Lashunda Scales is a big personality. There’s a statement on which I believe that all reasonable observers can agree, regardless of whatever generally positive or negative view any of us might hold toward Scales herself — and certainly without intending to offend her apparently delicate sensibilities in any way.
Scales is the Birmingham City Council representative for the city’s District 1, which encompasses the city’s northeasterly reaches — primarily the Roebuck/South East Lake and Huffman areas, along with the eastern slice of Pinson Valley that is within Birmingham’s city limits. Undoubtedly, her political persona owes much to her background as a promoter of concerts, festivals and other events that interested members of the public may be enticed to invest their time and money to attend. The best promoters are best at promoting themselves, and no one can say that Scales has not been successful in marrying her promotional skills to her political ambitions.
After losing a tight race to incumbent Councilor Joel Montgomery in 2005, Scales ran again four years later and beat Montgomery and four other candidates without a runoff. She repeated that performance last August, swamping two opponents to win a second term with 64 percent of the vote.
(One of those opponents was Pat Davis, a former state representative who lost her seat in 1989, when she was convicted of extortion. She won a retrial in 1995, but was convicted again. In 2006, she was pardoned by the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. This is worth noting because Davis was the favored candidate of Mayor William Bell, with whom Scales had clashed regularly during her first term on the council.
(Another thing worth noting, while we’re at it, is that after losing the election to Scales, Davis accepted a job with the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District. This might be relatively unremarkable — this sort of nest-feathering goes on all the time, across all bounds of politics, more a part of the system than a deviation from it — but for the subsequent emergence of the Housing Authority as one of the components in an ongoing power play being spearheaded by the mayor. A recent sequence of events led from a vote by the HABD board to fire the authority’s executive director, to her reinstatement after Mayor Bell replaced one of the board members who had voted for the termination. The mayor’s new appointment was Cardell Davis, the son of the erstwhile city council candidate Pat Davis.)
But let us banish these parenthetical musings, at least for the time being, and get back to the formidable Ms. Scales. I hope the councilor will not take it as a sign of disrespect if I point out that in her relatively brief time in public office, she has had a few ethical scrapes of her own. The most notable of these was her indictment last year by the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office on two felonies and other charges related to using her elected position for personal gain. Scales pleaded guilty to a lesser charge that allowed her to keep her council seat.
As for what Scales has done for her district, the answer to that question depends on whom you ask. To some, she is a necessarily flamboyant voice, working hard to call attention to glaring needs — public safety, education, challenges to sustainable business and residential development — in an area of Birmingham that indisputably has been slighted by politicians black and white since at least the mid-1970s. To others, she is part of the problem, all attitude and little action, politically passive-aggressive and quick to play the corrosive card of race it suits her agenda.
I have my own opinion about which way Councilor Scales tilts the balance between public service and personal advancement. But that opinion is coincidental to my larger point here, which is that Scales is exemplary of the essential problem with the Birmingham City Council itself. That problem arises from the division of the city into nine council districts — an arrangement that, since its inception in 1989, has turned the city’s governing body into a haven for narrow, provincial thinking, unadulterated mediocrity and a general lack of productivity.
Among the current council — which, unfortunately, is not much different from the several that immediately preceded it — there is not a single member who has an overarching vision for the city at large. For that matter, there is barely one — I’m thinking of District 3’s Valerie Abbott — who even conceives of a world outside their council district. Rather than conceptualize the city as a cohesive whole, city councilors just want to divide everything by nine, whether it makes sense or not.
Hence the perennial tension between proponents of downtown vitality and neighborhood residents who wonder why their needs keep getting shoved down the line in favor of city-funded amenities — Regions Field, Railroad Park — aimed at enhancing the attractiveness of the downtown area. And hence the ease with which a politician of Scales’ abilities can turn that tension to political advantage.
Such was the case last week, at a council meeting where Scales took the opportunity to confront Camille Spratling, the executive director of Railroad Park. Spratling was there to urge council approval of a new contract between the city and the park. At one point, she disputed Scales’ interpretation of the terms of the previous contract, one result of which was the councilor calling for Spratling’s resignation.
Spratling later apologized for the tone of her response to Scales, but it seems to me that she was only expressing what most people experience when dealing with our city government — utter frustration. Birmingham is at the mercy of a group of people who believe that their position entitles them to a level of respect that they do not have to earn, either by their personal behavior or by their accomplishments toward the betterment of Birmingham.
Scales, on the other hand, accomplished her purpose. She beat up on Railroad Park — and by extension, Mayor Bell — and then stressed her support for the park, adding that she only wants to see “community parks get the same treatment.” Her essential point is taken — numerous community parks throughout the city are in dire need of maintenance and improvement — but Scales is either unwilling or unable to acknowledge the unique, unifying role that Railroad Park is playing in Birmingham’s efforts to remake its image. She can say that she “supports” Railroad Park without having to actually care about it — or how such successes can be leveraged to work at the neighborhood level.
It’s easier just to make noise. But making noise is not leadership, no matter how narrow the constituency you’re representing.