Birmingham’s controversial PACE Board is back in action after being defunct for nearly a year.
The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to appoint new members to the board in order to secure approval for a new restaurant at the Negro Southern League Museum, despite deep reservations by some council members over the board’s accountability.
The Public Athletic, Cultural, and Entertainment Facilities Board — PACE, for short — is a five-member board created by the city in 2011 to oversee development of Regions Field and the Negro Southern League Museum.
But the board drew ire from the council after construction costs for Regions Field went over budget by roughly $8 million, $4.1 million of which the council is paying off in installments through 2021. The rest of those costs were taken on by development companies Robins & Morton and A.G. Gaston Construction.
The terms of all five board members expired in 2017, which has created problems for the owners of Michael’s Steak and Seafood, the restaurant attempting to open in the Negro Southern League Museum. By law, the PACE Board has to approve the restaurant before it can open, which meant that the council would have to approve new appointments for all five seats.
Three members of the PACE Board are nominated by the mayor. The council nominates the other two, and has approval power for all five. Mayor Randall Woodfin’s nominations were Cora Coley, James Sullivan and Ronnie Rice; the council’s were Justina Howard and Samuel Rumore.
“We have a minority, women-owned business that has been waiting to occupy this space at the museum,” District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn said during Tuesday’s meeting. “Because there has been no functional board, they have been delayed for many, many months.”
But other councilors said re-establishing the board could have negative consequences for the city. District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt was perhaps the board’s most vocal opponent, pointing to the Regions Field costs as an example of the board’s lack of accountability.
“There need to be parameters around these folks,” he said. “They have too much power in making decisions around this city that can have long-term ramifications.”
He said the previous incarnation of the PACE Board “didn’t post their meetings. There was no communication to the council at all, no responsibility to this council at all. … If you give them that authority… they’re going to do what they want to do as opposed to what’s best for our city. That’s been our experience.”
Woodfin also expressed reservations about the board, saying he wished the restaurant could be approved without it. “We (the council and I) agree with the sentiment of not wanting to deal with the PACE Board,” he said, “(but) there’s only one way to get this restaurant open.”
Woodfin said he would ensure that the new board would have regular meetings, and promised to work with the council to place restrictions on the board’s authority.
But Hoyt, along with Councilors Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson, argued that re-establishing the board was counterintuitive.
“Once this board has been appointed, it’s kind of hard to unring that bell,” Scales said. “We need to disband the PACE Board. … This is foolishness, and we keep operating like this and wonder why the public don’t trust us.”
Hoyt unsuccessfully pushed for a two-week delay to establish restrictions on the board’s powers. The council then voted in favor of the new appointments, with Hoyt and Tyson voting against the measure; Scales abstained from voting. The other five members present — District 7 Councilor Jay Roberson was absent from the meeting — voted to approve the new board members.
But even those who voted for the appointments said they wanted the process behind board appointments to be overhauled.
“I think we have a real issue in the city of Birmingham with all the boards we have,” said District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams. “I think these boards do not have any accountability with the public… (The mayor and the council) are held accountable for (those boards’) somewhat negligent decision-making.”
Council President Valerie Abbott said she would like to see background checks for nominees. “We have enough issues without appointing people who have background problems,” she said.
Woodfin agreed, saying that his administration had been talking about reforming the city’s board appointment process for months.
“What we’ve found, and what I believe, is that outside of our budget process, our second-most-important thing to do in our duties is our appointment power, and I think we don’t acknowledge that enough,” he said. “On our end, what we want to do is actually implement … a new process around how someone gets appointed. … There’s never been a formal process. We just appoint people.”
Also, the council voted unanimously to reduce the membership of the Birmingham Public Library Board from 10 members to nine, which Abbott said was to prevent tied votes.
“It’s standard procedure to have an odd number of people on the board,” she said. Alabama law prohibits library boards from having more than five members, but Abbott said that the creation of the board predates that code and the board is therefore exempt.