Communication is the real work of leadership.
— Nitin Nohria
I don’t know whether you’ve seen any of the recent spate of dueling YouTube videos, wherein presumed surrogates for Birmingham’s most prominent elected leaders — i.e., our mayor and members of our city council — have been fouling the digital realm with all manner of accusation and innuendo, both political and personal.
By the way, I’m fully aware that I have just described the nature of roughly 98 percent of the internet, especially as it relates to matters political and governmental. My concern is here is with that unfortunate fact — i.e., the collective human proclivity for screwing up, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, any and every potentially good thing that makes its way into the public ambit — as it relates to the present state of relations between Mayor William Bell and the Birmingham City Council (or at least the currently unified five-member majority of the city’s governing body).
Which is why I mention the YouTube videos. If you haven’t seen any of them, allow me to summarize their content by saying that they are not intended to inspire confidence in the honesty, integrity or abilities of either branch of Birmingham’s municipal government. In fact, they seem clearly to be designed for the rapid accomplishment of the opposite purpose, that of further undermining Birmingham’s already severely restricted capacity for self-governance.
The burden of blame for this state of affairs depends on which video you’re watching. There are the ones that smear Council President Johnathan Austin and Councilor Marcus Lundy (as well as Courtney French, an attorney for both the Birmingham Water Works Board and the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, each of which has members appointed by the city council). And, emanating from the other side of the great divide, there are the ones that smear Mayor Bell (along with longtime Water Works attorney Charlie Waldrep, whom the board replaced with French’s firm, Fuston, Pettway & French).
Some of you might be disappointed to learn that I am not going to get into the specific content of the videos. Nor will I provide links to them in the version of this column that appears on weldbham.com. That’s because if you have seen the videos — or, really, since they are of a piece, any one of them — then you already know what’s in them; and if you have not seen them and are inclined to do so, then you have no need of my facilitation to go and find them.
As I’ve implied, and quite apart from the actual or relative veracity of any of the various charges and rumors and suggestions each side is hurling at the other, this is not good for Birmingham. In fact, it is a blight upon this city — meaning you, me, Mayor Bell, the City Council and every other woman, man and child who lives or does business in Birmingham — and an impediment to the better angels of our civic nature (as if there aren’t enough of those, meaning our self-inflicted impediments, already).
Mayor Bell said as much when I spoke with him in late August for WeldCast, our bi-weekly podcast that launched September 8 with that interview (as a quick and patently self-serving aside, the next WeldCast will be available for your listening pleasure on Thursday, September 22; I’ll be talking with the new director of the Freshwater Land Trust, Libba Vaughan).
“It has slowed the positive track we’ve been on,” Mayor Bell said in response to a question about the poor relations between the city council and his office. “In the past four or five years, we’ve turned this city around, and all of that is put in jeopardy by what is going on right now.”
Now, you can agree or argue with any or all of the terms of the mayor’s statement — that the city is categorically on “a positive track,” that its fortunes have been “turned around” definitively and for the long term, which individuals or entities are most responsible for any “jeopardizing” of the city’s future growth and progress, etc. — as your personal opinions and political biases may incline you. I have my own thoughts along those lines (operative observation: there are no heroes), but that’s not what this particular column is about.
From where I was sitting — i.e., across a small coffee table from the mayor — the thing that cannot be overlooked is Mayor Bell’s acknowledgement of the potentially damaging seriousness of the situation at City Hall. I even give him credit, in that and other comments during the interview, for not explicitly attempting to place all of the blame on the council.
For the record, I’ve heard similar things in recent casual conversations with Austin. Back in May, during an extensive interview with Weld — for which Austin sat along with fellow councilors Steven Hoyt and Sheila Tyson — the council president said the council “is not here to fight” Bell, and that he and his colleagues “want to support” the mayor.
“If the mayor and the council can’t work together, when we don’t even communicate, it’s the neighborhoods that suffer,” Austin said.
And that, my friends, is what this week’s column is really all about: Communication.
More specifically, it is a call for Mayor Bell and the City Council to do a better job of communicating with one another. Which is another way of saying that good communication between the mayor and council serves Birmingham well, and bad communication serves it poorly.
Bad communication takes any of several forms, none of them benign in their ability to impede the wheels of government — most especially one that is in some form of internal crisis. As it relates to our mayor and council, the notion of “bad” communication takes in everything from routine miscommunication, to the deliberate withholding or misrepresentation of information, to tacit approval of the kind of gutter politics currently being practiced on their respective behalves.
It also takes in the simple failure to communicate. Or perhaps a better term is the refusal to communicate. Take your pick, abandon for a moment your own opinions and biases, and then observe how very closely the mantle of failure or refusal fits all of the parties involved.
If you want the case-in-point that prompted me to take up this particular topic at this particular time, here it is: Some weeks back, the city council advanced a plan for instituting a rebate to city of Birmingham residents of the city’s portion of the sales tax on food items. Subsequently, the city’s Law Department issued an opinion that the ordinance as proposed did not comport with applicable state laws.
End of story? No.
To its credit, and at Austin’s direction, members of the council staff have been researching similar ordinances in a number of other communities across the country (most prominently mentioned by said staff is Fort Collins, Colorado, which I mention for reasons that will become apparent). The intent is to have the council’s legal staff formulate an ordinance that will pass legal muster and vote it into effect.
Meanwhile, to Mayor Bell’s credit, once the Law Department had rejected the ordinance as proposed, he directed the department to begin researching similar ordinances in effect in other communities across the country (in speaking to mayoral staff, the name most prominently mentioned is that of Fort Collins, Colorado). The intent is to have the city’s lawyers formulate an ordinance that will pass legal muster, and to present it to the city council for consideration.
What we’ve got here — if I may cop a famous phrase from Cool Hand Luke — is failure to communicate. Neither side knows what the other is doing, nor even professes to care, unless and until it impairs their own ability to function. They are working on the same problem, seeking the same solution, looking to fuel the same opportunities — but, because of the overarching failure to communicate, even for the good of the city, both are working twice as hard as necessary, diverting resources that could be engaged in finding other ways to serve Birmingham’s citizens and keep our city moving in a progressive direction.
Meanwhile, there can be no full accounting of the civic rewards that may be lost to that failure, or needlessly delayed or deferred at the very least, rendered perhaps less impactful than they would have been in a healthier political and governmental atmosphere.
It’s doubly unfortunate in this case — and, to be fair to both Mayor Bell and the Council, probably in a few others, too — that we’re talking about something good for city and its residents. Even more remarkably, we’re talking about something on which the mayor and council agree.
As do I, I feel compelled to add here. Sales taxes on food are a disproportionate burden on middle- and lower-income families — so are sales taxes on prescription medications, which I’m suggesting that the city add to whatever ordinance ultimately is put to a vote. For taking action to ease that burden — most particularly on the more than one-third of city residents who live in poverty — Mayor Bell and the Council are deserving of the thanks of everyone who cares about Birmingham.
I just wish we didn’t have to thank them separately. In this case, both sides are pursuing a good thing. But neither side is showing much in the way of leadership.