On a Tuesday morning back in December, Birmingham Mayor William Bell and city council member Marcus Lundy walked into a conference room off the long marble-lined corridor on the third floor of City Hall. The third floor is the nerve center of city government, housing as it does the separate warrens of offices — they share a common reception area and three meeting rooms — occupied by the officeholders and staff of Birmingham’s executive and legislative branches.
The offices of the mayor and council are located at one end of that long marble hallway. Near the other end is the public entrance to the chamber where the city council — the “governing body” of the city, according to the Mayor-Council Act under which Birmingham’s municipal government has functioned since 1963 — holds its regular meeting on Tuesday mornings.
Council meeting was in progress on the Tuesday morning that Bell and Lundy went into the conference room, presumably for a private discussion about a matter of city business. Instead, the two men got into a physical altercation that lasted long enough for both the 66-year-old mayor and the 48-year-old councilman to sustain visible cuts and bruises.
The incident quickly went viral, drawing international media attention that cast Birmingham in a role it has become all too accustomed to playing in the half-century since it emerged from the shadow of segregation and the legacy of Bull Connor: That of a would-be (some would say “wanna-be”) modern metropolis that just can’t break its age-old habit of being its own worst enemy.
For some local residents — including many of those who have been part of an ongoing and long-awaited in-migration spurred by growth downtown, and in areas like Avondale and the vicinity of Railroad Park — the Bell-Lundy fracas represents the burgeoning sense of forward momentum that has developed in the city over the past several years. For some others, including seasoned observers of local politics, the altercation was simply a physical manifestation of the poisonous atmosphere that over the past two decades has come to pervade Birmingham’s seat of government.
In that view, the fisticuffs were almost beside the point. The real embarrassment, according to one longtime observer of local politics, was that it took an actual fight between two elected officials to dramatize for the public the deep dysfunction that has made the government of the city an impediment to sustained economic growth, and a “monument” to the power of entrenched political and financial interests.
“It’s a constant power struggle that, when you think about it, illustrates the weaknesses of both the mayor and the council,” this person said at the time of the Bell-Lundy altercation. “The relative balance of power between the mayor and the council rests on political skills, the ability to form relationships and build coalitions, whether it’s around a full-fledged agenda or on an issue-by-issue basis.
“This mayor and this council have not shown the inclination to do that, or even indicated that they have the ability to do it. Who is representing the interests of the people? Effectively, there is no political leadership in Birmingham.”
Nearly three months later, no more punches have been thrown at City Hall. But the procedural and rhetorical skirmishing between the mayor and city council has continued to escalate. Each side continually accuses the other of acting in bad faith, failing to communicate on critical issues and initiatives, and generally seeking to expand the scope of its powers beyond what the relevant statutes allow.
“There will always be disagreements, but they can be worked out if people will just come to the table,” council president Johnathan Austin said in a March 5 interview. “The mayor never does that. We’ve asked him, and he does not show up. And yet, it always seems to be portrayed as the council being to blame, which is categorically untrue.”
The most recent exchange of body blows began in late February, when a five-member council majority adopted two ordinances that Bell subsequently vetoed. The absence of the six-vote supermajority required to override a mayoral veto killed the measures, which would have required the mayor to provide councilors and their assistants with access to city-owned facilities and equipment, and to respond to requests from the council for information about city finances within a prescribed time frame. In issuing the veto, Bell said that the ordinances were in violation of the Mayor-Council Act, an illegal infringement on the power of the mayor.
The counterpunch came late last week, when a marked-up copy of the Mayor-Council Act began making the digital rounds. Originating in the office of Democratic State Rep. Oliver Robinson, the document had some passages stricken out and new language added or substituted, reflecting what an attached memorandum called a “bill…to amend the Mayor-Council Act.”
Among the suggested changes was changing the city council’s internal election of its officers (president and president pro-tem) to an annual vote, rather than the current four-year terms, for which the Mayor-Council Act has provided since its inception. Another proposed change would prohibit councilors from serving on any city board or commission while also serving on the council.
The real “meat” of the presumptive legislation was in its explicit movement of certain powers from the council to the mayor. The ability to create new city departments and agencies, along with appointment of all city representatives to outside boards and agencies (currently, only the Birmingham Airport Authority and the Birmingham Housing Authority fall under the mayor’s appointment powers), would move from the council to the mayor.
In addition, the mayor would have the authority to hire outside counsel whenever “the mayor is of the opinion that doing so is best for the city.” The mayor would also assume effective control of the city’s budget and finances, with the council able to make changes in the budget “only…when approved in writing by the mayor,” and to add items to the General Fund budget “only…upon the recommendation of the mayor.”
A “starting point”?
Reached for comment Friday, March 4, Rep. Robinson quickly acknowledged that the public circulation of what he called “a draft…probably a starting point” for legislation that he intends to propose was “stirring things up.” Just as quickly, he defended the necessity of his tactics, and said that he had the support of “other members” of Jefferson County’s Democratic legislative delegation.
“I’m afraid that things need to be stirred up,” Robinson declared. “We’ve been watching what has been occurring downtown. We’ve tried to stay out of it, because they were elected to those positions, and it’s their job to perform. But lately, in my opinion and the opinion of others in the delegation, things have gotten off track. From our perspective, nothing is actually working.”
Asked about the changes called for in his draft, Robinson pointed out that, “I did not send it out,” and said that he had not intended the document to be read as “me saying, ‘this is what we’re going to do.’” He said that he had not spoken to any city councilors about his plans to amend the Mayor-Council Act, but allowed that Bell had provided “some input” into the draft document.
“I had a couple of conversations with the mayor,” said Robinson. “We talked about several things that are reflected in what you see on paper now.” Asked why he would exclude the council from the same kind of input, the legislator gave a reply that underscored his stated intent in reshuffling the balance of power at City Hall — and hinted at one source of concerns being expressed by those who question both the need and motivation of his pending introduction of the bill, in whatever form it ultimately takes.
“The mayor is the chief executive of the city,” Robinson said. “Why wouldn’t I ask the chief executive of the city about it? This is a starting point, so my message to the council is, let’s start working back from here. We’ll find out what the council wants, let both parties sit back and think, and help them find what kind of arrangement works for moving the city forward.”
Among the Jefferson County delegation in the Alabama Senate, the attitude from both Democratic and Republican leaders is “wait-and-see,” though Birmingham Democrat Rodger Smitherman said he would support a bill that “meets the objective of keeping the city out of gridlock.” Smitherman said he agreed with Robinson’s conclusion that legislation — amending the governing document of the city, as well as adopting companion legislation that would move the city’s appointments to the Birmingham Water Works Board from the council to the mayor — was the only remedy for keeping mayor-council relations from interfering with the city’s growth and development.
“It’s a situation that requires legislative intervention,” Smitherman said last week. “The question is, to what extent. We’re trying to play a mediator role, rather than just imposing something that would have an adverse effect. We need to review it, and make sure that we have a full understanding of the implications, and that everybody involved has that understanding, including the public.”
On the Republican side, Sen. Jabo Waggoner said on Monday, March 7, that he had not seen the draft of Robinson’s legislation. Unless and until the House passes a bill, he added, his attention would be on matters pending before the Senate.
“I’m going to take a look at it,” Waggoner said, “but it’s not my priority. Right now I have other fish to fry. I’ll fry that one if it gets to me.”
Notwithstanding that statesmanlike response, Waggoner might have offered a hint of his inclinations should Robinson’s bill clear the House and reach the Senate. He has no love lost for the current city council, saying that they have been uncooperative on issues like the recent council action to raise the minimum wage in the city and the subsequent passage of Republican-sponsored legislation that makes raising the minimum wage in Alabama the sole province of the Legislature.
Waggoner remains indignant over the substantial pay raise that councilors approved last summer (to take effect following the next city elections, in 2017), with no public discussion or opportunity for members of the public to comment. The way the council went about it “left a very bad taste in my mouth,” Waggoner said.
“I’m going to give all consideration to anything that comes to the Senate,” he added. “But this council — some of them, not all — seems like they have fought everything we have tried to do to help the city and the whole community. They don’t seem to want to talk about compromise.”
“The last person in Birmingham to have this kind of power…”
On Monday, March 7, Johnathan Austin held a news conference in the city council chamber. District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales attended in support of the council president.
Standing before a backdrop that read “Mayor-Council Act,” Austin said that there was no reason to make wholesale changes in a governing document that has maintained the separation of powers between the mayor and council for more than 50 years.
Austin also leveled a salvo of criticism against Bell. Rather than the council, he said, it has been the mayor who is unwilling to compromise — and who now, with the help of Robinson and other legislators, is making a raw power grab.
“It’s an attempt to make the council irrelevant and remove all accountability from the mayor,” Austin said of the Robinson’s efforts. “Never before has a mayor of Birmingham gone and asked the Legislature to give them this kind of power.
“The last person in Birmingham to have the kind of power he wants was Bull Connor.”
Austin’s statements at the news conference were a public ramping-up of concerns he had expressed over the weekend. In the course of that conversation, he had questioned Robinson’s motives and accused Bell of “playing a shell game” and of “throwing a rock and hiding his hand” by going to “his friends in the Legislature” to tilt the balance of power away from the city council.
“We’re dealing with someone who is not even man enough to stand up and say, ‘I have some problems. Can we sit down and come to a resolution?’” Austin said. “That has not happened. We have seen no evidence that Mayor Bell is interested. So now he has legislators involved in these bullying tactics.
“We are still open to sitting down and coming to an understanding,” Austin added. “But one thing we all need to understand is that we’re not willing to let anyone be a dictator. Let’s all do what we can to move the city forward. Next year is an election year, and if the public is not happy with any or all of us, they can make a change.”
By Monday afternoon, Robinson said he had heard from “a good many” people concerning his draft legislation. He said he intends to file the bill after receiving input from the public and getting it into final form, adding that if there is not adequate time to get the bill passed during this session, he will bring it up again. Despite some criticism over the weekend from Austin and others, Robinson continued to insist his only purpose in filing the bill is to prevent mayor-council discord from disrupting Birmingham’s progress.
“My position is the same,” Robinson said on Monday. Austin’s reaction, he said, “should tell you a lot about why we think it’s necessary” to amend the Mayor-Council Act. He again downplayed Bell’s involvement in drafting the document that circulated last week, saying the council was wrong to “try to put it off on” Bell.
“This is not going to get better by itself,” said Robinson. “If the mayor and the council can’t work together, who is supposed to be the mediator? We are elected officials, and our job is to do what is in the best interests of Birmingham.”
Bell declined requests to comment for this story. When the first, general request for comment on the specifics of this story was declined, Weld also submitted three questions via text message to Public Information Officer April Odom: What was the level of the mayor’s involvement in preparing the draft legislation? How would the mayor characterize his relationship with the council in general? Is he concerned about how the discord between mayor and council might impact perceptions of Birmingham, both externally and among its own citizens?
The mayor also declined comment on those questions. On Monday, just after Austin’s news conference ended, the mayor’s office issued the following statement, aimed directly at the council president and his colleague:
The Mayor does not have a bill in the state legislature. He is the Mayor. The Council President and Councilor Scales should address their concerns to the Alabama Legislature.