The first display of change in the structure of Birmingham’s city government took shape after a 5 to 4 vote to re-elect Johnathan Austin as president of the city council on Tuesday.
Last week, the Alabama Senate passed a piece of legislation, HB 515, that reshaped several main tenets of the Mayor-Council Act that has served as the blueprint for Birmingham’s governmental design. One of those amendments called for city council president and pro tem elections to take place every two years.
According to HB 515: “At the first meeting, which shall be held immediately following the effective date of the act adding the amendatory language… the council shall elect an officer of the city who shall have the title of president of the council and shall preside at meetings of the council and a president pro tem, who shall act as president of the council during the absence or disability of the president.”
Councilor Steven Hoyt was elected to the position of president pro tem, replacing Councilor Jay Roberson who had served in that capacity since 2013. After the vote, the council took a “five-minute recess,” which turned into 25 minutes. Those in the chamber began to shuffle around, seemingly irritated with the delay after the first order of business on the agenda.
Roberson did not speak to the press after the meeting and could not be reached for comment before this story went to press.
“I want to say that we have had a great leader in our president,” Hoyt said after the vote. “He has brought forth some great initiatives for this council and this city and I support his leadership. He has always been inclusive and conscious about moving this city forward.”
Austin also spoke briefly during the meeting about the changes that have been implemented. He does not, however, believe the changes will impede the council’s ability to govern effectively or to work together. “The changes that citizens will see is the city council continuing to work on behalf of them and their neighborhoods. The only changes you’ll see is more focus and increased emphasis on rebuilding our communities.
“This council is one body and we speak as one voice, regardless if not all council members agree with the decisions that this body collectively makes. I will continue to work as hard as I can to mend whatever fences need to be mended or whatever bridges need to be built to make sure my colleagues understand that my only goal is [to help] these people we were elected to represent,” Austin said. “I have no interest in trying to get power or stay in power. Those members of the council who voted for me understand that.”
Austin was nominated to serve as president by Hoyt. Councilors Hoyt, Marcus Lundy, Lashunda Scales, Sheila Tyson and Austin then voted to keep Austin as president. Councilors Valerie Abbott, William Parker, Kim Rafferty and Jay Roberson all voted for Parker to serve as president. The vote may have exposed fractures that have appeared within the council in recent months.
After the meeting adjourned, Austin said that he understands that some of his colleagues “may not be very happy with [him] right now,” adding that Parker, who was taken off the Parks and Recreation Committee and placed on the newly formed Environmental Justice Committee, will be better off serving the community in that capacity.
“We are going to continue to work and fight for our citizens in North Birmingham and Councilor Parker will be more focused on that now,” Austin said. Scales tried to interject, in an attempt to end the press conference when a phalanx of reporters began pressing Austin as to why Parker was removed from the Parks and Recreation Committee.
“Y’all asked for a short interview. Y’all got that,” Scales said as she tried to pull Austin away from the press conference. Austin gestured that he had the situation under control, but Scales persisted for several minutes until the line of questioning pivoted to the coalition that had supported Austin’s reelection and mending the relationship between Mayor William Bell and the council.
“Whatever conversation we have with the mayor, it will be focused on improving the quality of life for our citizens. That’s all this is about,” Austin said.
Last week, before the Alabama Senate approved the changes to the Mayor-Council Act, Austin was asked if he thought the relationship between Bell and the council could be mended. Austin responded succinctly, “No.”
During the press conference Hoyt reiterated his support for Austin and the council as a whole and also chided state representatives for not consulting the council about the changes that have now been implemented.
“I believe those decisions were already made before it came out publicly because they never honored our requests [for input], and I asked repeatedly as I spoke at the public hearing and spoke with them over the phone,” Hoyt said.
While Hoyt did not name who exactly he spoke with about the legislative changes, the bill to the amend the Mayor-Council Act was proposed by Rep. Oliver Robinson (D-Birmingham) as a way to quell the strife that he said came to light after the fight between Lundy and Bell in December 2015.
“Now that we’ve hit the restart button it’s time to implement the rest of the amendments to the Mayor-Council Act and I think that the council and the mayor both will know what their responsibilities are,” Robinson said over the phone after Tuesday’s council meeting. “That was our incentive from the beginning and hopefully that will bear out.”
According to Robinson, the council was unable to provide information as to what changes they thought should be implemented into the proposed bill that would later be signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley.
“We tried to [get input from the council] and every time we tried they would have a press conference and call the mayor names. Every time I got ready to meet with a councilor something would happen as it related to their movements and so that is what took the delegation away from having those meetings with the councilors,” Robinson said.
However, Robinson did say that the Jefferson County Delegation had taken into consideration the fact that council members had complained about not being able to get a response from Bell on certain issues. An amendment was added to the bill that limits the mayor to 10 days in order to respond to a request from a councilor.
As more aspects of the newly signed bill continue to be implemented, it is unclear how it will affect the council’s ability to work together. When asked what challenges he could foresee in regards to these new changes, Austin repeated a phrase he used multiple times during the course of the press conference: “We’re just going to continue to work together for what’s best for our community.”