Birmingham City Council

Mayor-Council Act, Which Tilted Power Toward Mayor, Still Under Fire 7 Years After Adoption

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin stands before the City Council. (Source: Council Facebook livestream)

The Birmingham City Council approved Mayor Randall Woodfin’s proposed budget for the 2024 fiscal year last week. It was the culmination of the city’s most contentious budgeting process in years. Since Woodfin took office in 2017, almost all of his budgets have passed without any alterations from the council, thanks mostly to state legislation from 2016 that took away their ability to do so.

The Mayor-Council Act is the state law governing the separation of powers between the branches of Birmingham’s municipal government, but some argue that changes to the bill approved the year before Woodfin took office have shifted that balance of power too heavily toward the executive.

The 2016 changes to the Mayor-Council Act were spearheaded in the state Legislature by Rep. Oliver Robinson, who would plead guilty the following year to numerous unrelated charges of bribery and corruption. The changes were based on a “wish list” provided to Robinson by then-Mayor William Bell, and they transferred budgeting and appointment powers from the council to the mayor’s office. Robinson would later claim that he brought the Mayor-Council Act “into the 21st century.”

That included giving the mayor the power to appoint two seats each on the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority Board and the Park and Recreation Board, both of which had previously been under the council’s full purview. The changes also split appointment power over several other boards between the council and the mayor — including the municipal planning commission, the industrial development board, the airport authority, the construction industry authority and the commercial development authority, among others — with the council appointing a simple majority of members and the mayor appointing the rest.

The changes also reduced the terms of the council president and president pro tempore from four years to two and prevented councilors from holding seats on any other city board or commission.

But the one 2016 change that still manages to generate controversy almost annually is the stripping of the council’s ability to change the mayor’s budget. Before, the council could make changes to the proposed budget unilaterally; now, any alteration needs written approval from the mayor’s office. That leaves the council with a single, binary point of leverage: they can vote the proposed budget up or down.

Birmingham City Councilor Valerie Abbott, and Councilor Darrell O’Quinn (Source: Council’s Facebook livestream)

This year, three councilors publicly threatened to vote against Woodfin’s proposed budget because it didn’t include funding for code enforcement. “I don’t even want to approve this budget because it’s not addressing the things that we complained about over and over and over,” said District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott during a June 21 committee meeting. “We just keep complaining and nobody listens.”

Woodfin eventually acquiesced, moving nearly half a million dollars earmarked for street paving to create six new code enforcement positions, and the council approved the budget.

“He Changed His Mind on That”

But one successful compromise doesn’t mean that misgivings about the mayor-council power balance have gone away.

In an interview with 1819 News before passage of the budget, District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams argued that the 2016 Mayor-Council Act changes had created “a little king in Birmingham.” He wasn’t referring specifically to Woodfin but to the office of the mayor in general.

“(Woodfin) wants to make the council happy, and he does that of his own free will or attempts to, but the problem is, he’s not always going to be the mayor, and there are times when (the council doesn’t) see eye-to-eye with this mayor,” Williams said. “All we have is the mayor’s budget … It’s whatever he wants, and the budget is whatever he gets. If the mayor (doesn’t) want it, he ain’t going to agree to it in writing, right?”

Williams thanked Woodfin “for how willing you are to engage us and how you are willing to find priorities of this council,” before voting in favor of the amended budget on June 27.

But one specific critique he lobbed at the mayor in his 1819 News interview remained unaddressed: “One thing the mayor ran on in his first term was changing the Mayor-Council Act to its (original) form, then when he got in office, he said he changed his mind on that.”

During his 2017 campaign for mayor, Woodfin was critical of the changes. “If the mayor worked with the council, he would have told those legislators, don’t pass this bill because it will hurt the council-mayor relationship worse than what it is,” he said in an August 2017 debate. “But he (Bell) supported it, because he wanted the power taken away from them when he can’t get his way. You can’t bully City Council people and then expect them to work with you.”

But once he took office, his critiques of the 2016 changes faded away. “I guess he’s saying, ‘Well, I didn’t create the monster. Bell is the one who did it, but I ain’t got no problems with it,” said then-District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt in December 2018. “I’m not suggesting that he’s doing anything wrong; I’m just saying that it appears he’s fine with the status quo.”

Woodfin’s office has repeatedly ignored requests for comment on the matter.