At a press conference on Monday, Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin said controversial proposed changes to the Mayor-Council Act of 1955 came about after the council voted down three contracts proposed by Mayor William Bell.
The changes, which were outlined in a memorandum that was leaked to the media last week, would shift a considerable amount of authority away from the city council and to the mayor’s office (more details on that can be found in this week’s cover story).
Austin claimed the proposed changes came directly from Bell’s office after the council repeatedly struck down three items over the course of several months: a $50,000 contract with Lawrence Cooper to provide legal services, a $40,000 contract with Walker Law and a $300,000 contract with Handprint Government Affairs.
On Friday, Rep. Oliver Robinson, D-Jefferson County, said Bell’s office did in fact provide the input for the proposed changes. Robinson also serves as vice chairman for the Jefferson County Delegation, which is spearheading the proposed changes.
“If you look back at the council meetings over the last few months those items have appeared on the agenda several times and the council has voted them down. The mayor keeps putting them back on the agenda. There are some conflicts with some of those items,” Austin explained during an interview in January.
The most notable conflict, Austin said, is the contract with Lawrence Cooper, who served as city attorney under Mayor Larry Langford from 2007 to 2009. The $50,000 contract proposed by Bell first came before the Budget and Finance Committee on Sept. 14, 2015.
During this same time period, Austin said, Cooper was representing a client who was in the process of suing the city over a denial of a liquor license.
“It’s all within that same time frame. He’s suing us while the mayor is trying to hire him. We have no idea why. That is why we voted it down,” Austin said.
Cooper confirmed over the phone on Monday that he was representing a client, the owner of King City Inc., Gameel Saeed who was suing the city for denial of a liquor license. Cooper said the case has since been dismissed and declined to comment further on the situation.
King City’s request for a liquor license came before the council on Aug. 25, 2015. The item was listed as a public hearing and eventually voted down by the council. Councilor Steven Hoyt, who lives in the same neighborhood as King City, cited loiterers, an unsafe environment and beer allegedly being sold on the premise without a license as a reason for the denied request.
Cooper, who was representing Saeed, addressed the council during the Aug. 25, public hearing. Cooper said that Saeed had met the zoning requirements and a June 9, 2015 Ensley neighborhood association vote reflected approval for the business to continue operating.
“It’s just not a good business for our community,” Hoyt said. “A liquor license, I’m told, is a privilege. And that can be given and taken away. I like Mr. Cooper, he has been a friend for many years and we will still be friends after this but we can’t bring everything into our neighborhoods that impede the quality of life.”
On Sept. 29, two items were submitted to the city council by Bell: a $50,000 contract for Lawrence Cooper to provide legal services for the city and a similar $40,000 contract to Walker Law. Both of those items failed when taken to a vote.
On Nov. 3, 2015, those same items were presented to the council, with the addition of a $300,000 contract for Handprint Government Affairs, also submitted by Bell (Handprint is co-owned by Ralph Cook Jr., son of Birmingham City Attorney Ralph Cook. When Cook was hired in 2013, The Birmingham News reported that he has known Bell since the late 1970s when Bell took a class he taught at Miles Law School).
The council voted against all three items. This vote, Austin explained, is what led to the current situation with, “[Bell] wanting to be the Birmingham dictator.”
Austin said that Bell has not made any indication as to what services would be provided by Handprint. “We’ve asked that question. We’ve brought it up to him and he just says, ‘I just want you all to vote it up or down.’ The mayor is yet to come to a meeting and show us empirical data on what services are being provided,” Austin said. “I’ve asked him personally to come to committee meetings and explain this. But the mayor refuses to come to committee meetings.”
Despite multiple requests, Bell’s public information officer, April Odom, has declined to comment on the three items in question and the mayor’s involvement in the current changes being proposed to the Mayor-Council Act.
Austin said that after the Nov. 3 vote, the already tempestuous relationship between Bell and the council began to sour even more. “The relationship with the mayor and council are still stuck in 1970s-style politics and it has done nothing but hurt our city and our city’s future,” Austin said. “Trying to sway council members’ votes by intimidation, cutting off services to some council member’s districts in exchange for a vote. Services for people in this city should not be predicated on the relationship between council and the mayor.”
In the midst of the tension, Austin said that Bell continued to push for the contracts to be approved.
On Jan. 26, the council approved an item for general obligation bonds totaling $15,430,000 in which Walker Law was listed as part of the bond counsel and received $6,500, sparking questions from some council members.
During the meeting, Councilor Lashunda Scales said it was interesting that Walker Law, whose contract had been denied by the council twice at this point, would be listed as bond counsel. “I thought the council would be participating with [the selection of the bond counsel],” Scales said.
Tom Barnett, Birmingham’s director of finance, said that the council had previously voted to approve the bond counsel. Scales, however, said she was only just now made aware of the names on list, which were handed out to council members during the meeting.
Efforts to reach Barry Walker for comment were unsuccessful. The same is true for Ralph Cook Jr.
Since 2010, Austin said the council has approved over 6,000 items brought before them by Bell. “Out of all of those items, we’ve only voted against three of them. This is where all this started,” Austin said on Monday.
“If the city is ever going to move forward and embrace the millennial generation and way of thinking then we have got to move beyond the politics of old,” Austin said. “There is a whole younger generation of people here now that don’t have the time nor the patience to put up with this foolishness at city hall, in particular the mayor and his staff who have been here for quite a while.”