A Birmingham City Council meeting, consumed by debate over ads purchased by the council and the behavior of the Birmingham Water Works Board, also entertained the suggestion that an investigation of city officials is underway.
The references to a possible grand jury investigation — which has not been publicly revealed by any prosecutor’s office — seemed almost an aside in a discussion about the activities of the BWWB. If there is an investigation — and some councilors apparently believe there is — discussion about it took a back seat to other concerns in Tuesday’s meeting.
After receiving “several calls” from her constituents, Councilor Valerie Abbott took issue with a contract on Tuesday’s agenda for $50,000 to a graphic design company.
Abbott said that the contract appears to be “self-promotion during an election year.” According to the resolution: “The 1987 Supply Co., LLC [will be appointed] as a consultant to the Office of the City Council to provide graphic design, photography, film services, and marketing strategies, creating a plan to highlight the Birmingham community via utilizing printing and publishing based methods.”
Council President Johnathan Austin contended that the firm has already been doing work for the council and has helped design numerous advertisements that have run in various publications for the last three years. Austin said the firm has also helped to produce videos for the council.
“If it’s helping to promote anyone, it’s the citizens of Birmingham,” Austin said. “[The ads] highlight various districts and events that are taking place. It’s all focused around what’s happening in the community and our role in that.”
Austin insisted that the council has tried to be “as transparent and open and accessible to the public as possible,” and the marketing budget listed in the resolution was meant to showcase community members.
“There is a perception that we are self-promoting,” Abbott responded. “I’ve had calls from people saying that’s what we’re doing and the perception is not that we’re doing this for the city but we’re doing it for ourselves.”
Abbott voted against the resolution to fund the marketing efforts. Councilor William Parker abstained, and three other council members — Austin, Marcus Lundy, and Steven Hoyt — voted for it. The item failed because only five members were present and the council did not have the minimum four votes required to pass a resolution.
Brittany Sharp, the communications director for the council, said the item will appear on next week’s agenda, and she anticipates the item to pass with “five votes.”
The council also approved an appropriation of $275,153 to “Crossplex/NCAA D2” in order to cover “reimbursable expenses related to the 2017 Men’s and Women’s Indoor Track and Field Championship.” That item passed unanimously on the consent agenda.
After the agenda items were cleared, the floor was opened to speakers. William Muhammad — who was appointed to a permanent position on the Birmingham Water Works Board by the council in December after filling a seat vacated by Ann Florie in August 2016 — discussed what he described as “troubling” behavior by the utilities provider.
Part of his concern revolved around an issue that has stirred up ratepayers recently: the cost of water.“One [centrum cubic feet] of water, that’s 100 cubic feet, costs $3.39, but for the same CCF of water, the sewer charged $9.88 and we got 37 years of increases to show it,” Muhammad said, visibly frustrated.
But for the majority of his time in front of the microphone, Muhammad took issue with the recent contract termination of Fuston, Petway & French, LLP. The law firm, which had represented the board since December 2015, was fired during a heated meeting at which the Birmingham Water Works Board last week voted 4 to 3 to end their contract.
“Mr. French was originally charging $275 an hour. Another firm came in and said they’d charge $225 an hour. The board asked Mr. French to lower his rate, which he did, to $200, and they still fired him,” Muhammad said.
The previous firm, Waldrep, Stewart & Kendrick, LLP, led by Charlie Waldrep, had represented the board for 30 years (before being replaced in 2015) and reportedly earned up to $60 million for their services over the years, according to Muhammad.
“So the new law firm, do they have any association with the firm who had the contract for 30 years?” Councilor Lashunda Scales asked, directing her question to Muhammad.
“Members of this firm worked for [Waldrep] for 25 years. All of the contracts they had, they worked on together, but I can’t legally say they are still connected,” Muhammad replied.
On this point, Councilor Steven Hoyt said, “[Waldrep] may not be driving the car, but he’s certainly a passenger.” Hoyt and other councilors pointed out that Fuston, Petway & French is a “majority minority-owned firm” and that the optics of the situation make the decision to terminate the contract seem racially motivated.
Waldrep laughed at Hoyt’s insinuation that he was still involved with the board’s legal work when reached for comment over the phone. “It’s a true statement that [the attorneys with Parnell Thompson, LLP, now representing the BWWB] were both employed at my firm for quite a while, but they were not equity partners,” Waldrep said. “If the allegation is that somehow I’m making money through this new contract, I can say that is completely and totally incorrect. … I can say unequivocally that I have not had any conversation with them, certainly since they started with the [BWWB].
“I wish them well in the future and same goes for the water works board,” Waldrep said.
“The previous firm, Waldrep, Kendrick & Stewart had the [BWWB] contract for 30 years and the minority firm [Fuston, Petway & French] had the contract for one year and were not terminated on the basis of unsatisfactory work, but because of personal differences,” Scales said. “If I have a contract and I am terminated without consideration of work performance, typically that sets you up for a lawsuit.”
Muhammad agreed that was possible, saying that the three board members who voted against the action discussed the possibility of opening the BWWB up to a lawsuit, after the contract was terminated.
Scales said that would mean a problem for ratepayers. “If you’re on Birmingham water, you are potentially about to pay for a lawsuit,” Scales said. “There are currently council members on this dais right now who are being sued by the [BWWB]. I’m going to let the cat out the bag. The reason why is we’re trying to get the water back.”
Currently six council members are listed as parties in the lawsuit filed by the BWWB: Scales, Austin, Abbott, Hoyt, Lundy, and Sheila Tyson. Tyson suggested an outside authority should look into the dealings of the BWWB.
“I see the poverty in the city,” Tyson said. “We need to call the attorney general in. I really think we do. This is ridiculous. It bothered me because my neighbor called me because her water was turned off while she was in the hospital.”
While no action was taken during the meeting toward the water works board, Abbott said that not only is a grand jury investigating the utilities board but also the Birmingham City Council and the mayor’s office. “Lord knows what they’ll find,” Abbott said. “Follow the green. Get over the black and white issue here, because if you do, the green will walk out the door.”
AL.com’s John Archibald reported on subpoenas being issued to investigate the alleged corruption of the BWWB “and elsewhere” in a January 24 column. Tuesday’s discussion pointed to what many have suspected for several weeks, and which is apparently the understanding of members of the city council: that a grand jury is investigating possible corruption at city hall.