March 14, 2017 – Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin slammed the gavel and the council session began at 10:53 am, nearly an hour and a half after the scheduled time, because there had not been enough members present to legally hold the meeting.
Mayor William Bell was among the absent, leaving councilors with questions on several items. Among the most contentious was an agreement between the city and the Birmingham Board of Education to appoint Bobby Benton to a full-time position “from the board to work with My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.” The job could pay up to $43,823, according to the resolution.
Benton has worked on political campaigns for Bell, and several councilors, including Austin, said they believed Benton had been named as the chairman to Bell’s re-election campaign.
April Odom, Bell’s director of communication, said later in an email that the campaign still is organizing and has not announced the campaign chairman. She said Benton was not being considered for the position.
“I understand the person the board has chosen for this position already works for the Board of Education,” Councilor Valerie Abbott said during the meeting. She asked Terry Burney, Bell’s chief administrative analyst, whether a leave of absence would be required. “That raises questions … . The other thing they said was this person is the campaign chairperson for the mayor. So is that accurate?”
Burney said that the BOE had approved a leave of absence for Benton, who is a music educator with Birmingham schools. He also said he had “no knowledge” about a campaign appointment.
“It’s strange,” Councilor Steven Hoyt said. “I’m not going to vote for it because I know what Bob Benton does for the mayor and what have you, and we just need to stay away from as much politics as we can.”
Austin characterized the resolution as something that “doesn’t smell right” and called into question the timing of the move.
“As you know, it’s campaign season,” Austin said. “This could’ve been done seven years ago if they wanted to. Why is it just now that they’re doing it, six months before an election. It stinks and I’m not going to be a part of it. Word on the street says he is running the mayor’s campaign and he has breakfast every Sunday to talk about the council and elections.”
Benton, who was not present at the meeting, did not respond to email requests seeking a comment.
The board rejected the appointment for Benton in a 2-2-1 vote, with Austin and Hoyt against, Councilors Marcus Lundy and Jay Roberson for, and Abbott abstaining. It is unclear whether the item will be presented to the council again.
Urban League Contract
Another contentious topic of discussion, also related to the mayor’s associates, was a one-year contract for $220,000 to be paid to Birmingham Urban League Inc. The organization is headed by William Barnes, who used to work in Bell’s office. During the meeting, he took to the podium to discuss the league’s goals.
“I thought (the contract) was very detailed. … I will support this item,” Roberson said. “The funding is already in the budget and the programs have already been identified. I will say this on a personal note: We have a young African-American male at the podium who has exemplified great leadership in the community. … It bothers me we can sit here and differentiate with someone on a personal level who has already earned the right to represent this board. That’s what sets Birmingham back. Those type of things when we have people who have earned their stripes and gone through the process and we ridicule the options they have and downplay their leadership. I’m tired of it.”
But Hoyt said he was concerned about tax funds being misused and worried about a lack of accountability.
Austin said the proposal sounded great, but he, too, had reservations about his support.
“We’re not just dealing with the Urban League and the item before us isn’t just about the Urban League,” Austin said. “We are in a campaign season. I don’t think any councilors have announced they’re running yet but the sitting mayor has and other mayoral candidates have too.”
Roberson said “the topic at hand has nothing to do with the subject matter of the Birmingham Urban League.”
Austin continued, however, “When we look at this item before us today, we look at it not only through the lens of it being the Urban League, but what is going on at city hall currently,” he said.
The council voted for a two-week delay on the contract.
BirminghamWatch and Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper are collaborating to cover the Birmingham City Council and the Jefferson County Commission.
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