An otherwise low-key meeting of the Birmingham City Council was marked by verbal sparring between councilors and Mayor William Bell over who was properly or improperly receiving credit for different city initiatives.
The confrontational tone of the meeting was established early in the proceedings, when Councilor Sheila Tyson presented two recent graduates from Innovate Birmingham, an initiative that teaches computer and information technology skills, as “proof that the program works.” After the two young women discussed how the computer skills they learned in the initiative helped them find well-paying jobs, Bell spoke up and recounted his efforts in establishing the program, which he said the council has downplayed.
“Let me also say that I’m proud of these young ladies here . . . Contrary to a lot of popular beliefs, when people say that I don’t care, I don’t believe in things, let me tell you how these young ladies got to stand before you as graduates of America’s Promise,” Bell said, referring to the government grant that funded the Innovate Birmingham initiative.
“About two and a half years ago, the president called me up and asked me to come to Washington — one of those trips y’all criticize me on taking up there — he said that we want to identify cities where there’s a need for technical jobs. We came back here, we did a survey, and . . . [of] the 100 cities that compete for the America’s Promise grant, Birmingham was the second or third city to receive the $6 million grant of which these young ladies are the recipient.
“The only reason I brought that up is because the council ran out there, and they said they created these programs, and I want the people to know how they got created, because I’m not going to receive criticism and then not receive credit for the things that we do,” he said.
“Well, Mr. Mayor, I appreciate you reminding us and the people of your involvement in this,” said Council President Pro Tempore Steven Hoyt. “I remember a former city attorney … Judge Tamara Johnson, who said, ‘If you don’t toot your own horn, it shall not be tooted.’ You have tooted your horn this morning, and we appreciate that.”
After that exchange, the meeting moved relatively quickly, with the vast majority of the resolutions being passed without much debate. Councilor Lashunda Scales questioned one item on the consent agenda that authorized the mayor to spend “an amount not to exceed $1,000.00” from the Killough Springs Neighborhood Association Funds on renting chairs and tables for the neighborhood’s May 20 Health Fair. Scales noted that the city already owns tables and chairs and wondered why funds needed to be allocated to rent supplies that the city could provide for free.
Bell responded that the request for the funds had come from the Killough Springs Neighborhood Association, and promised that his office “would be happy to” provide the tables and chairs if they association asked.
“Well, I just figured that since they only get $2,000 a year as an appropriation, why spend half of that on tables and chairs?” Scales responded, before adding, “Whenever I ask your office for tables and chairs, I don’t get them.”
Bell replied, “That’s not true. We provide you everything you’ve ever asked for.” Scales disputed the claim but said she would not debate the issue, and agreed to support the resolution despite her stated confusion as to why the appropriation was necessary.
After Bell stepped out about halfway through the meeting, Scales continued to criticize the mayor’s treatment of the council. When the council discussed a resolution submitted by Bell to appropriate $10,000 for a program recognizing the school system’s valedictorians and salutatorians, Scales said that she had been told by the city’s legal department that she could not host similar programs in her own district. She alleged that it was unfair to forbid councilors from holding events recognizing city students while the mayor was allowed to partner with the Board of Education to carry out similar programs, a point that was seconded by Hoyt.
“Okay, so the money has to go the Board of Education, but you know … this is not the way this is going to be presented to the public, and we all know it. It’s going to be called the mayor’s program,” Scales predicted.
Councilor Valerie Abbott pointed out that the invitation sent to her by the BOE described the event as presented by “the city of Birmingham and the Board of Education.”
Scales retorted that the invitation was written by Bell and concludes with his signature.
“When you look at this invitation in its totality, at the bottom it says ‘Birmingham forward, Mayor William A. Bell, Sr.’ It don’t matter how you look at it, everything has ‘Birmingham forward, Mayor William A. Bell, Sr.’ That’s on this invitation. So maybe all of us with these glasses and contacts chose to overlook that part,” Scales said, in an apparent reference to Abbott’s eyewear. “In the future, in a non-election year, can we ask, as a body, perhaps that maybe we can continue to do what I’ve always been doing? We should celebrate students who are doing academically well, not just athletically. . . Council members have been celebrating students for a long time. We don’t need events. We’re consistent.”