The virtues are lost in self-interest, as rivers in the sea.
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Roughly speaking, that’s how much time remains until August 27. On that day, the voters of Birmingham will have the opportunity to chart a new and hopeful course for the future — or to ensure that the progress of our city continues to be hard-won against the individual and collective dysfunction of the Birmingham City Council.
Devoid of leadership, allergic to common sense, addicted to empty gestures, rife with petty corruption, utterly indifferent to the crying need for a cohesive and all-encompassing vision, the city’s governing body is a dead-weight drag on every great thing to which the less timid among us still dare to aspire. It is an embarrassment to anyone who even pretends to care about good government.
It is tempting to single out the actions — or complete lack thereof — of individual members as evidence of the miasma that pervades the chamber where the Council weekly renders risible the inscription above the doorway: The People Are the City. But in point of fact, individual shortcomings, stunts and shenanigans are just part of the scene, a natural outgrowth of the culture of I, me, mine that makes the big room on the third floor of City Hall the place where enlightened thoughts and civic-minded deeds go to die.
Not all of the fault for that can be laid at the feet of the current Council. The source of dysfunction can be traced back to 1989. Prior to that time — since the adoption of the mayor-council form of government in 1963 — the nine members of the council were elected at-large, meaning everyone ran citywide. Under that system, council elections were staggered, with five seats up for grabs every two years; the top four vote-getters won four-year seats, and the fifth-place finisher got a two-year term.
Elections in those days were extremely competitive, with candidates obliged to crisscross the city to appeal to voters of all races and classes. As a result, the council by and large functioned as something very much like an effective legislative body. Sure, there was plenty of give-and-take and no small amount of infighting and splitting into factions — especially after the early 1980s, as then-Mayor Richard Arrington’s political organization, the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition, consolidated its power among a council that became majority-black for the first time in 1985. But there also was a tendency toward consensus building, along with a prevailing sense that the council as a whole was focused on the good of the city as a whole.
All of that began to change, and rather quickly, after ‘89, when a lawsuit resulted in the reconfiguration of the council into districts, each represented by a single councilor elected by that district’s voters. At the time, the city council had three white members — Russell Yarbrough, Bettye Fine Collins and Bill Meyers — and it was they who filed the suit with the stated purpose of preserving minority (in this case, white) representation by creating three districts that, presumably, would remain majority-white in perpetuity.
It hasn’t worked out that way, of course, as blacks continue to comprise an increasing proportion of Birmingham’s total population, growing from 63 percent in 1990 to nearly 75 percent today. Reflecting that trend, the black majority of the city council has been 7-2 since the last election in 2009 — and, at least theoretically, could grow to 8-1 this year.
While this is not a good or bad thing in and of itself, it is indicative of the fact that the district system, far from its presumptive intent of preserving at least the appearance of fair representation for all, has instead served to accentuate the racial divide that continues to plague Birmingham. In addition, it has pitted district against district and perpetuated a misguided competition between maintaining a vital downtown area as the engine of citywide economic development opportunities and addressing both needs and wants at the neighborhood level.
What’s more, the system hasn’t worked out in the way the council…well, works. Or, more accurately, the way it doesn’t. The path from the advent of the district system to the present day is one in which parochialism has become institutionalized. Through a combination of political calculation, willful ignorance and sheer laziness, the default approach of the council to its budgetary and policymaking roles is to simply divide everything by nine, regardless of whether that redounds to the greater good.
So what am I saying here? That there are no good city councilors? Not exactly, though there certainly are no great ones, not one that shows any inclination to provide the kind of courageous leadership that would reverse the decline of the institution over the past quarter-century and position it as a force for moving Birmingham forward in creative and innovative ways. That there are some current councilors whose very presence is a mockery of the term “public servant”? Well, yes, but that is only a small part of the larger point, which is that there is no reason that Birmingham cannot do better.
No reason, that is, except ourselves, the voters of Birmingham. The state of our city council is an outrage, but with a pivotal election just a little more than four months away, I’m having trouble finding many people who are outraged enough to do something about it. The future of Birmingham is an open question, one that will be resolved by the quality of candidates this year’s election attracts, the number of people who become engaged in recruiting and supporting good candidates, and the percentage of voters who turn out at the polls on August 27 to make their preferences known.
What is the future of Birmingham? We’ll find out together in twenty weeks.