This is the first in a series of interviews BirminghamWatch will be conducting with newly elected city officials.
Accessibility and accountability are the main priorities for newly elected Birmingham City Councilor Darrell O’Quinn.
In a close runoff election, O’Quinn unseated current District 5 Councilor Johnathan Austin, who also has been council president. After taking office Oct. 24, O’Quinn plans to immediately start working on ways to engage and educate communities on the resources municipal government can provide, he said.
O’Quinn is part of a wave of new leadership headed to City Hall after the Oct. 3 runoff election. Also part of that crew is Mayor-elect Randall Woodfin and new councilors Hunter Williams, from District 2, and John Hilliard, from District 9. Despite his neophyte status in city government, O’Quinn has been heavily involved in Birmingham on the community level since moving to the city in 2001. Most notably, he currently serves as president of both the Citizens Advisory Board and the Crestwood North Neighborhood Association.
That experience has allowed him to see where communities and neighborhoods have been underserved by Birmingham’s city government, he said.
“I’m sorry to say that the bar has been so low that for me to step in and make a significant difference is pretty damn easy,” O’Quinn said.
Recently, O’Quinn spoke to BirminghamWatch about his early priorities as councilor, his plans to address Birmingham’s economic stagnation and his expectations from the new power dynamic at City Hall.
BirminghamWatch: You’re slated to be sworn in Oct. 24. What’s the issue you’re hoping to start working on as soon as you get into office?
Darrell O’Quinn: Probably the core focus for me is using the influence of the council office to do community organizing at a very basic level. I think that there are a lot of easily accessible resources that most of my constituents had no idea existed, things that people (invested in city government) see and talk about all the time but that a large portion of our population has no idea exists.
Things like the land bank authority. (The authority has the power to acquire properties on which taxes have not been paid and either redevelop the land or grant it to interested residents.) When we were going around knocking on doors, we met people who were prime candidates to participate and had no idea. I remember going to a lady’s house in Wauhoma, and she had been taking care of the vacant lot next door to her house for several years, keeping the grass cut and everything. She was talking about how she was interested in acquiring the property … . I mentioned the land bank authority, and she was like, “I don’t know anything about that.” … So I feel like there’s some very, very low-hanging fruit that we can accomplish just by simply going out into the community and educating people about things like that.
Another resource that I have found useful over the years as a neighborhood officer is the city of Birmingham’s GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping website. I feel like every neighborhood officer in the city of Birmingham should have an in-depth training course on how to use the GIS mapping system, because there’s just so much information on there about zoning for schools, where the voting precincts are. You can go down to the level of identifying where the fire hydrants are in your neighborhood, or water mains. There’s just so much good information that people can put together and utilize without ever having to go through the trouble of calling somebody at city hall and asking for that information. They can just go and get it themselves.
Those are the types of things that I’m focused on going and doing immediately. But then, going beyond that, using the influence of the City Council office to actually talk to the various stakeholders in each of the communities throughout District 5 — nonprofit organizations, business owners, other institutions along with the residents — identifying those people, inviting them to come together to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, identifying what assets are in the community, what the weaknesses are, and identifying how to put all of those things together in a coherent and cohesive way, and get everybody focused on a unified goal.
Every neighborhood that I’ve ever been in, regardless of whether or not it’s in my district, there are residents in every one of those neighborhoods who care deeply about where they live and are willing to put in sweat equity into improving their communities. The things that’s often held them back is some sort of critical mass of leadership getting those folks organized and connected to the resources that they need to actually be effective.
BirminghamWatch: Prioritizing community organizing on that level seems closely tied to your history of civic experience, particularly as president of both the Citizens Advisory Board and the Crestwood North Neighborhood Association. During your time in those positions, what issues have you seen on the neighborhood level that have gone unaddressed by the city?
O’Quinn: One thing that really opened my eyes — and I know that there are a lot of folks out there who don’t like the fact that a lot of neighborhood officers go to the Neighborhoods USA Conference every year — but I’ve been three years in a row, and I can remember the first time that I went there, going to these workshops and seeing city government representatives from all of these cities across the nation that were actually trying to deliver programs to the neighborhoods in their city. I was really impressed by that.
The way things have typically worked with neighborhood associations in the city of Birmingham is that neighborhood associations get a little bit of funding from the city budget each year, and most neighborhoods have a small pot of funds that they can utilize for short-term projects. They’re often used for annual get-to-know-your-neighbor days and that type of thing. But there’s been very little coming from city hall to the neighborhood associations to say, “Here is something that you can do with those funds that has been demonstrated to have significantly beneficial impact in other places.” Neighborhood associations here are largely operating on their own.
My experience has been that my neighborhood, Crestwood North, our neighborhood association has been effective and thrived because we have people like myself who are well-educated, energetic, creative and committed to making a difference, but that is the exception for most Birmingham neighborhoods. In a lot of neighborhoods, the leadership have been around for a long time. They’re not tied into internet resources. A lot of them don’t even use email, and they may not have a lot of residents that participate in meetings. They don’t have good means of communicating with the rest of the residents in their neighborhood, so it’s very difficult for them to be effective without some significant amount of help — and that help has just not been present.
That’s a need I want to utilize the authority of the council office to fulfill. It’s not an official responsibility as outlined by the Mayor-Council Act, but it’s an opportunity where I can go into each of the communities throughout my district and have a real impact. And I’m sorry to say that the bar has been so low that for me to step in and make a significant difference is pretty damn easy.
BirminghamWatch: One major issue you brought up in your campaign was improving the city government’s transparency. How do you hope to accomplish that?
O’Quinn: Part of it is just going to be me being accessible to people. It may take me a while to figure that out, but at the very rudimentary level, it’s about me picking up the phone when people call. That’s not going to be possible, of course, for every single person who wants to give me a call, but I’m very much committed to being accessible: showing up to community meetings and neighborhood meetings and speaking with people face-to-face and telling them firsthand what’s going on.
There are ways through technology to also be more transparent. During the election, I applauded Mayor Bell for creating the open data portal on the city of Birmingham website. Even though it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the information that’s there, it’s a step in the right direction. But there’s a lot more that could be done in that regard to make what’s happening, especially with finances, to make that easier to interpret for people that visit that website.
BirminghamWatch: During the campaign, you also characterized Birmingham’s slow job growth as an “existential threat for our region.” You’ve mentioned workforce training initiatives as a way city government can address this. What does that look like in practical terms?
O’Quinn: I recently had the opportunity to attend a Central Six AlabamaWorks meeting at the Alabama Workforce Training Center in Avondale. They have a training program there for advanced manufacturing. That is completely funded by industry. What they’re doing there is bringing in young folks — I believe they have some juniors and seniors that are coming in after school — and they’re training them on the basic skills that they need for certification to get entry-level positions at some of these advanced manufacturing businesses. That is a great example of what’s possible.
At a higher level, the recent study by PARCA for the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham indicating that projected job growth for the region was not even 1 percent over the next 10, 15 years, that should be setting off alarm bells for everyone, because our regional competitor cities are doing much better than that, as illustrated in that study. I see that as an existential crisis for our metro region. I’m not just talking the city of Birmingham; I’m talking Hoover, Vestavia, Mountain Brook, Fultondale, Gardendale, all of the municipalities in the seven-county metro area.
Part of addressing that issue is creating a resource that employers are attracted to — namely, folks who are ready to go to work. That’s a complicated issue and one that’s very difficult to solve, and it involves all of our education systems. It’s something that’s probably going to take us a long time to dig ourselves out of, but certainly what the Alabama Workforce Training Center and Central Six are doing are important and significant steps in the right direction.
BirminghamWatch: Small businesses are also essential to a city’s economic growth. How do you plan to make Birmingham more amenable to them?
O’Quinn: Small business is probably one of the sectors where we have the most opportunity for growth. I’m talking companies of 10 employees or less, mom-and-pop operations where they don’t necessarily need a tremendous amount of incentive in order to get started, but they do need access to some resources to get their business idea off the ground.
We often see large corporations that bring in hundreds of jobs get big tax breaks and that sort of thing. But I think that the small business sector actually has the capacity to grow jobs a lot faster than the effort that’s required to bring in those large employers. We’re always going to need plumbers and electricians and carpenters and folks who are essential to maintaining our neighborhoods and making our city function. There are lots of opportunities out there, and it’s just a matter of helping people realize where the opportunities are and helping them think through their business ideas and then access the resources that they need to get their business started.
One of the good examples in town that’s being successful is REV’s CO.STARTERS program, where entrepreneurs come in, they go through an extended set of coursework and really refine their business idea, and come out with a business plan that is well-vetted. They can take that to a financial institution and demonstrate a clear path to creating revenue using that model and be able to convince that lender to give them a loan to get them started. If we had more opportunity for folks to engage in those types of entrepreneurial development programs, then we can see a significant growth in the number of small businesses and thus jobs that are created through those small businesses.
BirminghamWatch: Under the past administration, the relationship between the mayor’s office and the City Council has been strained, sometimes to the point of deadlock. Now that voters have selected a new mayor and three new council members, are you optimistic that this relationship will improve?
O’Quinn: I am optimistic. On both sides, folks realize that there is an opportunity for some dramatic change. I know from following Mayor-elect Woodfin’s campaign that he has said he is very committed to having a healthy relationship with the council and improving communication — and not just between the council president and the mayor’s office, but relationships with each councilor. I’m confident that we’ll see things develop in that direction and that, as a result, there will be fewer occasions for there to be media reports about the controversy between the mayor and the council’s office. Not that that’s not going to happen at some point, but I feel like at least initially, we’re going to get off on the right foot.
BirminghamWatch: One sticking point between the mayor and the council has been the FY 2018 budget, which still hasn’t been passed and likely won’t pass before you take office. What do you expect to happen on that front?
O’Quinn: Generally, with this proposed budget that we have, I am not too optimistic that we will have that worked out anytime soon. Over the next two weeks, you’ve got the current mayor and the current council. Even if the current mayor felt like he wanted to try and go ahead and get the proposed budget approved, the current council is in a position of saying, “Well, if we hold out a couple of weeks, we’ve got three new people coming on, and maybe we can get a better deal, especially if we hold out until the new mayor comes on.”
It’s not clear to me that there’s a lot of incentive for getting the proposed budget approved anytime before Mayor-elect Woodfin comes into office. It may be December before we have a budget, and it may be later than that. In the meantime, everything that was funded in the previous operating budget is continuing to be funded at its previously set levels — but any new programs that were proposed in the new budget, those are the things that are not being funded currently.
BirminghamWatch: Finally, which of your policy goals do you anticipate being the biggest challenge to accomplish?
O’Quinn: Birmingham has a lot of issues that it’s dealing with just because of its legacy. In particular, and I’m sure this is also the case in other districts, but I know in District 5, there’s a tremendous gap in opportunity. In District 5, we have six public housing communities, and we also have folks who are living in million-dollar lofts at the tops of skyscrapers downtown.
That gap in opportunity is a generational issue that will be impossible for us to dig ourselves out of anytime soon. It’s just going to be something that our city has to be committed to as a whole, to changing over the course of the next generation. But those things don’t change overnight. And the reason that those disparities exist are because they were intentionally created. They are systems that have been in place for a long time, and it will take a similar amount of time to rid ourselves of those things.