I am always suspicious of righteous indignation. Nothing is more cruel….
I have a problem with Johnathan Austin. He has demonstrated poor judgment and an appalling lack of appreciation for the responsibilities of his office. As president of the Birmingham City Council, he owes it to his constituents and the city at large to do a better job of representing us.
Yes, I have a problem with Johnathan Austin. That problem, however, has nothing to do with the fact that Austin was arrested last December for driving under the influence of alcohol. It has everything to do with the fact that Austin is a lousy public servant.
The first fact above — “news” of an eight-month-old arrest — came to light on August 27, when it was reported by TMZ. That’s a joke, of course, as the story was not reported by TMZ, but by Birmingham’s own AL.com, though you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that I’m alone in occasionally confusing the two.
The second fact — the broad and deep lousiness of Johnathan Austin as a public servant — is self-evident. I don’t say that Austin has done nothing over the course of the nearly seven years he has been a city councilor (he has been president of the council since December 2013, when he was chosen to replace Maxine Parker, who had died in office the previous month). I don’t say that he doesn’t at least say the right things on occasion. But there has been dismayingly little in the way of the follow-through and persistence it takes to attain meaningful objectives and bring strategic goals to fruition.
Austin’s idea of being a city councilor is just that — being on the city council, and enjoying the ancillary emoluments that come with it, the attention that reinforces the sense of oneself as a Person of Great Importance. An acquaintance of mine who served a couple of terms as mayor of a small Alabama town told me once that he had been amused, and a little embarrassed, at the difficulty he had on leaving office and adjusting to a life where no one called him “Mister Mayor,” or was desperate to have his opinion on some issue of local interest, or even called to make sure he’d be at their holiday party that year.
“It was harder than you’d think,” he laughed, marveling at both the way things work in politics and the — thankfully mild — ways in which the system had got its hooks into him.
Not everyone possesses that kind of self-awareness. A little power is an addictive thing, and it’s a pathetic sight to encounter individuals who abuse theirs. More troubling still is the person who has considerable power and squanders it, whether out of ignorance or corruption, or from the simple absence of a vision for doing good and the leadership skills to bring that vision to fruition.
Austin embodies that last type. Johnathan Austin has been on the city council for seven years: Do you know what he wants to do for Birmingham? I don’t. Can you share some of the high points of his vision for the city? I cannot.
My overarching impression of Austin from Day One has been that of a person who, above all else, wants to be a celebrity. Like many another “star” on the scene today — whether we are talking about Birmingham or Hollywood, the VMA Awards or the French Riviera — he is content to be famous for being famous, to be seen being seen, to substitute visibility for presence and attendance for accomplishment. If, as has long been rumored, he wants someday to be mayor, then one can be assured that it is because he thinks it might be cool to be mayor, and maybe even do something to help people, and stuff.
In any case, the idea that Council District 5 could find better representation that it currently is receiving is not one that originated with me. I have been hearing it for quite some time, though mostly from people who have what I would call a healthy interest in the government of Birmingham, the future of our city and other civic matters of great and rising moment. So maybe the councilor has nothing to worry about, particularly with the general public responding (sarcasm alert) so favorably to his handling of the pay increase the council recently voted itself and the ham-handed public relations offensive it has undertaken to defend the pay raise and take disproportionate credit for the $6.5 million in funding for weed abatement and demolition of dilapidated houses that was belatedly included in the city’s budget for FY 2016.
I don’t know whether Austin is rejecting good advice or listening to bad; I suspect it’s some of both, but neither leads down a good path. If I were advising him, I’d ask him two questions: Why a PR campaign? Why not just do your job? But that’s just me, someone who thinks that doing your job, and doing it well, is the ultimate PR — especially when your job gives you the opportunity to make a qualitative difference in the life of your city and the people you serve.
Of course, it could be that not enough people are paying attention. The last municipal election drew just 21 percent of Birmingham voters to the polls, and considerably less than that in Austin’s district. Maybe it won’t be any better in 2017, and Austin is swept back into office on a wave of low engagement; that, or his PR campaign works and he gets to tell me exactly what my advice is worth.
My bet, though, is that things really are changing in Birmingham, including the idea that elections don’t matter — or, more like it, the broad realization that every step forward Birmingham has made as a city has been effected, first and foremost, by people going to the polls and voting.
As that relates to District 5, my bet is that turnout will be considerably higher in 2017, perhaps historically so. That’s based partly on the fact that (full disclosure) I live in the district and Weld’s offices are located there, and that I talk to my neighbors. How that bodes for Austin, or who ultimately might challenge him (assuming that he seeks another term), we won’t know for some time yet. But if I were Austin, and if I were even considering another term, I confess that I’d probably be a little worried about my public image at this point, too.
In that, of course, the revelation of the councilor’s DUI is not helpful. Even so, it has been a little dismaying to have so much made of it in terms of his fitness to serve on the council.
I’m not going to encourage or defend or condone public drunkenness, or say that Austin should not have offered up the requisite apology and admission of mistake. But I am going to tell you that the emergence of this story is much more an indicator of the culture in which we live than a basis for asking whether Johnathan Austin — a relatively young man of 36, unmarried and, by his own prior admission, not inclined to an abstemious existence — should be stripped of his office or suffer some other official censure for succumbing to a lapse of judgment that is made by many, many of his fellow citizens each and every day.
Is this really what we expect from the people we elect to public office? That they not make mistakes? That they not suffer the same slings and arrows or fortune to which we all are subjected? That they be better than the people they serve? That they be perfect? We might hope for that (Lord knows we probably should), but I’m afraid that if we demand it — demand that our righteous indignation be sated — we say more about ourselves than about those on whom we are imposing the demand.
I’m reminded of the story of U.S. Grant’s ascension to commander of the Union Army. More than any other Union general, Grant had shown the ability and the will to win battles. In elevating him to supreme command, President Lincoln was cautioned, not for the first time, about Grant’s proneness to drink.
“Find out what he drinks,” Lincoln instructed. “And send a barrel of it to each of my generals.”
I’m not advocating quite that much tolerance for Johnathan Austin and his fellow city councilors. But if they were doing their jobs — if poverty was declining rather than rising, if we had a viable regional transit system, if we had an abundance of affordable housing, if our city schools were everything they could be — I for one would not care if they were drunk every night.
As long as they didn’t get behind the wheel of an automobile.