This is the third in a series of interviews BirminghamWatch will be conducting with newly elected city officials.
New District 2 Birmingham City Councilor Hunter Williams is all about coordination — with neighborhoods, with the mayor’s office, with local businesses and utilities — and making sure those perspectives are represented when considering solutions to Birmingham’s issues.
Williams defeated his incumbent opponent, Kim Abbott, née Rafferty, with the largest margin of victory in any of the Oct. 3 runoffs – 71.43 percent to 28.57 percent. Williams attributes his victory to voters’ frustration with a lack of growth in District 2.
“It became apparent that the district was becoming somewhat stagnant in terms of growth,” he said. “And I mean not only economically. Our infrastructure was not being taken care of specifically in our district. It was very hard to see any sort of progression.”
During his term as councilor, Williams hopes to restart that growth. His plan involves placing focus on existing District 2 features such as Ruffner Mountain and Banks High School, and making sure that infrastructure repairs and community policing both take into account the specific needs of their communities.
BirminghamWatch: During the campaign, you brought up issues with the way city money is budgeted, particularly in terms of infrastructure funding and what you saw as wasteful spending at City Hall. It’s likely that the FY 2018 budget will not be passed until after you take office. What are your thoughts on the proposed budget as it stands?
Hunter Williams: I would be very surprised if it was passed before the new council’s sworn in. I have looked at it throughout my campaign. I would like to see some changes in the budget, and the only problem with looking at the budget is, without being able to talk to either the mayor or the director of finance, it’s really hard to say (what you would change).
Obviously, a glaring thing when I looked through the budget is the approved expenses. Administrative expenses in the form of travel are always something that I hope that we can (cut). We have to travel some as a city, but we don’t have to travel to the extent that we have been. There are some expenditures that I question as potentially wasteful, and I’m not going to comment specifically on what they are only because I haven’t had the chance to ask, “Why was this done?” There might be a reason that’s legitimate.
But I do think that we need to curb some of the wasteful spending. I think that Randall Woodfin ran on that as a campaign promise, and I want him and the council’s office — all nine councilors, including myself — to work together to make sure that of our $428 million proposed budget — or whatever it might be after our business license taxes come in — that we spend the taxpayers’ money as efficiently as possible. I do think that there is waste that we can find and cut out and reappropriate that money.
One thing that has really bothered me about the budget over the past several years is the amount of money that goes toward infrastructure maintenance. With an almost half-a-billion-dollar budget, we should be budgeting for infrastructure maintenance every single year, and the citizens in all 99 neighborhoods should see at least one street repaved or resurfaced in their neighborhood every single year. It’s always been a point of concern to me that we really do not budget enough for infrastructure.
BirminghamWatch: The need for a comprehensive infrastructure plan has been one of your primary campaign issues. How would you go about constructing such a plan?
Williams: The council came up with the five-year plan, and the first year got funded while it’s questionable whether years two through five are going to come to fruition. Now, we’re talking about having the Alabama Department of Transportation do some of our work. But (what) the mayor and the council really need to do is sit down and develop a plan that says, “These are streets that ALDOT will pave, and we need to lobby them and provide matching funds to pave these streets.”
We also need to work with our local utilities, with Alagasco, with Alabama Power, with our Water Works Board, to (coordinate with) their maintenance schedule. If Alagasco’s about to put new gas lines in on a street for every single residence, it doesn’t make sense for us to resurface that street, only for them to come in and in front of every single residence have to patch, because then the street is in the same if not worse condition than we found it in. We need to have a comprehensive plan with our local utilities about what their scheduled maintenance is going to be, and we need to couple that with the actual integrity of the street.
We need to (consider) the condition of the street and couple that with the maintenance of our utilities, and come up with a comprehensive plan to fund it every year, not just bond funding. It can come from the general fund. There’s no reason that has to be bond-funded.
BirminghamWatch: You often spoke during your campaign about your desire to turn the campus of the old Banks High School into an economic stimulus for your district. How do you hope to accomplish that?
Williams: Well right now, it’s acting as a deficit to the community, because it’s lowering property values and increasing crime, which is paired with lower property values. I would like for the South East Lake and Roebuck Springs communities to come together and give us a wish list. A lot of people feel a certain way about Banks because a lot of the residents of South East Lake and Roebuck Springs attended Banks High School. They were a powerhouse in football, and they also played an important part of the civil rights movement. We had the Alabama national guard at Banks High School during integration. Banks has an important role in history, and people are very adamant about it not being torn down, or about it being repurposed into something else. Some people think it should be torn down.
I would like the community to come together and say, “This is what we really need. It’s not serving any purpose. standing in the way of it being torn down is not going to help property values in our community. Or I would like the community to come together and say, “This is what we would like to see it to be. And if it can’t be A, we’d like to see it be B, and if we can’t see it be B, we’d like to see it be C.”
I do think that Banks has a unique infrastructure to it, in that it has some athletic facilities and outdoor athletic fields that already are there, that would be relatively less expensive to open to the public than to be starting from scratch in creating athletic facilities. That’s something that area lacks, very much so: basketball, baseball and football fields that are open to the youth in both of those communities. There really isn’t that much available, and I think that’s something the youth in those communities and the young adults that are moving into those communities, who have children that are about to be at the age where they need some outdoor recreation space, will be wanting. So I’d like to see the community have a wish list, but I also want to see us have something where young adults can move in with kids and have a recreation place that’s open to children.
BirminghamWatch: You’d also spoken in similar terms about Ruffner Mountain and your desire to expand it.
Williams: I think that Ruffner Mountain is one of the biggest assets that we have in District 2 and in the entire city. I think our city needs to champion Ruffner mountain the same way that we’ve championed Railroad Park. We’re allocating roughly $200,000 annually to Ruffner Mountain, but what we really need to do is work with our county commissioners, our state legislators, in terms of the Birmingham delegation, and some of our nonprofits that are focused on expanding public lands, and find a way to all partner together to gain control of the other half, the Walter Energy-owned portion of Ruffner Mountain, so that we can secure that for the future.
I think that it will be very devastating to South East Lake and Roebuck Springs if we do not do that. What we saw happen on the Irondale side of the mountain with J&S Granite is something that we need to prevent from happening on the Birmingham side of the mountain … . I think it’s going to take more than just the city of Birmingham to get that other half from Walter Energy. I think it’s going to take Walter Energy joining us as well, and I would like for all of those players to get together to help secure that.
And it’s not just for District 2. It could be one of the largest parks in the United States. So it really could be more of a destination. Just like Railroad Park has been for downtown, Ruffner Mountain can be for the east side of Birmingham and Birmingham in general.
BirminghamWatch: You have a background in law enforcement in Jefferson County and have mentioned your plan to have specific officers assigned to each neighborhood. What does that look like in practice?
Williams: First of all, Birmingham police officers work extremely hard, because they have a very high call volume and spend most of their shifts running from call to call to call, which is very exhausting. That high call volume, coupled with a shortage of officers — we’re running our officers very hard. They’re doing a great job, the best they can, but they have a very hard job, when they’re running from call to call and don’t have any time for proactive police work.
Right now there’s this buzzword in the world of law enforcement, “community policing.” I think that the real way to community police is to have officers work within communities, get to know who are the community leaders, who are part of the criminal element, what are the problem areas, which house is the dope house and all that kind of stuff. I think the only way to really control that information and keep it is to have that officer permanently assigned to that beat.
Some neighborhoods see their officers permanently assigned, and sometimes the neighborhoods complain because they have different officers that are coming in all the time, constantly rotating in and out each shift, and I think that the best way that we can build a rapport with our citizens is to actually have officers that are permanently assigned to each beat and to fill out our beat map as much as possible, so that we have a consistent presence on the streets and the officer is also consistent in each neighborhood.
BirminghamWatch: In August, after the protests in Charlottesville, North Carolina, you wrote an op-ed calling for Birmingham to be at the forefront of the national racial dialogue. What do you think should be done with the Confederate monument in Linn Park, given the controversy that’s arisen around it in recent months?
Williams: I do not know Randall Woodfin’s position on what he would like to do with the monument. I have not spoken with him about that. I imagine that he will have to make a decision. We can’t just put boards up and act like it’s not there forever. I do think it’s important that we realize exactly who we are and where we came from. We have a city that mistreated and discriminated against a group of people based on something that they could not help, their skin color. We don’t want to be the Birmingham of 1960. We want to be the Birmingham of 2017 or 2018.
We’re the Birmingham that now says, “Yes, we had a divisive past, but we’re not going to hide any of it. This is what happened, and now we have a pulpit to speak about civil rights issues, with the national parks service designation (as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument).” We should use that to show where we have been and where we are now.
We are a city that is inclusive of all people, no matter what minority background or religious affiliation or whatever else they might have. We have to do a job, and I have high expectations that the mayor will do a good job with this, of being an inclusive city, of being the Birmingham of 2017 and not the Birmingham of 1960.
BirminghamWatch: Speaking of Mayor-elect Woodfin, he has expressed optimism about being able to work well with the new council. Given the fraught history between the mayor and council’s office, do you share his outlook?
Williams: I am extremely optimistic. I think that the voters saw the relationships and the infighting at city hall, whether it’s on the council’s side of the hall or the mayor’s, and I think that had a lot to do with the outcome of the election, to be honest. It was something that bothered a lot of voters. You saw that, with the City Council president and the mayor both being removed from their positions.
I am nothing but optimistic about the relationship that the council will have with the incoming mayor. I think there is a lot of promise and a lot of expectations from the voters, because the voters saw what was happening at city hall and said, “Enough is enough.” Not only is the relationship going to be better, and not only am I 100 percent optimistic it will be better, but I also think voters expect it to be better, because I think that was one of the major, if not the most important issues, that the voters saw and wanted to change.
BirminghamWatch: What do you see as the biggest challenge ahead for you as councilor?
Williams: I think the biggest challenge that I’m going to face is the way that our city government is set up. That’s in two parts. One is the Mayor-Council Act and the lack of home rule that we have. We’ve seen the Alabama state Legislature overturn some legislation of ours, and the City Council needs to prove themselves, and they need to be able to handle it, but they also should have home rule. Second, I think that the way that our municipal government is set up is very siloed. We have over 32 municipalities in Jefferson County, and then we have our state delegation. We have a lot of groups that end up at the end of the day competing when they should be working together.
One thing that I would like to see — and it’s more of a dream and less of something that can be immediately accomplished — and the biggest challenge that I see is, we have to do more in Jefferson County and the Birmingham metro area to work together as one. That includes all 32 municipalities, the County Commission and the delegation for Birmingham in the state Legislature to work together, mainly in terms of economic development. We spend way too much time fighting other municipalities over big-box stories instead of actually luring meaningful industry to our area.
We saw how effective it is when the state delegation, the county, and the city work together, because we brought in Autocar, which is going to be the fourth-largest automotive manufacturing plant in the state of Alabama. It will bring in over 700 jobs — very well-paying jobs, for that matter — and it was because the parking lot was in the city of Birmingham but the building was in the county, and it forced the two groups to work together. And when we worked together we had great success. If we can work with other surrounding municipalities as one, we could actually bring new industry and meaningful jobs into our area, which obviously correlates into a lot of other issues we’re having. Then you have crime decrease once economic opportunity increases. It’s the snowball effect.