During its recently concluded regular session, the Alabama Legislature passed — and Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law — substantive changes in the Mayor-Council Act, the document under which Birmingham’s city government has operated since 1963. Essentially, numerous powers once reserved solely to the Birmingham City Council have been either transferred to the Office of the Mayor or are now shared between the two branches of government.
Among other things, the amended law mandates that the council elect new officers annually, rather than every four years. With the law becoming effective immediately on its passage, the council was obliged to hold elections last week. By a 5-4 vote, sitting Council President Johnathan Austin was re-elected, while Steven Hoyt replaced Jay Roberson as President Pro-Tem.
Following the election, Austin reshuffled the council’s committee assignments to reflect the majority that re-elected him as president. Some of the councilors who were reassigned complained not only about the reshuffling but also about being required to change office space along the long hallway that houses the council.
Collectively, these recent events beg questions about how the council will function going forward, both internally and in its relationship to a newly powerful Mayor William Bell — and how those dynamics may impact the municipal election that will take place in 2017.
To answer those questions — and to talk about the current state of the city in general — three members of the new council majority visited Weld’s offices on the evening of May 16. Austin and Hoyt were joined by Councilor Sheila Tyson (Councilors Marcus Lundy and Lashunda Scales had prior commitments) in a 90-minute conversation with Weld publisher Mark Kelly, excerpts from which appear below.
Weld: Let’s start by talking about the process that resulted in the changes to the Mayor-Council Act.
Hoyt: It just wasn’t a balanced process. You’re talking about changing the governance of a city, and there should have been some conversation with those individuals who are going to be affected by it. There was never that intent, I believe, to sit down collectively and talk about what is best for the city. I asked for that publicly, and I talked about it with [State Rep. Juandalyn] Givhan, and with [State Reps.] Merika Coleman and Oliver Robinson [the legislation originated with Robinson]. I just said, “Let’s sit down.”
Weld: But that didn’t happen, and the outcome is a transfer of powers from the council to the mayor that appears to be disruptive to the way our city government is supposed to work.
Hoyt: It is disruptive. Our government was designed to be balanced, and that’s the way it should be. The office of mayor is already influential, and if you start adding to that, you’re in danger of upsetting the balance. When people get too much power, they become consumed by their power. They begin to act in ways that they could not if there were better checks and balances in place.
So now the test is going to be how Mayor Bell manages that power. And in any case, the council still has to do its job. Irrespective of what the Legislature has done, we still have to employ due diligence, we still have fiduciary responsibilities. That’s going to be a challenge in some regards, but that’s what the people sent us to City Hall to do — to be that balance. If the mayor is prudent in his leadership, he should welcome that.
Weld: One of those disruptions is that you immediately had to elect new council officers. It was a close vote — some might say it’s indicative of the division on the council itself. From your perspective, why this outcome important?
Tyson: I feel like President Austin has had the council going in the right direction. To interrupt that would have been bad for the city. He has always answered to all eight of us. He returns calls, he returns emails, he will come out to your district to meet people and hear their concerns. Why would we want to change that, not knowing what might come next?
It’s like being on a team that’s winning. If you’re winning, you don’t change captains. Now, you might change your co-captain, if he’s not showing any leadership potential. [Laughter] Our co-captain showed no leadership potential, and that’s why he got changed.
I’ll work with anybody who will work with me. If it had been six, or even all nine of us voting the same way, I’d have looked at it the same.
Hoyt: You have to be intentional in leadership. You have to forge relationships. You have to have those conversations where you’re building consensus and making things go forward. President Austin has shown that he is able to do that.
Weld: Mr. President, you and the council are taking a lot of flak right now, both for the state of relations with the mayor and for some of the controversy that’s come up over your handling of committee assignments and councilors being asked to change office space to reflect the internal reorganization. What’s your response?
Austin: First of all, changing offices is routine when new officers are elected and committee assignments are changed. Always has been. Those that aren’t happy with it should remember that we would not have elected new officers but for the change in the Mayor-Council Act that forced us to have an election. So they can thank William Bell and the Alabama Legislature.
But I can’t even take a minute to focus on what the naysayers and some of the media are saying, because I don’t want to get distracted. My dad always told me, “Don’t go chasing devils’ rabbits,” meaning stay focused on the task in front of you. Our focus is on doing everything within our power to help our neighborhoods, to do the job we were elected to do. That’s it.
So when the media says, Oh, it’s just going to get worse — well, that’s wrong. It’s going to be better. I’ve said to my colleagues, even those who are not necessarily happy right now, or feeling positive about some of the changes, I’ve told them that by this time next year, they’re going to look back and say, “You know, I think that actually was a good move.”
I’ll give you an example. The Environmental Justice Committee that was newly formed. [Councilor] William Parker has been working with the EPA and others on environmental justice issues, and he’s an expert on that. It makes sense for us to have that committee, and for Councilor Parker to chair it. He’s been doing a great job, and it’s good for the city to have him focused on that.
Hoyt: And due to his work, there’s been about $27 million spent in North Birmingham already, on soil mitigation and that kind of thing.
Austin: Already, that’s right. So, for those trying to paint these changes as negative and paint them as punishment, in actuality they’re going to see that these changes are going to work for the citizens we represent. That’s really our only goal and the only purpose for the changes.
Hoyt: Mark, let me go back for just a second to where we started: I wasn’t in total disagreement that there could be some changes in the Mayor-Council Act, but I thought that it was something that we should sit down together and decide.
Weld: What should be changed, in your view?
Hoyt: The budget process, to name just one. It might have worked 20 years ago, but it doesn’t work for us today. We’re much busier, the business of government is more complicated, and the council needs more time to consider the budget the mayor submits. For all practical purposes, the mayor has the whole year to work on the budget, and we only have a small window [roughly six weeks] to study it and approve it.
When [Bernard] Kincaid was mayor [1999-2007], he had the department heads sit down with the councilors — and not just the department heads, but the mayor himself. That really gave us a feel for what the needs were on that departmental level, and we felt that we had real input into a lot of what the mayor proposed. So if we’re going to talk about changing the law, let’s talk about putting in some language that allows us to approach the budget in that way. With Mayor Bell, we don’t get real numbers or real input into what shapes the budget. Department heads are intimidated by the mayor’s office, they’re threatened about giving the council certain information that, if we had it, would help our decision-making on how to address the needs of the city.
Weld: Well, since we’re back on the legislation and the change in the balance of powers, I’ll point out that Mayor Bell didn’t have any problem with the balance of powers in 1999, when he was president of the city council and lost the race for mayor to Kincaid.
Austin: Nope. He used the power of the council to go around Kincaid.
Hoyt: That’s what I didn’t understand about this legislation. Those folks were in this city when Bell took powers away from Kincaid.
Tyson: He took powers from Kincaid and sold the [Birmingham] Water Works away from the city. How has that worked out?
Austin: You wrote about that a couple of weeks ago, Mark. A lot of the issues we’re still dealing with in the city today stem from what he did back then. In particular as it relates to the Water Works, is a direct result of what he did back then, when he was on the council.
But we can’t go back and change the past. All we can do is deal with where we are now, and make decisions that will change the trajectory of where he has us headed.
Weld: We’ve been talking about disruption and distraction. In any government, there’s supposed to be friction between the legislative and executive branches, but the perception is that nobody at City Hall gets along with anybody else. Is that true?
Austin: I have to say this: A lot of the division you’re seeing is being driven by Mayor Bell — a lot of it. Even the fact that we are trying to move people to different offices, and he won’t authorize the departmental staff to help us — things like that, things the public doesn’t see. They don’t see how petty it is, how the mayor’s office, and the mayor himself, interjects itself into council business and uses that to foster the perception of division among the council members. The attitude is, if you can’t win by doing it the right way, you go and create conflict and confusion, and use that to your advantage.
We see what the mayor is doing to try to create division, but we’re still committed to working with him. I met with Mayor Bell last Thursday [May 12], and I told him that we were going to leave all of the legislative stuff in the past. I said, “The council is not here to fight you. We want to support you. But for that to happen, we need you to support these neighborhoods.” If the mayor and the council can’t work together, when we don’t even communicate, it’s the neighborhoods that suffer.
Hoyt: I told the mayor, “You think you’re hurting the council, but you hurt yourself, too.” The mayor serves the same citizens that we do, collectively. All of them are demanding that we take care of their communities, irrespective of the political climate.
Austin: And that’s the point. It’s bigger than any of us. What you see in some of our communities is terrible. I was on the phone with one of my constituents on the way over here, talking about a row of burned-down homes in Fountain Heights that the mayor has promised to tear down. They’ve got promises, but nothing has been done.
Last year, the council put $3.5 million dollars into weed abatement, $3 million into demolition, but the mayor’s office won’t tell us the status of those funds. How much of that money has actually been spent? How much has gone directly back into our neighborhoods? We want answers to those questions. The council can only appropriate. It’s the mayor’s job to see that things get done, that the resources that we have allocated are used to meet the needs of our citizens. But we don’t get those answers from the administration.
Tyson: It’s just about the bottom line. What are we doing for our citizens? I’m not going to sit and whine and grab up my marbles when the game don’t go my way. I believe in playing the game all the way out to the finish, and that’s the way we’ve got to think about city government. These citizens need to be first at the finish line — every time we do something.
As a councilor, you’ve got to have a vision for your district, and you’ve got to listen to people and know what your district needs. As the mayor, you’re supposed to have a vision for the whole city, and we just don’t see that.
Hoyt: Our neighborhoods are in the worst shape they’ve ever been in. Ninety-nine-and-a-half percent of the complaints I get is people raising concerns about trash not being picked up, about overgrown lots, about alleys not being maintained properly.
Tyson: We need to be thinking about what makes the most sense for the people who are most affected. Look at what we could be doing with low income and affordable housing. We could clean out North Titusville, all the way up to the [Memorial Park] rec center, for new housing. Because some of what you’ve got there now, existing in that neighborhood, is shotgun houses with outhouses. In the 21st century.
Why aren’t we doing something about that? That ain’t nothing but slumlords, taking advantage of poor people. What if we got rid of all of that and went in with HABD [Housing Authority of the Birmingham District] homes, with a plan and the resources to turn renters into homeowners? What does that do for Birmingham?
But you also have to ask how things got this way. Whose fault is it that these big complexes and these slumlords have been allowed to sit in this city — sitting on our property, and our tax dollars — and torment our citizens? It’s the city’s fault. What is our problem?
Weld: So what is the problem?
Hoyt: Most what the administration does for neighborhoods is complaint-driven. If nobody complains about it, it doesn’t get attention.
Austin: That’s true, but at the end of the day, the problem is enforcement. The council has no power to provide that. That’s the administration’s job, and the mayor has to be willing to do it. When you do not have the administration being very active and aggressive in enforcing the city’s building codes, particularly on absentee landlords, there’s nothing the council can do. We are the legislative branch.
Hoyt: But with all of that, I think it’s important to look at what the council and the mayor have done together. Look at Regions Field. Look at the Entertainment District, the Pizitz Building, the Thomas Jefferson tower. Look at the Larkway Gardens [former public housing community] demolition. These are things that we all did.
That’s why I didn’t understand when the legislators came in and said they had to do something because the mayor and the council were disjointed. We worked with the mayor to make all of those things happen.
Austin: We did, or otherwise they wouldn’t have happened.
Hoyt: That’s right. And all we’re asking now is to expand the scope of that, so that more of our neighborhoods benefit.
Weld: Mayor Bell released his proposed budget last week, and he says it reflects neighborhoods and public safety as his top priorities.
Austin: Well, you know the funny thing about that…
Hoyt: The funny thing about that is that what he’s saying now was your budget message last year. [Laughter]
Austin: Well, let’s just say that we are so very thankful that the mayor has seen the light, hopefully, and that he understands what this council is committed to doing. That’s rebuilding our neighborhoods, tearing down abandoned homes, cutting vacant lots, fighting crime, and providing better opportunities for our citizens. Up to now, those things have not been priorities for this mayor.
I guess the mayor needs to be convinced that rebuilding and revitalizing our neighborhoods is the right thing to do. He needs to be convinced that we have to do something about crime. There’s a shooting in Ensley every day. And in District 6. Every day.
Hoyt: And a new building is not going to fight crime. We need more police, more presence in the neighborhoods. That’s what’s going to reduce crime.
Austin: That and working with nonprofits that provide those community-based services.
Hoyt: Yes. I’ve been on that ever since we took those nonprofits out of our budget, because ever since we did that, crime has skyrocketed. I was at a forum not long ago at the West Precinct. [Jefferson County District Attorney] Brandon Falls, [Municipal Court] Judge [Agnes] Chappell, and several others were on the panel, and all of them agreed that we need these nonprofits. When you look at the real problems we have in so many of our neighborhoods, they’re local. By that I mean, for example, that if you have somebody who’s under a court order to go to rehab, but because of our insufficient transit system, they can’t get there, what do they do? But if there’s one nearby, then they can walk and participate in that program that helps them get themselves together. But we don’t fund those places anymore, and something is wrong with that picture.
Tyson: The same with foster care, and other services, too. Services that our people need.
Hoyt: The mayor zeroed out community schools, too. These things are important to the city.
Austin: Hoyt just mentioned transportation, and I want to pick up on that for a second. Two years ago, the council committed to investing in the Bus Rapid Transit system [a specialized transit service to supplement the regular routes of the MAX bus system] — not one that is going to go down [U.S. Highway] 280, but one that will go where it is needed the most, from the east side of the city to the west side. That is probably the single most important thing we can do to help get people to jobs. That’s how you reinvest in neighborhoods, encourage transit-oriented development. Cities all over the country are doing it, and it’s working.
Weld: So if we have the resources to do those things…
Hoyt: We do.
Weld: Then where is the money going?
Tyson: Last year, the mayor increased the budget for his office by $2 million.
Austin: Look, you know always where your priorities are by looking at how you spend your money, whether it’s in your personal life or in your business. Well, the City of Birmingham is a municipal corporation, and our job as a council is to make sure that our priorities are reflected in the budget, and that’s what we will continue to do. We can’t direct city workers to do anything, but we can definitely put as much money as we can toward addressing the city’s top priorities.
Weld: So the operative question becomes: Under this new distribution of powers, what can the council do to influence the course of the city — and can the council work together to accomplish those things?
Austin: Can we work together? Yes. What we will be focused on until the next council comes in is to put as much money as we can into demolition, into weed abatement, into revitalizing our communities, and into fighting crime. Those are the issues that are affecting people every day in Birmingham.
Hoyt: When we put our efforts into neighborhoods, those things make a difference that people can see. Now, the ability to address the needs of our neighborhoods is predicated on what happens downtown. We understand that correlation, but we can’t continue in the same vein, because if we keep up this sheer neglect, it’s going to breed more and more poverty and violence and crime. Again, there has to be some balance.
We have a whole other Birmingham that not everybody gets a chance to see, and it’s desolate. If there’s a place that’s all overgrown, the houses falling in, the police might not [respond to a call there], because guess what? Nobody cares, and the city least of all. It’s the city that has allowed it to fall into such disrepair.
Austin: Another thing that we need to make sure we mention is the council’s determination to be as transparent as possible. We’re doing that in a lot of different ways, utilizing things like Periscope and YouTube, streaming our council meetings and our committee meetings live. Everything that we do in that regard is to try and be more accessible to the public, more open to the public.
We’re also going out into the community, into our neighborhoods, talking to people and finding out what they want, asking them what they see as problems and what they want to see happen in their communities. It’s not always about what we think needs to be done. It’s about what our residents want to see done. We’re just elected officials. We’re just their voice.
Weld: A moment ago, you mentioned the election coming up next year. In the last municipal election, turnout citywide was just over 20 percent. Is it fair to say that people have lost a sense of connection to city government? If so, can this next election really make a difference?
Austin: A lot of people feel like that, for so long, our city government has left them out of the equation. And you can’t blame them. Ride up just about any street in Fountain Heights or Titusville or anywhere in District 8, and it looks like they have been left out of the equation. The perception is the reality, and they have the perception that nothing is being done. You can see why people might ask, “Well, why would I take the trouble to go vote?”
I will say this: I believe that in the election that’s coming up, you’re going to see more people voting. I believe you’re going to see more informed citizens. We’re doing everything we can to keep them informed, and to let them know what’s at stake. It’s really about the direction that people want the city to go in.
Weld: Final question, a three-parter: What is Birmingham’s greatest need, our greatest opportunity and the greatest obstacle to addressing those things?
Tyson: The greatest need is to build up our inner-city neighborhoods. The greatest opportunity is to make Birmingham a better place to live for everybody. Right now is the time, because we’ll never have this opportunity again, to make this kind of investment in the community.
The obstacle is convincing the mayor to do it. We have to convince him that this is the way to go — from the bottom up and not the top down. A lot of people want to go from the top down, and I’m not saying that it’s wrong, but we’ve got to find a happy medium.
Austin: I think she hit it right on the head. I would add public safety, where we really need to start taking a serious approach to reducing crime.
Hoyt: That’s the opportunity, to make this city a safe place and a healthy place for all of our citizens.
While this story represents the specific views of the council members interviewed, Weld encourages other council members and the mayor to offer their views on this story in particular, the comments made within and the state and direction of the city.