This is the fourth in a series of interviews BirminghamWatch conducted with newly elected city officials.
John Hilliard might become the Birmingham city councilor for District 9 when he is sworn into office Tuesday, but he wants his constituents to understand that they share responsibility for improving their district.
He speaks of himself as a facilitator — someone who will bring together various groups in his community to plot out solutions to the issues of crime, economic stagnation and blight facing their neighborhoods.
Hilliard was a member of the Alabama House of Representatives from 1993 to 2003, when he was defeated by Birmingham District 9 Councilor Linda Coleman, who now is a state senator. Fourteen years later, he’s preparing to take on Coleman’s old council seat, which he won by a narrow margin during an Oct. 3 runoff election against former Council President Roderick Royal.
Hilliard’s immediate predecessor, Marcus Lundy, announced in May that he would not seek reelection to a second term.
On the Wednesday morning just six days before his inauguration, Hilliard found himself swarmed by phone calls and scheduled meetings — the result, he said, of a “firestorm” of a transition process. Speaking with BirminghamWatch, he described his plans after he takes office, his goals for economic revitalization, and the importance of millennial involvement in urban communities.
BirminghamWatch: You seem incredibly busy for someone who hasn’t even taken office yet.
John Hilliard: You win an election and you think, “I’m going to get a break for a minute or two.” Man, it has been a firestorm. I’m like, “I don’t get sworn in until the 24th! He’s still the councilman.” But they don’t see it like that. They’re trying to see who the next president of the council’s going to be. And trust me, it’s interesting, because everybody wants to know (my vote). But when you’re new, like me, you want to come in and get to know everybody. You’ve got to listen and see what the best situation is.
I tell people, “I appreciate you contributing and helping with my race. But by no means does that influence my vote, because at the end of the day, I have to do what’s best for the district, what’s best for the city, and what’s best for me.” Once we get that order in line, you’ve got to build some level of trust.
But you’ve got nine people, and six out of the nine (are contending for council president). The only people that don’t want to be president are the three people that just got elected. (The other six) are all jockeying for it. So I’m at the point now, I just have to try to listen. And then you’ve got all these other folks trying to come talk to you.
BirminghamWatch: You’re in a unique position among the newly elected councilors because you didn’t run against your district’s outgoing councilor, Marcus Lundy. What has that transition been like?
Hilliard: Councilman Lundy has done an awesome job, especially in the transition process. He did an official transition gathering, where we brought together all of the neighborhood presidents and community leaders and officially handed over all the projects that they have been working on, what had not been completed and where they were, which I think is very good for my staff to have. Prior to his meeting, I’d already talked to all the neighborhood presidents independently, but that really helped. But he’s even offered the knowledge that he does have even after I take office. His intellect and knowledge, because he’s a banker, he understands the process, and I think that he would be very good for me to keep in contact with and add to that roundtable of people who I think could give advice. So I look forward to working with him.
BirminghamWatch: Engagement with neighborhoods — making sure that they’re involved and educated about what resources the city can provide — was a central issue during this year’s elections. Do you have a plan to improve the line of communication between the city government and neighborhood associations?
Hilliard: Absolutely. The only reason I’m here right now talking to you as a councilman-elect is that I engaged the neighborhoods. I took it to them during the election, and I talked about the Land Bank Authority. I talked about the vacant lots, the empty homes … . I talked about how unfortunate it is when you drive through a district and can see the blight that you see now. I talked about how we need to revitalize and reinvest, and not necessarily depend on our corporate community or the city to do that.
That should happen, but it should be an assistance process. The community people up front can take ownership, and then do like we do when we’re funding major projects downtown and around town. They come to us with a plan that they’ve already developed, and then they ask for assistance. Well, we should do the same in the communities. We should get together as a community, decide what we’re going to do, and then ask for assistance and resources once we’ve got it going. Going door to door and talking to people — people wanted to be engaged. That’s going to be my whole walk, from now until the end of the four years. Yes, four years from now, I’ll start an election. But guess what? I will have been campaigning and talking to people one-on-one all the time. That’s what I plan on doing.
BirminghamWatch: One major part of your campaign was community policing — making sure that each neighborhood had its own officers. What’s your plan for implementing that?
Hilliard: First of all, let’s talk about what I understand the problem is. Birmingham has not been able to retain police officers. We train them, and someone else comes along and gets them and pays them more money. We know that’s the number-one problem. Mayor Bell was trying to work on a program with the Legislature to bring retired policemen back to help with the problem of vacant police in the community. It’s going to take getting with Mayor-elect (Randall) Woodfin, and I look forward to working with him on that. That’s a problem we’ve got to solve.
Now, people feel more comfortable when they see people they know. People we went to school with, we grew up with, went to college with, we feel comfortable around them. If we could recruit people from the community to be the police, number one, they’re going to know everybody, and number two, it’s just going to create good camaraderie. On the other hand, we’re not able to retain them when you’ve got people from New York and Memphis coming here and holding job training seminars in Birmingham. You present a man or woman an opportunity to up their income or get a good retirement, they’re not going to stay here! It’s incumbent upon me and you as citizens of Birmingham to find out how we’re going to solve this problem.
BirminghamWatch: The city’s campaign to attract Amazon has attracted a lot of attention in recent weeks, and there’s been discussion about how Birmingham can make itself more amenable to business, both small and large. How do you hope to do that?
Hilliard: If we don’t have a good economy, you can’t raise a family around here. So what we have got to do, we have got to find a way to change the economic impact. We need an Amazon, man. We need a tax base, you know what I’m saying? Our state has got to come to grips with that. We have got to find a way to increase revenue in the state of Alabama as well, or we’re going to continue to be left out. Not just Birmingham.
We’re going to have to change the way we do business. Small businesses have always been an innovator of the American economy. What we have to do is what we’ve done in the downtown area in our communities. We’ve got to push small businesses more. It’s just not one thing to live in a neighborhood. Imagine if you were in a neighborhood where you had a restaurant in the neighborhood, where people lived upstairs and the bottom half of their home was a restaurant. Rather than having a commercial zone, where you’ve got to go outside (the neighborhood) to have a daycare center, have one in the neighborhood! Now you’ve got people living in the neighborhood and working in the neighborhood.
I love to use (the example of) Mt Laurel. Down Highway 280, past Greystone, there’s a place called Mt. Laurel. It’s a community where they have a bar in the neighborhood, they have a restaurant in the neighborhood, they have a dental office in the neighborhood. People walk there. So guess what? When you get home in the evening, you can walk to the neighborhood bar. You can walk to the neighborhood dentist. And you’re solving a lot. Because kids now see people in their community that now are professionals. They don’t have to wonder what it’s like. They can see a doctor’s office down the street. So that’s what we have to do. We have to rethink the way we’re living. Everywhere can be like downtown. Pratt City, Ensley, Wylam, North Birmingham — everywhere could be like that.
BirminghamWatch: But how do you plan to use your role as a councilor to facilitate that?
Hilliard: In my district, in District 9, we need more homes built. We need affordable homes built. Well, those developers that are coming in, they’re going to need incentives from the city. They’re going to tax credits, zoning changes … . So what we’ve got to do is bring them together. I’m working on some stuff like that now, developing some of the land that’s in the area, getting with some of the churches, some of the businesses. I plan on having a project that I’m not going to put out there now because I don’t want everybody jumping over themselves to do it. But I want to bring all of my business community together, all of my church community together, and let’s come up with a plan on how we’re going to enact the next four years and beyond.
BirminghamWatch: Housing has been a major focus for Councilor Lundy over the past few months. He’s expressed frustration with the speed of development in the Enon Ridge neighborhood, for example, especially when compared with the speed of development in other districts.
Hilliard: I’ve talked to him about that. I’ve talked to him about some housing projects. You’ve got BEAT (Bethel-Ensley Action Task) that’s in the area. You’ve got a couple of others. I plan on engaging all of them, and I’m going to do everything I can to speed it up and work through the process. I’m really hopeful, with the new mayor coming in. I talked to Mayor-elect Woodfin, and he said to me that he wanted to work for all of the districts, and he said he wanted us to get together and be successful. Well, I want him to be successful.
BirminghamWatch: Another major part of your campaign was making sure that minority-owned businesses were fairly represented when it comes to city contracts. Is that something you feel that the city could improve upon?
Hilliard: I do see a path to improvement. Absolutely, I do. We need to be more open-minded on that. I will be working along with corporations and companies and businesses that want to do business in the area.
Now, I’m for everybody making money, and I don’t believe that you should give people a handout and they not work for that area. So what you will find in me, is I will be fair. Now, I may not approach it by yelling and screaming and hollering at somebody. That’s just not my tactic. My tactic is to see what the plan is and to have people included. All I want is inclusion. Now, if I have to beg for inclusion, and you want us to give you some incentives, that’s a different story. I’m not going to help you and continue to help you if you don’t show a willingness to make changes.
BirminghamWatch: The new council will be sworn in Oct. 24. What do you see as your first priority upon taking office?
Hilliard: We do have a problem with crime in the area. Wylam is a high-crime area in Ensley. It’s been focused on in the media a lot. I’d like to see what the mayor’s going to do with our police department and work more with them to help find a way. I really want to get into the heart of the crime areas and start coming up with some solution on that. That would mean a lot to me.
And then I would like to turn around and work on economic development. I want to work on incentives that will help businesses come back to the area and promote entrepreneurship among other folks. Business is not going to come to us. We need to create businesses. So I want to put together some conferences and stuff on that, which you’ll be hearing more about down the road. Getting developers to come and build more homes and bring more people back — I think that would be one of the largest things.
First of all, day one, I want to bring people together. We’ve got to come up with a plan. That’s going to be my number one thing, to bring all of the businesses together, bring all of the neighborhood presidents together, then bring the community together, and address each one of these issues and come up with a plan. I want them just as engaged as me. I may be the councilman-elect, and I may become the councilman on Tuesday, but I’ve told everybody, it’s your responsibility, too! If you’re a citizen and you’re not involved with your neighborhood association, if you’re not coming to any of these meetings to put together plans, you’re not helping. I mean, I’m one person. All of us have to play a role. We need you! You go to a neighborhood meeting, there’s four or five people in there! And it’s the same people from the last 40 years.
My whole thing is to get more young people and millennials involved in the urban community and make change. That’s the only way it’s going to happen. My staff is going to be young. I tell them, there’s opportunity in Birmingham. There are communities you could move into and make a difference. And that’s what I see.
BirminghamWatch: In recent years, the relationship between the mayor and the council has been strained. With the new administration, and the new configuration of the council, are you optimistic that relationship will improve?
Hilliard: I believe that the citizens have spoken. In this last election, we lost the council president and the mayor. They have spoken, and they want change. I intend on working as hard as I possibly can to make sure that we get a good cohesiveness up there. I feel like anything is possible. I’m not going to rule it out, and I think I’m going to be a part of helping to make that change. I want to work with all of the council members, every last one of them. And the mayor-elect said he wanted everybody to win. So in saying that, man, I’m ready to go for it. I’m already in it! I want to make a difference.
BirminghamWatch: What do you see as the biggest challenge ahead for you as councilor?
Hilliard: Four years is not a long time, dude. It’s a short period of time to talk about bringing down crime, bringing in a whole bunch of housing. I’d like to have gotten started and being really into something in four years. I would like to have hit all of those areas — public safety, community development, and bringing in more homes. I’d like to be able to point to people who didn’t own homes when I (took office) that own them now. I’d like to be able to create more mentoring programs.
You have to keep a perspective, too, on the personal end, because even though public service is demanding, it doesn’t pay. I have to work. So now I’m having to learn how to adjust to this new situation and still have to work for a living. They tried before I got there to give council members a raise. That way they could have had full-time council people rather than part-time. But of course, the state didn’t agree with that, so they limited to that. I have to realize, four years from now, I’ll be 60. I can’t go out of here without having my life straight.
So I’m working to balance that. That’s why I’m bringing these young people onboard. They’ll be full-time. I’m part-time! They’ll be paid more money than I’m getting paid. I’m fine with that, it’s what I bargained for, but I’ve got to keep a perspective on it.