Compared to his predecessor, Clinton Woods has been a quiet presence on the Birmingham City Council since he took office in January. He was appointed to fill the vacancy left by Lashunda Scales, who resigned in November to join the Jefferson County Commission. Scales defined her role as councilor as that of a vocal advocate for her district, and she rarely missed opportunities to speak at length about items that came before the council. “When you saw me with my mouth in those long meetings, (it was because) my district had been overlooked for a long, long, long time,” she said at her last council meeting.
Woods has yet to deliver any soliloquies from the dais, but he said he has spent considerable time speaking to the constituents in his district, finding out what their priorities and needs are. In his interview with councilors before he was appointed, he lamented “that people have come to city council meetings for entertainment value,” and instead presented himself as someone focused on delivering results.
“I’m not going to sell 100 … things I’m going to do,” he said then. “I want to tell (residents) about three things I know I can do.”
After the Feb. 5 council meeting, Woods spoke with BirminghamWatch about what those priorities are, as well as his stance on the issues facing the council in 2019.
BirminghamWatch: What motivated you to apply to be a city councilor?
Clinton Woods: I really am excited about local government. I think you have an opportunity to make an impact, but still kind of be in that space where that impact’s being made. I live in the district, I grew up in the district, so I know the needs. I get to be in this unique position where I can work to make change but also be there and be a part of it. Sometimes you can get so far away from the people and the things you’re working for that you don’t always have that connection. In a smaller district, you’re able to be there and talk to people. I can stay after one neighborhood meeting and talk to people for an hour because my (district is) so small. I really like the ability to be able to be in the community and connect to the people, but also to work on their behalf and bring some change.
BirminghamWatch: You’ve said that one of your main priorities as councilor is to get a grocery store in your district, which doesn’t currently have one. What does that entail?
Woods: I did do a lot of door-to-door work (before being appointed) and got a lot of feedback from what people wanted in their community … One thing I found out was that people’s feedback was consistent. People wanted just basic city services, when it comes to sidewalks and having roads paved. The grocery store was a big piece for a lot of the district.
Our district is heavily residential, so there’s only a handful of places where you could actually put one. Half of the district has pretty close access to grocery stores, depending on how close they are to Center Point or District 2. But at least a good half of our district does not have decent access to (groceries). So that’s going to be a push. The mayor’s office has expressed that they are placing high priority on that as well, so we’re going to work with them and do what we can to get one in the district.
BirminghamWatch: Another priority you have is increasing student reading levels at schools in your district. You had mentioned working with community partners to bring in third-party educational programs. Could you talk a little about that?
Woods: When we look at our schools and students, it’s pretty clear and consistent that what we’re seeing is about 15 percent of our students reading at grade level. That’s a problem. … What we want to do is partner with third parties and (have them) come in to supplement the schools in a specific way. For elementary schools, that’s reading. We’re really excited — there are some things we’re going to be announcing soon. We really want to go in and implement reading at the lowest level, elementary school, and hopefully that turns into churning out kids reading at grade level, and we’ll be able to see it on a big enough scale to create some data and be able to see, “Where were the reading levels to start with, where do the reading levels end?”
Whatever we invest in, we want to see some clear, empirical data that can be expanded if it works. We want to go into middle schools with a little bit of different programming centered around STEM. There are also some discussions with (addressing) some social and emotional issues, just coming in and talking to kids. I’ve talked to each principal to get a feeling for what would help them. We want to just supplement via third-party programs, and we want to track, see what’s effective, and quickly change it if it’s not.
One thing that I said that we were going to do is be very clear, concise and direct in what we’re working on. Part of that is making sure that residents get their basic city services, but then it’s our students, and then it’s businesses. How can we support the businesses we have while we invite and attract new businesses? Those are just three things. We’re not trying to do 100 things. If we just do those three things well, I think we’re going to have a successful district and happy residents.
BirminghamWatch: You served as campaign chair for Sheriff Mark Pettway, and you were recently named as a member of the council’s public safety committee. What are your plans to increase public safety in Birmingham and in your district?
Woods: What I want to do is just to be supportive of our police chief and our public safety here at the city of Birmingham. They’re bringing in some additional technology that will allow them to know at what level are we patrolling (crime) hotspots. That’s going to give us more data, so we can look back and see if a hotspot is staying a hotspot, then we need to patrol this area more — or we have (been patrolling) and there’s a bigger issue happening.
That is one of the top two issues in the city, because at the end of the day, the schools and public safety are things that people build their decisions around when they’re deciding where to live. People move and leave areas all the time because of concerns with the school systems and public safety. When people are looking at where to go, they want to know that they’re going to an area that’s safe and that their children can get an adequate education. I’m fully supportive of everything we’re doing public safetywise, and I want to see our department grow and become more effective, and we want to help them do that.
BirminghamWatch: One of the major parts of the council’s year is the budgeting process — and while that’s not quite on the agenda yet, there has been discussion about the $5.5 million that Mayor Woodfin’s office has found in projected tax revenue increases. That got a little bit of controversy when it came up before the council last month. What is your take on his proposal for how to spend that money?
Woods: I think the “controversy” might have been overblown. I think the council just didn’t have a lot of information about it, so they pulled it back and are going to gather some additional facts. I saw some things in there that were very important (but) we kind of got it late … I know they’re trying to put a lot of stuff together at one time, and on top of everything else that’s going on. So I think they’re just going to put together some more information. If there are emergency needs in the city, I think we want to make sure it gets done.
This council and this mayor have a good relationship. I think we can continue to work together well and be effective. (But) the information we had was just not enough to vote on $5 million. We have to just make sure we’re doing our due diligence, because that’s our job: to make sure our constituents are getting what’s in their best interest.
BirminghamWatch: Speaking of the relationship between the mayor and the council, there’s been significant discussion, including a resolution passed last month, of rolling back the 2016 changes to the Mayor-Council Act. Where do you stand on that issue?
Woods: I’m in favor of those changes being rolled back, for several reasons. I have a lot of personal concern about how that was passed and why that was passed. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand who had the incentive to do that. Why would anyone need to do that? What it does — and I don’t think people fully understand it — it takes the power away from the people that represent everybody. We’re just here to represent a group of people and make sure that we get what’s in their best interest done.
It’s disappointing because it takes a lot of the council’s power away. And what it creates is, if we one day in the future had a mayor that decided to be a tyrant, the tools are there to do so, because you don’t have to work with the council if you don’t choose to. And so the council doesn’t have the authority to budget. At the end of the day, what gets into the budget — priorities of any city, and business, any organization can be found in the budget.
There are certain things (about the changes) that I don’t mind. I think it’s fair for the mayor to have some appointment power. There’s room to work with the others on those rollbacks, but I think at the end of the day, in order for the council to be as effective as it was originally intended to be, the intention of this mayor-council form of government was adequate checks and balances, and that’s what we’ve lost. That’s the disappointing part. But I’m optimistic that we can work with everybody to get those changes done.
BirminghamWatch: Having been in office for just over a month, what’s been your read on the job and the dynamic of the council and how you fit into it?
Woods: There’s a little bit I didn’t know about the job, but for the most part I had a pretty good understanding of what I was getting myself into. I’m one of those weird people that’s probably watched every council meeting for the last four years. I would just cut it on at night while I was doing other work, but I watched it, because I’ve seen the different battles, the different relationships.
Coming into it, one thing I knew is that nothing up here is personal for me. It’s just not. We’re dealing with things issue by issue. We’re here to do what we individually think is in the best interest of the people we represent. I make a point to get a lot of feedback from my residents. It’s pretty much what I thought it was.
As far as where I fit, I think we have a pretty good dynamic. I’m able to call any other councilor and ask, “What do you think about this? What’s your read on that?” So we have the opportunity to be a strong council because we need to be united, just because of what we talked about with the Mayor-Council Act. We don’t need (a split council) because we have a good group of people that can be professional and do their job and represent their residents. I’m excited about that.