Birmingham City Council

Birmingham Council appoints new member, while mayoral staff’s absence draws sharp criticism

Wardine Alexander, center, is sworn in by Judge Andra D. Sparks, right, as the new councilor for District 7. (Source:) Sam Prickett.

After weeks of contentious discussion, it’s official: Wardine Alexander is the newest member of the Birmingham City Council, filling the District 7 seat formerly held by Jay Roberson. Her appointment, as well as the election of District 4 Councilor William Parker as president pro tempore, marks the end of a deadlock between two factions of the council.


But it also came amid an escalating feud between the council and Mayor Randall Woodfin who, along with most of  his staff, was conspicuously absent from Tuesday’s meeting — prompting some councilors to say that they were “shocked” and “outraged” by what they called a display of “petty politics.”


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Alexander’s appointment was the result of a surprise vote from District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt,

who broke last week’s 4-4 tied vote by switching his vote from applicant Lonnie Malone to Alexander. He joined Councilors Valerie Abbott, Darrell O’Quinn, and Hunter Williams, while Councilors John Hilliard, Sheila Tyson, and Lashunda Scales once again voted for Malone.


Alexander is a former president of the Birmingham Board of Education, though she lost the seat in last year’s election, placing third in a field of three candidates. She was appointed in April to the Birmingham Public Library Board of Trustees, which has been mired in an ongoing controversy over Executive Director Floyd Council. According to the Mayor-Council Act of 1955, which prohibits councilors from holding other public offices, Alexander will have to resign from the library board. As a councilor, she’ll have a vote in choosing her successor.


After Alexander had been sworn in and took her place on the dais, several of her fellow councilors expressed displeasure at the way she had been selected.


Scales, who along with Tyson will vacate her seat to join the Jefferson County Commission on Nov. 14, reiterated her calls for “an election as opposed to politicians appointing other politicians, because that’s what happened today… We have taken democracy and messed over it and played with it.”


Hilliard agreed. “It should never have been put in the hands of the council to make these appointments,” he said. “This is not acceptable. And (the public) should not allow it to be acceptable.”


The Mayor-Council Act, which is the city’s governing document, mandates that “vacancies in the council shall be filled by the council at the next regular meeting or any subsequent meeting of the council, (with) the person so elected to hold office only until the next election of any kind.”


The next regularly scheduled election is not slated to happen until 2021, though it has been suggested that a special election may be called sooner. At Tuesday’s meeting, O’Quinn remarked that he is “confident there will be an election sometime in 2019.”


In the meantime, Abbott announced that the council will accept applications to fill seats for Districts 1 and 6. Applications for bothdistrictscan be found at the Birmingham City Council’s website. Completed applications must be submitted to Abbott via email — — by Friday, Nov. 16 at 5 p.m.


The Absent Mayor


While one vacant seat in the council chambers was filled on Tuesday, many more were conspicuously empty. Those seats belonged to Mayor Randall Woodfin and most officials of his office, including his chief of staff, city attorneys, and various department heads.


Hoyt alleged from the dais that a directive from Woodfin had instructed staffers “not to show up for the next 21 days” — that is, until after Scales and Tyson had left the council.


The mayor’s absence followed last week’s openly hostile exchange between Woodfin and members of the council over proposed funding for the Firehouse Ministries Homeless Shelter. After clashing with councilors who opposed the measure — and incorrectly saying Hoyt  unsuccessfully applied for a job at the Firehouse — Woodfin released a statement declaring that the council “playing politics with a serious issue like homelessness is unconscionable.”


Hoyt responded with an open letter to Woodfin, accusing him of an “inability to communicate and maintain formidable dialogue with the council which you claim you do,” and comparing his “petty politics… when you can’t have your way,” to those of President Donald Trump.


He renewed his attacks Tuesday morning. “This is politics at a low,” he said. “I’ve never seen it like this before. I hope the citizens become outraged by this.”


His sentiments were echoed by District 9 Councilor John Hilliard, who also voted against funding for the Firehouse last week. “To me, it’s a slap in the face to the constituents of the 99 neighborhoods,” he said.


Rick Journey, communications director for the mayor’s office, was not at the meeting but said that one member of Woodfin’s staff — Katrina Thomas, a member of the city’s Planning, Engineering, and Permits Department — was on hand to present a rezoning item. She was the only Woodfin staffer to address the council at Tuesday’s meeting.


When asked for a response to Hoyt’s allegations, Journey responded that mayor’s office staff “are the council’s guests.”


“The mayor is currently out of town at a conference. The mayor wants to be in a position to address any questions from the council personally,” he said. “Mayor’s office and department heads are always willing and committed to answer city council questions.”


Woodfin was scheduled to host a town hall meeting with District 6 Councilor Sheila Tyson on Tuesday evening.