Nov. 1, 2017 — The Birmingham City Council drew criticism Wednesday after a committee meeting to discuss city finances was not streamed live on Facebook as advertised.
The entirety of the Committee of the Whole meeting — which was attended by all councilors except Steven Hoyt — was dedicated to a presentation by Director of Finance Tom Barnett that summarized the state of the city’s finances. It was not, as had been stated at Tuesday’s council meeting, a meeting to discuss specifics of the FY 2018 budget, which remains unpassed.
The council had advertised that the meeting would be live-streamed, but Barnett requested shortly beforehand that the meeting not be broadcast on Facebook. After the meeting, Barnett said he had requested this because he wanted the meeting to be “a casual conversation” between the finance department and the council, where they could be “free to speak their mind.”
The meeting was still open to the public.
Still, the lack of a live stream drew criticism on the council’s Facebook page from those who had hoped to tune in. Former City Council President Johnathan Austin — who left office last Tuesday after losing the Oct. 3 runoff election — wrote on Facebook that the perceived lack of transparency was “unfortunate.”
“Apparently, there was a conscious effort today to suppress the dissemination of information to the general public to keep us in the dark when it comes to our money,” he wrote. “I sincerely hope that this is an isolated incident and that the new mayor will not support this behavior moving forward.”
At the meeting, Barnett warned councilors that the presentation would be “dry” and told them they could take a break midway through, if needed.
Much of the meeting appeared geared to educate the council’s three new members — Hunter Williams, Darrell O’Quinn and John Hilliard — about the mechanics by which the city’s finances work. Barnett fielded councilors’ questions about pensions — he described unfunded pension liability as “our most significant financial problem” — and even discussed plans for developing the FY 2019 budget next year. Barnett said he planned to start working with Mayor-elect Randall Woodfin’s administration in January or February to start developing the budget, and he hoped the process would have “a lot more input from everybody a lot earlier in the process, so we’re not trying to change something in June.”
Barnett repeatedly assured councilors that the information provided in his presentation — which included facts about the city’s credit, reserves, debts and more — were publicly available through the Open Data portal on the city’s website.