At a public hearing Thursday Mayor William Bell claimed efforts to change the Mayor-Council Act came only in response to the city council pushing to make the mayor a part time executive and give administrative authority to a city manager.
The council’s denial of that allegation, and calls from the public for a change — from strife to cooperation between city leaders — characterized a large portion of the three hour meeting.
The Mayor-Council Act, which has governed the separation of powers in Birmingham since the turbulent period of the 1960s, recently came into controversy when a state legislator’s proposed changes leaked to the public.
Most of the seats in the Birmingham City Council chamber were filled. At times the speakers rambled, and some were more heated than others. Racial issues were repeatedly mentioned. Some even called for heavenly intervention. But those who spoke seemed in agreement over one issue: the need for solidarity at city hall.
The public meeting was called to address HB 399, proposed legislation that would give the mayor three appointments to the Birmingham Water Works Board. As it stands, the council makes all five appointments to the board. However, an amendment passed in 2015 added four seats to the board that will take effect on Jan. 1, 2017.
After that, the council will appoint six members to the board, Shelby County and Blount County will each have one appointment and the Jefferson County Mayors Association will have an appointment.
HB 399, which is currently in the state legislature and could be passed within the coming weeks, is proposing that the council and the mayor’s office would both have three appointments, with one appointment each for the counties and JCMA. Before changes were made to the bill on March 15, Bell would have been given six appointments to the board.
“That sign used to say something else,” Scott Douglas, executive director of the Greater Birmingham Ministries, said at the meeting, pointing to the thin, metallic words above the entrance. “The sign used to read, ‘Cities are what men make them,’ before it got changed to, ‘The people are the city.’ Birmingham has come a long way.
“We obviously have a long way to go because the worst problem that Birmingham faces is the state of Alabama. We can’t relocate so we have to fight back,” Douglas said. He also mentioned the apparent hypocrisy of passing legislation blocking an increase in Birmingham’s minimum wage while the senior members of Governor Robert Bentley’s staff each received a $73,000 raise.
Douglas took issue with several provisions in the proposed changes to the Mayor-Council Act. He said that changing council presidents every year would only add confusion and instability within the various committees.
“If changes are going to be made, make it a referendum for the city of Birmingham. You want to change how we govern ourselves? Give us the vote,” Douglas said over applause.
A man who only identified himself as “AJ from Kingston” sharply criticized Bell and the council. “We are depriving our children of the best. Our mayor and president of the city council need to sit down work this out,” AJ said, turning to face both men.
“Mayor Bell, I need you to do me a favor because I worked on your campaign. Do better,” AJ said. “Johnathan Austin, I need you to do better too.”
After nearly two hours of public comments, Bell was given the microphone. He recalled being taught at a young age about the Civil Rights Movement not being about “us against them environment, it was about bringing all people of good will together,” Bell said.
“When you hear people talking ‘white folks this,’ and ‘black folks that,’ think about what they are saying,” Bell said, adding he was elected to govern over the people of Birmingham regardless of race. This was in response to several comments made that Bell was “consorting with Republican legislators” in Montgomery who do not have the interest in passing legislation beneficial to Birmingham’s mostly black population.
For the last six months, Bell said, there has been tension building between the council and the mayor’s office.
“Their responsibility is to set the policy,” Bell said, referring to the council. “Not run the city government. That’s what we’ve had over the last six months. They’ve been taking power each and every day.” He noted that he vetoed four bills that would have disrupted the balance of power at city hall but did not provide clarification.
Piled on a table in the front of the chamber were several large stacks of paper, all resolutions that the council has passed under Bell’s administration. Taped to the dais were signs reading, “6,000+” which City Council President Johnathan Austin explained were representative of the number of items that Bell has submitted and the council has approved.
Councilor Lashunda Scales took issue with Bell’s comments about the council pushing for a city manager.
“The council never asked for changes to be made,” Scales said. “We never talked about a city manager and we never talked about making the mayor part time…I nor any of my colleagues have had any discussion about a city manager. Period.”
Scales said that she respects the position of mayor too much to go to the legislature to usurp the mayor’s authority. “The legislator that proposed this bill said it’s because the council has been out of order for the last year and a half. The mayor didn’t even say that. He said it’s been the last six months,” Scales said.
Bell also addressed one of the more derided moments in recent mayor-council relations: the apparent altercation between him and Councilor Marcus Lundy Dec. 17, which resulted in both men going to hospitals, scratches on Lundy’s leg, charges being filed and dropped and a public apology from both men a few days later — after widespread negative publicity.
“Didn’t no fight take place,” Bell said Thursday. “As God as my witness I haven’t laid a hand on any council member up here. As God as my witness.”
Lundy addressed the crowd and apologized, “for putting us in this predicament,” an apparent reference to the altercation. He now believes the city to be in peril as a result, he said. He did not shed any additional light on how the cuts on his leg appeared after the altercation, which could be heard at the time from inside the council chambers.
“I think there are three sides to every story: my side, his side and the truth,” Lundy said. He listed off names of former Birmingham mayors — Bell excluded — and said they all have something in common. “They were all able to come together and negotiate. Politics is the art of negotiation. And it requires communication even when we know we aren’t going to win every time,” he said.
Lundy said that he has no ill will toward Bell. He also said the current tension between Bell and the council “could be resolved tomorrow if we just sat down and talked.”
No consensus was made regarding the future of the proposed changes to the Mayor-Council Act. As for HB 399, Bell said that is out of their hands and up to the Alabama Legislature to decide.
Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, said at the end of the meeting he would push for the changes to the Mayor-Council Act to be made by a referendum rather than a bill being sent to Montgomery.