July 25, 2017 – Questions of protocol dominated a somewhat chaotic meeting of the Birmingham City Council on Tuesday, during which councilors argued over whether some agenda items had gone through appropriate channels – and, in some cases, accused each other of attempting to circumvent proper procedure.
“This is trickery,” Council President Pro Tem Steven Hoyt said at one point, and that sense of confusion and distrust hung over the entire meeting.
Hoyt was referring to a proposed resolution that would have rescinded roughly $22,000 in funding for the council’s discretionary contracts that had not been approved before June 30. Some councilors took issue with the substance of the proposal; Hoyt and Councilor Lashunda Scales both stressed the importance of following through on discretionary contracts. But an even greater concern came from no one seeming to know where the resolution had originated.
The agenda listed the proposal as having been submitted by Councilor Marcus Lundy and recommended by the Economic Development, Budget and Finance Committee, of which Lundy is the chairman. But Lundy denied having recommended the resolution – or even having seen it.
“My first time seeing it was when it appeared on the agenda. It never came through Economic Development and Finance, so I am unaware of the reason behind this item,” Lundy said.
“The fact that they would put your name as a recommendation to this item, that’s disingenuous,” Hoyt said to Lundy. “We’ve really got to watch.” Who exactly the “they” Hoyt was referring to remained unclear, although a representative from the mayor’s office said the proposal had come from the council’s office, not the mayor.
“That’s the word on the street,” Austin replied, shortly before voting to table the discussion. “We’ll figure it out (in committee).”
When the following two items became subject to a similar debate – having been placed on the agenda without committee approval – the “they” was much more clear.
Councilor William Parker had submitted and recommended both items. They propose to appropriate City Council discretionary funds of up to $10,000 for meetings between “District 4 neighborhood officers, volunteers and city officials” and various state officials. The first item was for meetings with the Alabama Legislature and the Alabama Department of Insurance “regarding the preservation and maintenance of cemeteries in Alabama,” while the second was for meetings with the Alabama Department of Transportation “as well as various federal and state agencies … regarding funding for infrastructure related projects.”
Both proposals were roundly criticized by other councilors. Scales emerged as the most vocal opponent, telling Parker to “be quiet” when he attempted to interject. As she continued to speak, Parker moved across the dais to sit next to her in Councilor Kim Rafferty’s vacant seat, moving Scales’ purse and ignoring her requests that he return to his own seat.
Scales repeatedly called Parker a “lobbyist” and questioned the “lightning-bolt speed” with which Parker was attempting to get the resolution approved. She questioned whether she would receive the same priority from the mayor’s office, saying Parker “is part of a membership that some of us don’t have.”
“I usually have to wait for months (to get funding like this),” she said before speculating that Parker was attempting to curry favor with neighborhood officers before the upcoming municipal elections. “All of this stuff to me doesn’t pass the smell test. … We’re less than 30 days away from an election, and that’s the oldest little trick in the book. Not to say that’s what’s going on, and I’m not trying to imply or insinuate … I just question the timing.”
Parker argued that the resolutions needed to be approved quickly because an important meeting with state officials in Montgomery was scheduled for Thursday, July 27, and that meeting would allow “50-plus neighborhood representatives” to discuss legislation regarding cemeteries. The money, he said, would pay for “transportation and some food items.”
“These (meetings) are all of great importance not only for the residents, but I think they will assist the entire city of Birmingham,” he said.
But Parker’s fellow councilors took issue with his apparently eschewing procedure by not first submitting his proposals to committee.
“Councilor Parker is my friend, but friendship should not have anything to do with following the council’s protocol,” said Councilor Valerie Abbott. “If this was important, this should have been on last week’s agenda, or the week before, or the week before that. This last-minute stuff and trying to get by the council’s committee system, I don’t think that’s a good idea. … If we do not follow our own protocol, where are we going to end up? … We have rules that are supposed to protect the public and make sure that proper vetting is done. … I think we should follow our own rules instead of having private conversations and suddenly deciding that it doesn’t have to go (through committee). That worries me.”
Lundy then interjected, saying that it was his fault the items had not gone through committee; he had mistakenly overlooked them. “I made a mistake,” he said. “I’m man enough to tell you I made a mistake. … Very few people in city hall admit to error. … I’m one of the few people, I think, that’s willing to do that.”
Nevertheless, councilors remained skeptical of the precedent approving a measure so quickly and with so little vetting would set, and both of Parker’s proposals were tabled and sent to committee.
The only major discussion that did not in some way pertain to matters of protocol centered around a proposed ordinance that would “provide additional police services to contribute to a drug and crime-free environment” in the city’s public housing developments, for which the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District would reimburse the city $2,799,934.48 annually. Because representatives from the HABD were not present at the meeting, the council voted to postpone discussion of the proposal until the following week.
Meanwhile, the council quietly approved a resolution regarding Inland Seafood – the Atlanta-based food distributor that, after extended, heated debate at July 18’s council meeting, received roughly $4.3 million in grants and loans from the city for its Ensley expansion. The resolution gives incentive to the company to follow through on its promise to hire 150 employees over the next 10 years. If that happens, the city will pay Inland Seafood $150,000 over the following five years, in addition to the previously approved grants and loans.
The council also passed a slew of resolutions regarding travel expenditures for city staff, including $6,525.55 for Parker to take six trips – two to Montgomery; one to Atlanta; one to Washington, D.C.; one to New York City; and one to Omaha, Nebraska. As always, Abbott was the lone dissenting vote.