Aug. 10, 2017 – On Thursday morning, WBHM and the Birmingham Business Journal held a mayoral debate at the Harbert Center in downtown Birmingham. The debate featured three of the 12 candidates in the race – incumbent William Bell and challengers Chris Woods and Randall Woodfin – a restriction that drew criticism from the candidates who were not invited to take part.
According to WBHM, the candidates were selected to participate in the debate based on polling data, specifically, a WBRC Fox 6 News poll that sampled 214 registered Birmingham voters. In the poll, 54 percent of likely voters cited Bell as their first choice, with Woods at 17 percent and Woodfin at 14 percent.
Some candidates who were not included in the debate took to social media to express their frustration. “They use the same flawed data polling that FOX 6 use don’t waste your time!” (sic) wrote candidate Frank Matthews on the event’s Facebook page.
Philemon Hill, another candidate, wrote on Facebook that the debate was skewed in Bell’s favor, calling it “a bought event” that was “a controlled environment so Bell can feel comfortable.” He also took issue with the event’s scheduling – at 8:30 a.m. on the first day of school for Birmingham City Schools. “Holding a mayoral forum at the same time … education can’t be a priority for any involved party,” he wrote.
Gigi Douban, the news director at WBHM, called such claims “ridiculous,” noting that “setting benchmarks for participants is common practice,” and saying that focusing on candidates who had polled at over 10 percent allowed for a “more substantive discussion of the issues.”
Scheduling for the debate, she said, was organized by the Birmingham Business Journal and organized in part around the candidates’ availabilities. “It wasn’t our intent to exclude anyone,” she said. The debate streamed live through WBHM’s Facebook page and was replayed on air multiple times Thursday.
Experience and Efficiency
At the debate itself, the participating candidates’ barbs were reserved for each other, with both Woods and Woodfin targeting what they said were shortcomings in Bell’s administration, and Bell firing back with attacks on Woods’ lack of experience and Woodfin’s record as president of the Birmingham Board of Education.
Early on in the debate, Woodfin called Bell’s 101-person staff, which includes 52 administrative assistants, “inefficient.”
“We’re short on police, we’re short on firefighters … . That is an abuse and negligence of taxpayer dollars, period,” Woodfin said.
Bell responded that half of that 101-person staff is employed by the Birmingham CrossPlex, a sports facility that was opened in 2011.
“That wasn’t my idea,” Bell said. “That was former Mayor Larry Langford’s idea, but it fell upon me to build it and to maintain it and staff it … . They try to paint the picture that I have all these people in my office working, doing nothing. That’s not true. We are running the most efficient government possible.”
Woodfin and Woods both criticized the Bell administration’s approach to public transportation. “It’s not just money that’s the problem with our bus system,” Woodfin said. “It’s operations and efficiency, too.”
Woods said that Birmingham is “missing too many booming opportunities,” when it comes to transit, and he advocated for a regional transit board with neighboring cities such as Hoover and Mountain Brook. “I don’t think we can do it by ourselves,” he said. “We have to go to that next level of regional cooperation.”
Bell defended his policies on transit. He pointed to the purchases of new buses and the city’s new intermodal facility, as well as the ongoing effort to create a Bus Rapid Transit System, which would provide faster travel time between the downtown area and outer neighborhoods. “We’re consistently and constantly working to improve the quality of transportation in our community,” he said.
Sparks flew when the topic turned to education. Bell pointed to dysfunction at the Birmingham Board of Education – which in recent years has included a state takeover of the city school system’s finances and the controversial firing of Superintendent Kelley Castlin-Gacutan – as evidence of Woodfin’s shortcomings as a public servant. Woodfin served as the school board’s president from 2013 to 2015 and remains its District 5 representative.
Woodfin responded that the state takeover took place in 2012, before he was elected to the school board, and that he’d voted against measures to fire the superintendent. He instead argued that Bell’s administration had not funded education enough, with only $1.8 million of the city’s $428 million budget going toward schools per year.
“Check your priorities,” Woodfin said.
When the subject turned to community development, Woods returned to his oft-cited campaign promise to perform a “forensic, independent audit” on city government before he would commit to funding any major building projects, such as a proposed new stadium for the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. He said the city would need to reach out to its neighboring “sister cities,” such as Hoover and Mountain Brook, which would also benefit from such development, to assist with funding.
Woodfin said he was not opposed to major projects like a new stadium at the BJCC, but that such projects “shouldn’t be at the expense of basic services and neighborhood revitalization.”
From there, the debate turned to the subject of gentrification, particularly in regard to the Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods Task Force – colloquially known as the “gentrification task force” – that Bell created last month.
“The current administration has failed to address the conversation around gentrification,” Woodfin said. “You can’t convene some form of a commission just because it’s the eve of an election. A commission or some group to study this is not going to address the real issue.”
Bell addressed criticisms of a proposed redevelopment of Southtown Court, a 25-acre housing project adjacent to University Boulevard, as well as the soon-to-be redeveloped Loveman Village project in Titusville. Worries of displacement are unwarranted, he said, and pointed to the Park Place Apartments development, a downtown housing project that replaced the Metropolitan Gardens project in 2004.
“We want to give the citizens of Southtown and Loveman Village the same quality of life as the residents of Park Place,” Bell said. “No one will be displaced under a William Bell administration.”
After Park Place was built, roughly 60 of the 2,500 previous Metropolitan Gardens residents returned to Park Place, a HUD spokeswoman told AL.com in 2012.
Woods, meanwhile, focused on perceptions of development in Birmingham. “Gentrification has a negative connotation, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “You don’t hear this term mentioned in Mountain Brook, or Vestavia, or Hoover … . I think it’s failed leadership … . We’re always behind the curve.”
Bell also fought back against claims that he was not prioritizing development outside of the downtown area. He cited several job-creating businesses to which his administration had offered incentives, such as Inland Seafood, a food processing company that last month was approved for approximately $4.3 million in municipal loans and grants to expand into Ensley.
He also said that, of the $40 million that was being dedicated to renovating the derelict Ramsay-McCormack Building in the Ensley neighborhood, roughly $30 million of that would go to infrastructure in the area.
As the debate wound down, the discussion turned to Bell’s often strained relationship with the City Council. “The mayor is elected to be administrator of the city,” Woods said. “The City Council is the legislative arm of the city. We have a mayor that wants to do both.”
Woods pointed to Bell’s time as City Council president, when he worked to lessen the powers of then-Mayor Bernard Kincaid’s administration. “That clearly proves that we have a mayor that wants his way or no way, his way over the people’s way,” Woods said.
Bell’s response was acidic. “I feel sorry for the gentleman sitting next to me,” he said. “He’s in a desperate situation, and he doesn’t know how to move the city forward.”
Bell said that his relationship with the council was in working order, stating that 95 percent of the agenda items his office places before the council are passed. He also reasserted the authority of his office, saying, “There’s only one mayor. Sometimes, people think there are 10 councilors. Sometimes people think there are 10 mayors. (But) the city is in the best condition that it’s ever been in.”
That the city was flourishing was Bell’s primary argument during his closing statements. “You only simply have to open up your eyes to see the progress that’s being made all over the city,” he said. “Have we addressed all of the problems? No, we have not. Can we address all of the problems at the same time? We can address them but we cannot solve all of them at the same time.
“You can take a roll of the dice, gamble on somebody who has no record of public service,” he continued, gesturing to Woods, before turning to Woodfin. “Or you can roll the dice and count on someone who does have a record of public service, but look at what that record has yielded us in terms of the quality of our school system. I can point to project after project, initiative after initiative.”
Woods, delivering his closing remarks next, stressed his Christian faith and touted his lack of civic experience as a strength. “No, I’ve never held elected office, and I think that’s a problem, cronyism and career politicians. We need people who are going to be honest with you and not have hidden agendas. And I don’t mind telling you, I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you. God loves you. His love is in me … . If I don’t love you, I cannot serve you… . What we have had is self-serving, self-enrichment, hidden agendas. … This city is on its way to being the city of Detroit under Mayor Bell’s leadership.”
Finally, Woodfin attempted to turn Bell’s “roll the dice” comment into a call to action. “Roll the dice,” Woodfin said. “Roll them, because what we have right now isn’t working … . The last eight years, nothing has been done to improve the quality of life for people that live here. … It is time that we have a mayor with a sense of purpose that is committed to improving the quality of life of the people who live here.”
Birmingham’s municipal elections will be held Aug. 22.