Community Activists Accuse Mayor Bell of Campaign Finance Violations, Neglect of City’s Poor

Members of the community advocacy group the Outcast Voters League took to the floor during Tuesday’s Birmingham City Council meeting to castigate Mayor William Bell and the council for perceived inaction.

One activist, Iva Williams, alleged that Bell has violated state law by failing to regularly file finance reports for his reelection campaign. Williams announced that he has filed a formal ethics complaint against the mayor with the Alabama Secretary of State.

The meeting started off smoothly, with every item on the agenda passed within the first 20 minutes. Bell presented his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. It would allocate more funds for neighborhood cleanup and $500,000 for the city’s healthy food initiative, which offers tax rebates for low-income families to buy healthy items at their grocery.

“The wellbeing of our citizens, especially our youngest citizens, continues to be at the forefront of our minds,” Bell said.

Council President Johnathan Austin thanked Bell for submitting the proposed budget, and the council voted to hold a more in-depth public hearing on the budget on May 24.

After finishing the presentation, Bell then brought forward a group of graduating Birmingham school students who each had been awarded a $1,000 scholarship by the city. Bell presented each student with a check and a free Dell laptop to take with them to college.

“We want to recognize some students who often would go unrecognized … we want to make sure that they get the tools necessary to go forward and be successful in life as they go on to their next phase after graduation,” he said. “These students who are the recipients of the scholarship we are going to present today will also have a burden on their shoulders once they graduate from whatever institution they proceed to after high school, to give back to the community and reach out to other individuals who are in need of help, hope and encouragement.”

Police Training, Student Recognition

Tensions began to appear when Bell presented four new recruits to the Birmingham police force. Councilor Lashunda Scales congratulated the recruits and then asked Bell if the proposed budget would include any incentives to keep experienced officers on the police force. Bell responded that the budget does provide for merit-based pay increases for veteran officers.

“We are one of the top training facilities or departments in the state, and yet our folk run to these other outlying municipalities once they’ve been trained by the city, and that’s why that’s important to me,” Scales said. “I will appreciate the day – and I’ve said this to the chief privately and I’ll say it publicly – when we all band together and we have zero tolerance for some of this foolishness in Birmingham.”

After Bell finished his presentations, Scales brought up the Birmingham Board of Education’s program to recognize this year’s valedictorians and salutatorians, which the council approved last week. Scales, who raised similar concerns at that meeting, said that she had been forbidden by the city’s law department from hosting similar events in her own district. She noted that the initiation to the program sent out by the board thanked Bell and his wife for hosting the event and questioned the fairness of allowing the mayor to be credited for the program while she was prohibited from holding similar events to recognize her district’s students.

“Let me be clear, Mr. Mayor: whatever you do as the mayor, I can appreciate it, I don’t have a problem with it. I only have a problem if you stop me from doing the same identical thing, and you use the law,” she said.

Bell said he did not have a reply at that time, but he promised that Scales would be sent a response in writing.

Financial Disclosures

After the council concluded its business on the agenda, it invited speakers from the community to address the body. The first speaker was Williams, vice president of the Outcast Voters League, who announced that last Friday he filed ethics charges against Bell with the Alabama Secretary of State and the state’s Ethics Commission. Williams alleged that Bell’s reelection campaign has failed to file the monthly campaign finance reports that are required by the Fair Campaign Practices Act of Alabama, and asked the council to investigate the matter.

April Odom, Bell’s director of communications, told a reporter in an email to direct questions about the finance reports directly to the campaign.

Williams read the letter that he said he had personally given to John Merrill, the Alabama secretary of state, regarding the allegations.

Frank Matthews, the founder of the Outcast Voter League and former co-director of the Office of Citizens Assistance under Mayor Larry Langford, also stepped up to the podium to castigate the mayor. Matthews announced that he was running to unseat Bell, claiming that Bell had not done enough for the city’s impoverished and accusing him of not working hard enough to have Langford pardoned.

“I ain’t with you this time … and we’re coming, me and the good poor citizens of Birmingham,” Matthews said to applause from his fellow members of the Outcast Voters League.