This is the second in a series of interviews BirminghamWatch will be conducting with newly elected city officials.
Birmingham Mayor-elect Randall Woodfin said he is “concerned” with the way his predecessor has run City Hall, and his first order of business when he takes office Nov. 28 will be to assess city finances and staffing to see whether there has been any wrongdoing.
Woodfin defeated incumbent William Bell, who had served as mayor since 2010, by a significant margin in Oct. 3’s runoff election. Woodfin, an attorney and former president of the Birmingham Board of Education, ran on a progressive campaign platform that drew national attention, including endorsements from former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and the national progressive organization Our Revolution.
Throughout his campaign, Woodfin promised, among other things, to conduct a forensic audit on city finances, to provide more support for the city’s neglected neighborhoods and to restore transparency and accountability to City Hall.
Woodfin will take office Nov. 28, just over a month after the City Council — including three newly elected members — is sworn in Oct. 24.
In an interview with BirminghamWatch conducted just after the announcement of his administration’s transition team, Woodfin discussed his expectations for the beginning of his mayorship, his plan to reshape the mayor’s office staff, and his approach to both neighborhood and economic revitalization.
BirminghamWatch: You’ve laid out a list of major priorities for your administration, which includes revitalizing neighborhoods, reducing crime, increasing transparency, investing in businesses and increasing support for education and workforce training. What’s going to be your primary focus as soon as you take office?
Randall Woodfin: We’ve got to do the audit. I know the response is, “Well, they do an audit every year!” OK, cool. Have you ever seen it? No? Then what are we talking about? Think about that for a second.
My concern is, under the current administration, we’ve gone from a deficit to a $67 million increase in revenue. My question is, why haven’t things improved? Or, how about this: The bond money we voted on in October of 2012, five years ago, was $150 million. Five years later, why are we just now paving streets? What has the money been spent on?
If we don’t do an audit, then there is no way we can take a full pulse and assessment of how to move forward in each department. It’s all rightsizing — not just finances and being fiscally accountable and responsible, but also the human capital, the people side of it. I’ve said this, and I’ll commit to saying this: Each department right now is either overstaffed, understaffed or top-heavy. In some departments, we know two of those things exist. The police department is a classic example of understaffed and top-heavy at the same time, which doesn’t make any sense. So, from that standpoint, those are the two immediate things we can do: a full personnel assessment of each department and a financial review of each department.
BirminghamWatch: Do you have any expectations for what a forensic audit will reveal?
Woodfin: Man, I’m hopeful. Hopefully nothing. That means that the shift is then just priorities only. But I have to be pragmatic, too. My legal brain says you want to make sure there’s been no misuse or abuse or misappropriation or misallocation — and I’m using all of these words because they’re intentional. I’m concerned.
BirminghamWatch: You also said during the press conference announcing your transition team that you would do away with nepotism at City Hall.
Woodfin: That’s easy. There are people in the current administration who are kin to the current mayor who have power, discretion around procurement contracts. Not cool. That’s pretty plain language for a mayor, right? Not cool.
At a certain line, this is simple. Campaign dollars aren’t my money. So if campaign dollars aren’t my money, then you know tax dollars are not my money. It’s the people’s money. How are we spending the people’s money? You’ve got to spend it on what’s in their interests.
Here’s the best example of abuse. I’m just going to flat-out say it. The legal department has close to 24, 25 lawyers. The current administration has shelled out contracts to outside lawyers and law firms like it’s nothing. First of all, what does that do to the morale of the department? But a lawyer outside of the legal department should, in my opinion — and I think my opinion is backed up by a lot of people who practice in the space of ethics reform — if it’s not complex litigation or conflict of interest, then it shouldn’t be outsourced. Now you’ve gotten into a hookup culture. Come on. That is a classic example of abuse of tax dollars … . Why didn’t you just bring in in-house council? We’ve got 25 lawyers up there! What are you outsourcing legal work for? That’s a very serious question I have.
BirminghamWatch: The relationship between the mayor and the council has been fraught for years, to say the least. You’ll be working with many of the same council members that clashed with Bell, as well as three new councilors. Are you anticipating a more cooperative environment?
Woodfin: Yeah. Let me tell you why it’s going to be cooperative. As mayor, I’m going to extend the olive branch. I have to make recommendations to them, OK? The 10 of us are adults. I have to be intentional and committed to having a relationship with them individually and collectively as a body. We represent the same people.
We have to move beyond this notion of issues in a certain City Council district being held hostage and hurting the residents because the mayor and the councilor for that district refuse to get along. Last time I checked, we represented the same people. So my commitment to the residents of this city is to work with their representative, because nothing moves without them. That’s a mindset.
BirminghamWatch: Which of your administration’s priorities do you think will be the most challenging to implement?
Woodfin: Some of it’s going to be so bold. We’ve got to look at how we do business and give out contracts. We’re getting some pushback on that, because I believe that participation from minority- and women-owned business needs a harder look. It’s extremely important.
I’d say our biggest pushback is going to be in economic development, because how I’m looking at, for me, it’s (about) what’s working for the best interests of the people that live in this city. The Woodfin plan is extremely pragmatic. For me, it’s not really about what’s going to get pushback — it’s how long it’s going to take.
We’ve seen within the last 12 months a grocery store opened up downtown and one break ground on Lakeshore. Look at all the other ZIP codes where there’s a food apartheid, a food desert. Where’s our same sense of urgency to get that done? That’s my commitment; that has to happen. Nobody else is going to do it.
BirminghamWatch: That issue of downtown development versus neighborhood revitalization became one of the campaign’s biggest issues.
Woodfin: You do both. It’s not one (neighborhood) versus 98. It’s not downtown versus the rest of the city. It is being intentional about both. If you’re offering incentives to attract businesses to your downtown corridor, offer the same type of incentives to attract people to your commercial corridors west, north and east of town. That’s not rocket science. Just do both!
BirminghamWatch: One quote that arguably summed up the previous administration’s approach to that was William Bell describing downtown as a “living room” you have to keep nice “when company comes,” but that neighborhoods are “that one room in the back of the house … that you don’t want anyone to see.”
Woodfin: That is an awful analogy. Do you understand why? “Cleaning up the living room” is all about attracting people to your house. So you’re forgetting people that live there. You know what that mentality says? We tapped into something where people said, “I want a mayor that’s concerned about my issues and needs.” The more you talk about the “living room,” the more you forget that there are bedrooms and a kitchen and a dining room and bathrooms and a backyard and a front yard and a driveway that people have to live in and play in, work in, eat in, sleep in … . Don’t forget to take care of the people that already live here.
Again, you do both. You do what’s necessary to attract people to your city because you want it to grow. But at the exact same time, you do what’s necessary for the people that live here so they won’t leave … . We’ve got a leaving problem! We don’t have a coming-in problem! That means we’re not taking care of the people that live here.
BirminghamWatch: There’s been a lot of discussion of bringing in big-box companies like Amazon to Birmingham, but there’s also the issue of incentivizing the growth of small businesses. Do you have a plan for that?
Woodfin: I’ll acknowledge William Bell’s strength. He’s really good at building rapport and relationships over the last seven years with big businesses and corporations. I will continue that. But at the exact same time, I’ll acknowledge that, out of the city of Birmingham’s $428 million budget, two-thirds of it, 67 percent, is on the backs and strengths of small businesses. Thirty-two percent is sales tax. Eighteen percent is business licenses. Seventeen percent is occupational tax. Where do you think the majority of that is coming from? From small businesses.
So their interaction with city hall — opening their businesses, expanding their businesses, getting a business license, the permitting process — we have to change it. I am now the biggest cheerleader and champion of small business owners in this city. I’ve got to take care of them because I’m depending on them! How am I going to pave roads without them? How am I going to fix potholes, repair lights, invest in libraries, parks and rec centers, provide for public safety, public works … . If I just told you two-thirds of the city’s revenue comes from small business, I don’t have a choice but to take care of them! It’s not negotiable. Take care of them.
BirminghamWatch: When I talked to Darrell O’Quinn, the new councilor for District 5, he spoke about a disconnect between the neighborhood associations and city government — that there’s not a strong line of communication or education regarding resources the city can provide. Do you have a plan for addressing that?
Woodfin: I do. For me, it starts with picking up the phone. Here’s the deal: between 311 (the city’s citizen call center), the Mayor’s Office of Citizen Assistance and all these other different departments, you have to restructure the interface of them in service and support. Neighborhood leaders — you’ve got to empower these folks.
How should Neighborhood Watch look in your neighborhood? If we know the murders are too high in Gate City and Central Park West — those are the top two neighborhoods for the last four years for murder rates — what are we doing? Attaching and empowering neighborhood leaders and residents is extremely important, and they go together. You aren’t going to empower neighborhood presidents without empowering residents at the same time.
But at the exact same time, when’s the last time you’ve been at Railroad Park? How many police officers do you see on foot? A lot. What I’m saying is, that’s an asset that they’re protecting. We need to treat our neighborhoods the same way. Why don’t we have foot patrol in some of our highest-crime areas?