2017 Birmingham Elections

Bell Encourages Staff to Campaign for Him; City Hall Meeting Raises Ethical Concerns

Birmingham Mayor William Bell

Mayor William Bell during an Aug. 28 meeting in City Council chambers urged employees of his office to bolster his re-election campaign and told them their jobs could be at stake as well as his.

In an audio recording of the meeting, Bell told staffers that it would be improper for them to campaign for him on city time. But he told them there were activities every weekend and urged them to spread the word on social media about projects conducted during his administration.

“The political survival of my administration is at stake,” he says on the tape.

In last month’s municipal elections, Bell came in second to Randall Woodfin. Woodfin received 15,668 votes, or 40.84 percent; Bell received 14,025 votes, or 36.55 percent.

Multiple sources at city hall have confirmed that the audio was recorded during a meeting that took place in the council chambers on the morning of Aug. 28. During the meeting, which went on for roughly 45 minutes, Bell addressing the assembled employees and took their “questions and advice.”

Bell did not respond to repeated requests for comment from BirminghamWatch, nor did representatives from his office and his campaign. However, April Odom, the director of communications for the mayor’s office, issued the following statement to WBRC: “After the election, we were inundated with requests from staff on how they could help. We had a staff meeting where the Mayor clearly outlined what was acceptable and not acceptable.”

The meeting raises legal and ethical questions about Bell’s use of public resources. Alabama’s ethics law states that no public official can use government equipment, property or employees for their own financial interests. The Fair Campaign Practices Act bars government employees from engaging in political actions except in their personal time. It also bars officials from using their office to influence the vote or political action of another person or to coerce an employee to do work for a campaign.

Bell told employees during the meeting that he was in a difficult political fight, and their jobs could be at risk if he lost the election. “If you think that it’s just about William Bell, no, it’s about all of us in this room, about each and every one of us in this room” he said. “Because I guarantee you, while some may survive, the vast majority of you will not. I’m not trying to put fear, I’m just trying to tell you the realities of the situation.”

Concentrating on the Campaign

Bell told city employees that he would be less active as mayor for the remainder of the campaign, saying that being mayor had put his campaign at a disadvantage. “I still have a city to run,” he said. “Each one of you know that you all come to me to make decisions and try to set up different meetings, and my mind has been divided into two worlds. I can’t have that distraction going forward. You may have some things that you want me to do, but I promise you it’s not because I don’t want to do it. . . I was split between city hall and the campaign. I’m not split anymore. I’m sorry, y’all just won’t see me around here that much.”

Bell several times said he was not asking employees to campaign during work hours. “But what I am asking you to do when you are at work, do your job professionally. Reach out to citizens,” he said. “Whatever they need, try to meet them as immediately as possible. Don’t get into any arguments with people, but try to satisfy whatever their needs are. That’s the best thing that you can do to help me while you are on duty.

“Off-duty, we have rallies, we have events that some of you all are on the corners with me on this past Saturday. We knock on doors, we go into communities. I can’t be every place at the same time. I’ve got to have people out there telling the true story of my compassion and my passion for this city.”

He urged staff members to use social media to share projects the city was working on, “because that’s the battlefront right now. … They’ve created this narrative, and we’ve got to debunk the narrative that’s out there. And so, like I said, if you can do that for me, I deeply appreciate it.”

Bell also characterized Woodfin’s campaign as part of a national movement by progressives to reform the Democratic party. “First of all, this race is not against William Bell and Randall Woodfin,” he said. “This race is against Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party. For about the past year, year-and-a-half, they’ve been in here, in Birmingham, probably even longer prior to the campaign, and restructuring the Democratic political dynamics. The last race that they were very active in was in Jackson, Mississippi.

“And the same strategy was put in place over in Jackson, Mississippi, that, ‘the tale of two cities,’ that part of the city was prospering while the majority-black community was suffering, that the mayor there did not care about the citizens, the mayor was not doing things that the citizens wanted to see,” Bell continued. “And they gradually built a coalition of people that changed the mayoral outlook in Jackson, Mississippi. If you don’t believe me, go and look it up. Now, they’re running the same tactics here in Birmingham, Alabama.”

This is not the first time questions have been raised about whether a candidate had crossed the line by soliciting campaign support from employees.

Former Secretary of State Nancy Worley in 2007 was indicted on five felony and five misdemeanor charges related to a campaign letter, contribution envelope and bumper sticker she had sent to five employees during her unsuccessful re-election campaign. She eventually pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor.

This story was updated Sept. 6 with Odom’s comment.