Birmingham City Council

Birmingham City Council Approves Resolution of Concern Over Mayor-Council Act Changes

Crystal Smitherman
Valerie Abbott

The Birmingham City Council formally expressed “concerns” Tuesday about recent changes to the Mayor-Council Act of 1955.

In a resolution it passed unanimously, the council called on the state Legislature to repeal changes, made to the act in 2016 at the behest of then-Rep. Oliver Robinson, which transferred significant powers from the council to the mayor’s office.

Though the resolution passed with little discussion, the Mayor-Council Act has been a recent focus for the council. Robinson’s changes were a key part of last month’s interviews with candidates for the District 1 and District 6 council seats, with councilors telling applicants that undoing those changes would be a priority in 2019.

Those changes moved budgeting and appointment powers from the council to the mayor, shortened the terms of the council president and president pro tempore from four years to two, and gave the mayor the ability to “retain the services of outside counsel and other professional services” without oversight from the council. Council President Valerie Abbott has described the changes as “an irritant” to the council.

Though the resolution that passed Tuesday initially stated that the council was “in opposition to” Robinson’s changes, a last-minute amendment was made to indicate that the council instead had “concerns with” the changes. That shift in tone was intended “to make the language as inoffensive as we possibly could make it,” Abbott said. “This is a kinder, gentler council.”

Notably, newly appointed District 6 Councilor Crystal Smitherman voted in favor of repealing the 2016 changes. Her father, state Sen. Rodger Smitherman, had voted in favor of Robinson’s changes. She had dodged councilors’ questions about repealing Robinson’s changes during her interview for the position; she told councilors she would need to do more research before forming an opinion. “I’m pretty neutral about decisions in general,” she said at the time.

Tuesday’s resolution was largely symbolic. The Legislature will have to propose and vote on any changes to the Mayor-Council Act. It’s still unclear whether the move will have the support of Mayor Randall Woodfin. Though he criticized the changes during the 2017 mayoral campaign, he has been reticent to discuss rolling back Robinson’s changes.

Legion Field Green Initiative

 The council voted to approve Smitherman’s first proposal as councilor — the Legion Field Green Initiative. She said it is aimed at “supporting and encouraging an environmental policy for Legion Field…” Smitherman first mentioned the initiative in broad terms during a speech to the council on Jan. 2.

Few specifics about the policy were given at Tuesday’s meeting, save for the fact that it would place recycling bins throughout Legion Field. Smitherman added she would also visit Birmingham City Schools to teach children about recycling.

Her fellow councilors praised the idea, saying that landfill costs for the city were too high, keeping the city from spending that money on infrastructure and neighborhoods. “Our constituents may be wondering why we don’t have more money for street paving,” said District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn. “Well, that money is literally in the trash. We just recently allocated $7 million to expand a sector of our landfill. That’s $7 million that we couldn’t spend on something that could improve quality of life in Birmingham.”

Council President Pro Tempore William Parker said that the initiative would be “an opportunity for us to educate the public at a sporting event on the importance of recycling.”

The policy will be fully enacted by February, he added. “We have a lot of work to do over the next 30 days, but we can achieve it,” he said.

Neighborhood Election Chaos

 Discussion of several contested neighborhood election results took up much of Tuesday’s council meeting, with councilors expressing reluctance to certify results of the Oct. 30 elections until several significant controversies were resolved.

While Nigel Roberts, the mayor’s director of community development, maintained that only the Central Park Neighborhood Association’s election had been formally contested, some councilors suggested that the problems were more widespread.

Roberts said the Central Park elections had been called into question because sign-in sheets from earlier meetings had not been turned in, meaning that the city could not verify whether candidates had met the requirements that they attend four meetings before running for office. Central Park’s issue had been “pretty much resolved,” Roberts said, because city employees “who attended those meetings… could identify and confirm that this person was in attendance.”

Even so, Cedric Sparks, Woodfin’s chief of staff, said that Woodfin — who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting — would like to delay certifying Central Park’s elections until he could “follow up” on the matter with the council. All the other results, Sparks suggested, could be certified.

But the controversy was not limited to Central Park. Gwen Webb, president-elect of the Inglenook neighborhood association, said she had expressed concerns to city officials about several candidates in her neighborhood elections “who had never been to a meeting,” but had received very little follow-up.

“We cannot be hoodwinked or bamboozled with this,” she said. “This should not come into fruition until all of this is cleared.”

O’Quinn and District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt suggested that, in light of the confusion, the Birmingham Citizen

Participation Plan — which governs neighborhood association elections — should be “revisited.”

“We cannot have people in our neighborhoods ill-conducting meetings or what have you,” Hoyt said. “There’s some stuff that we’ve really got to work on.”

The council eventually voted to certify all neighborhood elections, except for two races: Central Park Neighborhood Association president and Inglenook Neighborhood Association vice president. Those races will be discussed by the mayor and council before further action is taken.