Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin slammed the gavel and the city council session began at 10:53 a.m. on Tuesday, nearly an hour and a half after the scheduled time, because there weren’t enough members present to legally hold the meeting.
Many people in the chamber had grown restless and left before the meeting finally began. Austin said the delay was a result of councilors “being under the weather and out of town.” Also absent from the meeting was Mayor William Bell.
As a result of his absence, several agenda items were delayed because councilors had questions for the mayor, who was being represented by Terry Burney, Bell’s chief administrative analyst. One item in particular piqued the interests of several councilors who expressed concerns: an agreement between the city and the Birmingham Board of Education to appoint Bobby Benton to a full-time position “from the board to work with My Brother’s Keeper Initiative,” in an amount not to exceed $43,823.00, according to the resolution.
Benton, according to several councilors, has been named as the chairperson to Bell’s reelection campaign, a point that launched them into a discussion about politicizing education and children’s best interests.
During the downtime before the meeting began, Austin told journalists that Benton was running Bell’s campaign and was one of several councilors who brought the issue up again from the dais.
“I understand the person the board has chosen for this position already works for the Board of Education,” Councilor Valerie Abbott said, directing her comments to Burney, before asking if a leave of absence would be required. “That raises questions… The other thing they said was this person is the campaign chairperson for the mayor. So is that accurate?”
April Odom, Bell’s director of communication, said in an email exchange with a reporter during the meeting, “No. The campaign is still organizing and has not announced the campaign chairperson, but my understanding is that they will in the next 2-3 weeks.” Is Benton being considered for the position? “No,” Odom replied.
Burney said that the BOE had approved Benton to be on a leave of absence. He also said he has “no knowledge of that information.”
“It’s strange,” Councilor Steven Hoyt said. “I’m not going to vote for it because I know what Bob Benton does for the mayor and what have you, and we just need to stay away from as much politics as we can.” Hoyt also expressed concerns — which went unaddressed by Burney — about the selection process for the campaign chair position and whether or not anyone else was considered.
Austin characterized the resolution as something that “doesn’t smell right” and called into question the timing of the move. “As you know, it’s campaign season,” Austin said. “This could’ve been done seven years ago if they wanted to. Why is it just now that they’re doing it, six months before an election? It stinks and I’m not going to be a part of it. Word on the street says he is running the mayor’s campaign, and he has breakfast every Sunday to talk about the council and elections.”
Without presenting any evidence, Austin referenced a rumor he had heard that Benton’s position was part of “a deal” to hire him at the school board “so that they can get the superintendent [Dr. Larry Contri] hired full-time.”
Benton, who was not present at the meeting, did not respond to email requests seeking a comment on his position.
After the discussion on Benton’s ties to Bell’s campaign and his role on the school board, the council voted the resolution down, 2-2-1, with Austin and Hoyt against, Marcus Lundy and Jay Roberson for, and one abstention from Abbott. It is unclear if the item will be presented to the council again.
Another contentious topic of discussion, also related to the mayor’s associates, was a one-year contract for $220,000 to be paid to Birmingham Urban League Inc. The organization is headed by William Barnes, who used to work in Bell’s office. During the meeting he took to the podium to try and clarify their goals.
“I thought [the contract] was very detailed… I will support this item,” Roberson said. “The funding is already in the budget and the programs have already been identified. I will say this on a personal note: We have a young African-American male at the podium who has exemplified great leadership in the community… It bothers me we can sit here and differentiate with someone on a personal level who has already earned the right to represent this board. That’s what sets Birmingham back. Those type of things when we have people who have earned their stripes and gone through the process and we ridicule the options they have and downplay their leadership. I’m tired of it.”
Hoyt said he was concerned about tax funds being misused and worried about a lack of accountability.
Austin said the proposal sounded great, but he too had reservations about his support. “We’re not just dealing with the Urban League and the item before us isn’t just about the Urban League,” Austin said. “We are in a campaign season. I don’t think any councilors have announced they’re running yet but the sitting mayor has and other mayoral candidates have too.”
Roberson called for a point of order, contending that “the topic at hand has nothing to do with the subject matter of the Birmingham Urban League.”
Austin continued, however, “When we look at this item before us today we look at it not only through the lens of it being the Urban League, but what is going on at city hall currently.”
The council voted for a two-week delay on the item.