The eight members of the Birmingham City Council spent much of Tuesday morning’s meeting focused on the daïs’ sole empty chair, stuck on the question of how to replace former President Pro Tempore Jay Roberson.
Roberson, who had represented District 7 on the council since 2009, announced his resignation last month, citing his wife’s new job with Alabaster City Schools. He officially left office Monday, meaning that Tuesday’s meeting was the first in which the remaining members of the council could vote on his replacement.
They didn’t, though. The deadline for applications to fill Roberson’s seat had been extended to Tuesday afternoon, following a glitch that temporarily shut down the city’s website, where applications were to be submitted. (See the 13 applicants.)
Instead, Council President Valerie Abbott attempted — unsuccessfully — to hold a vote for Roberson’s replacement as president pro tem.
The council president pro tem essentially serves as backup for the council president. If the president is absent, the pro tem presides over the meeting. Roberson was elected to the position at the start of the council’s new term, in October.
At first, it seemed the vote would go ahead, with District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt hurriedly nominating District 4 Councilor William Parker for the position. But discussion was quickly derailed by District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales, who accused Abbott of “disenfranchising” District 7 by selecting a president pro tem before a new representative for the district was in place.
“I love Mr. Parker to pieces,” she said. “He’s like a good bag of M&Ms to me. But at the end of the day, we’re talking about the process … . This is hijacking a process, and if you start doing that now, you’re going to start doing that in other areas… and I don’t like it.”
Scales invoked her oft-repeated argument that the Mayor-Council Act of 1955, the city’s governing document, mandates that council vacancies be filled at the first council meeting after the vacancy occurs. “The next subsequent meeting would be today, so you should actually be appointing, if you are going by the law … someone to the District 7 seat, then you would proceed on to president pro tem.”
The act actually states that council vacancies should be filled “at the next regular meeting or any subsequent meeting of the council” — explicitly not placing a deadline on the process. It also does not specify a timeline for filling a vacancy in the office of president pro tem.
Since her election to the Jefferson County Commission in July, Scales has called for an expedited replacement process. “(Sheila) Tyson and I are getting ready to leave, and there has to be a process in place, legally,” she said. Scales and Tyson, the District 6 councilor, move into their new positions with the county Nov. 14.
Despite having just nominated Parker for president pro tem, Hoyt spoke up in agreement. “The whole purpose of the organization is to have nine sitting councilors to elect a president and president pro tem of that body,” he said. “We need to be looking at filling the vacancy and then having the vote for pro tem. I think that’s fair…. The person from District 7 could be the pro tem. It just depends on who that person is.”
Abbott maintained that she was following the Mayor-Council Act and that the election of a president pro tem was necessary for parliamentary procedure. “We are following the laws of the city of Birmingham,” she said. “We are not doing anything sneaky. If I get hit by a truck on my way home, we will not have a presiding officer (if we do not have) a pro tem. That’s the only reason to elect a pro tem today.”
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, requesting to speak, interrupted the argument to directly address the audience in the council chambers. “I think it’s important that factual legal information is shared with every single one of you all,” he said. “There is no prohibition in the law from filling the pro tem’s seat prior to filling the councilor’s seat. There is nothing illegal … . Nothing prohibits this body from filling an internal leadership position, which is a totally separate process from filling a vacant seat.”
Woodfin pointed to precedent set by the process leading up to Roberson’s appointment. When District 7 Councilor and President Pro Tem Miriam Witherspoon died in 2009, the council elected her successor as pro tem before it appointed her successor to as District 7’s councilor. “Nothing’s new about what y’all are seeing,” he said.
Even so, Hilliard responded by calling for a break from precedent. “This is a new day,” he said. “I just don’t believe that we should appoint a president pro tem with an empty seat sitting here … . I just believe that the people should have a voice.”
The four councilors who were most vocally opposed to the vote — Scales, Hoyt, Tyson and District 9 Councilor John Hilliard — had all also opposed Roberson’s election as pro tem in November, instead supporting Tyson for the position.
Eventually, the discussion ended with District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn motioning to delay the vote, though it took several tries before the council could agree on the length of that delay. Eventually, it settled on postponing the item for two weeks, with discussion slated to resume Oct. 2.
“I knew when I put this on the agenda that I was either going to be roundly criticized for not putting it on or roundly criticized for putting it on. It was a no-win situation” Abbott said. “I’ll just be very careful when I drive home… I’ll walk down the stairs very carefully.”
Without a president pro tem, in the event of Abbott’s absence, City Clerk Lee Frazier will run meetings.
“I’m not looking forward to it,” he said.