In its March 10 issue, Weld devoted extensive coverage to an effort originating in the Birmingham delegation to the Alabama Legislature. The effect of the legislation, from all initial appearances, would be to shift the balance of power between the mayor and city council of the City of Birmingham.
Specific to the current occupants of those offices, the legislation proposed by Democratic State Rep. Oliver Robinson would make substantive changes to the city’s governing document, the Mayor-Council Act of 1955, moving total or primary responsibility for virtually every key operational function of city government from the Birmingham City Council to Mayor William Bell. A separate measure would move appointment power to the Birmingham Water Works Board from the council to the mayor. Under a bill enacted last year, the board will expand from the current five to nine members in 2017, with Birmingham holding a six-member supermajority (currently, the city council appoints three members of the five-member board).
Robinson told Weld last week that the proposal relative to the Mayor-Council Act was a draft that had become public without his knowledge. He also allowed that Bell had “some input” into the document, while no one on the council did.
Robinson called the document “a starting point” for involving Bell, the council and other interested parties in crafting legislation aimed at instituting an “arrangement [that] works for moving the city forward.” On the other end of the State House, Sens. Roger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) and Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia Hills) said they would “wait and see” what emerges from the House, though Smitherman added his agreement with Robinson that the redistribution of power is “a situation that requires legislative intervention.”
Others aren’t so sure. Former Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid held that office from 1999-2007 (full disclosure: this writer was a member of Kincaid’s senior staff during the mayor’s first four-year term), the first two years of which were dominated by bitter struggles between the mayor and city council.
In an irony that Kincaid acknowledges with a sardonic chuckle, his chief nemesis was the then-president of the council, William Bell, whom he had defeated to become mayor in what was universally viewed in political circles as an upset of seismic proportions. From the time of Kincaid’s election until October 2001, when Bell was voted out of the seat on the council he had held for 22 years, Bell controlled a five-member council majority that supported his efforts, largely successful, to exert the authority of the council and curb the powers of the mayor’s office. As he was at the time, Kincaid remains quick to proclaim and defend the integrity of the Mayor-Council Act.
“The Mayor-Council Act says that the council is the governing body of the city,” Kincaid declares. “I can’t understand legislators who want to create an imperial mayorship. I certainly don’t believe that Birmingham would be better off with Bell, or any mayor, holding absolute power, which is what this is. What would be the role of a council member? Under this arrangement, you don’t need a council.”
A “healthy balance” of powers between mayor and council is “essential” to effective city government, says another person with extensive insight into how that relationship works (or doesn’t). Retired Birmingham-Southern College professor Ed LaMonte spent eight years — 1979-87 — as chief of staff for Mayor Richard Arrington.
As the leader of a political movement that propelled him to office as Birmingham’s first black mayor, Arrington was portrayed by opponents as a classic machine politician. The truth was more complicated, LaMonte says, noting that the city’s strong council/weak mayor arrangement dictates that if a mayor wants to be successful, he or she must be able both to forge strong alliances on the council — whether on specific issues or around a full-fledged policy agenda — and to exercise his or her own “considerable authority” in ways that contribute to good government and are constructive for the city as a whole.
“When push came to shove on matters of great importance to the city,” LaMonte recalls, “Arrington was able to get a majority on the council. But he did it by informing and persuading, rather than trying to go around the council.”
Of the legislative process now ongoing, LaMonte questions the lack of clarity in its stated purpose, or specificity in its proposals.
“What is there that needs to be fixed?” LaMonte asks. “Unless someone can state a general problem that is being solved by these proposals, all I see is allies of the mayor’s trying to expand his powers. Unless there is some specific reason to do it that gets beyond the personalities involved, it seems to be ill-advised.”
Kincaid is more forceful in summing up his view of Robinson’s proposals. While asserting that he “doesn’t get involved in the politics” of the current mayor-council dynamic, the former mayor says that he finds current events at City Hall “disgusting to watch.” Of the pending legislation, Kincaid is succinct.
“It needs to be killed.”
Any thought of changing the Mayor-Council Act during this legislative session might be dead already, according to Rep. John Rogers (D-Birmingham). Noting the extra hurdles the proposal faces as a “local” measure, the veteran legislator says he doesn’t “think we’re going to have time to get to that bill.” Besides, he contends, the furor over the Mayor-Council Act is purely tactical on the part of the forces aligned with Bell, legislatively and otherwise. It has been manufactured, Rogers says, to divert attention from “the real deal,” meaning the power to appoint members of the Water Works Board.
“It’s bait-and-switch,” Rogers says. “This is a power grab by the Water Works Board. It gives the mayor the appointment power, but this is really bigger than William and [Council President Johnathan] Austin. It’s the old wartime trick, getting the opponent to stretch his supply lines and attack his weak point.
“It’s the Water Works they’re after,” adds Rogers. “That’s the one that has to be killed before it gets to the floor.”
The move on the Water Works, Rogers alleges, is being orchestrated by Charlie Waldrep, the lead partner in the law firm that represented the BWWB for nearly 30 years. Waldrep’s firm lost its contract with the board last year, and Rogers says the attorney, long influential in local and state political circles, is trying to “get back in position to pull strings” on the board’s operations.
Last week, Waldrep told Weld that he had not spoken to Robinson “or anybody else” about any of the pending legislation. Waldrep said he understood the concerns that Robinson says prompted him to take action, the “breakdown between the mayor and a majority of the council.” Told near press time of Rogers’s charge that he is behind the move to take appointment of the water board away from the city council, Waldrep chuckled.
“That’s not so,” he declared. “I respect John’s acumen as a legislator, and I’m flattered that he thinks I’ve got that kind of influence. I wish I did, but I don’t.”
Rogers says he has been getting input, solicited and otherwise, from members of the public, and hasn’t “talked to one person” who is in favor of either of the proposed changes in municipal law. Those supporting in the legislature, he said, are doing so because they are “scared” of losing lucrative contracts with the City of Birmingham.
“Several legislators have big contracts with the city,” Rogers says. “The mayor can pull their strings because he controls their livelihood.”
Weld attempted to reach Bell regarding the allegations by Rogers, and the circumstances surrounding the prospective changes to the law in general. His only comment to date came last week, when he issued a terse statement that read, in part, “The Mayor does not have a bill in the state legislature. He is the Mayor.”
Reached on Tuesday afternoon, Bell’s office again declined the request for comment.