vote. City Clerk Lee Frazier announced “an Ordinance increasing the set salary of the City Council from $15,000 to $50,000 effective with the newly elected 2017 City Council members.” Councilmen Stephen Hoyt and Jay Roberson moved and seconded, and the ordinance was passed in 50 seconds flat by a vote of 8-1.
After item 41 passed so expeditiously, the council backed up to start considering the agenda with item 1. By the time Ricky Ricardo, played by AL.com’s John Archibald, arrived to say, “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do,” that pay raise was a way done deal.
Someone with a better command of mathematics than I calculated that a boost from 15K to 50K amounts to a 233 percent raise. By comparison, Birmingham public works employees, the ones who pick up your garbage and sweep the streets and carry away your broken tree limbs, were given a 3 percent cost of living raise and 5 percent merit raises in the very neighborhood allocation the council folk crowed so loudly about authorizing.
But wait, there’s more! Reportedly a bill has been advertised in the legal publication The Alabama Messenger that, if sponsored and passed by the legislature, would boldly go where no City Council raise has gone before, turning expense allowances into salary and elevating a member’s compensation package to $75,000.
That’s for a part-time job. It seems unlikely that a GOP-dominated legislature would go along with it. Then again, Mike Hubbard and his crew might respect that level of blatant self-enrichment.
One councilperson was quick to note that she voted against the pay raise, but Valerie Abbott might be the most disappointing player in this whole sordid saga. Valerie’s my representative, and by all accounts has served District 3 with distinction. As chairman of the council’s Budget and Finance Committee, it makes sense that she would tell ABC 33/40 that it “looks like council was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the citizens.” What doesn’t make sense is why she would provide all that wool to be pulled.
If I understand the parliamentary procedure correctly, item 41 could not have been smuggled into the agenda August 4 without a unanimous vote of the councilors prior to the meeting. I don’t know when or where that little get-together took place, but Valerie Abbott voted “Yes” to allow Johnathan Austin his chance to bamboozle the public.
Now she says she regrets her vote.
I suspect Birmingham citizens regret it, too.
Valerie Abbott has stated she won’t accept a pay raise if she gets re-elected, trying to play the virtue card with statements such as this one to WVTM: “I will just tell you that I personally think that we’re here to perform public service. We’re not here to get a lot of money.”
It might have been a useful public service to deny Austin the shot at instant gratification, using her preliminary “No” vote to draw attention to the attempted duplicity, let alone the greed. Instead, she declined to act responsibly: “What the other council members do is their business…every pot has to sit on its own bottom. So, I’m not going to speculate on other people’s motives.”
Leaving us to speculate instead on Valerie Abbott’s motives.