Mayor Randall Woodfin in his “The First One Hundred” event Thursday evening presented the findings of his transition committees and vowed to make several changes to the structure of Birmingham’s city government based on the reports.
Woodfin gave his presentation during an event at the Alabama Theatre. Though the event’s title ostensibly referred to Woodfin’s first 100 days in office – a benchmark reached March 8 – Woodfin mostly ceded the spotlight to the heads of his transition team’s five citizen-led committees. He responded briefly to their suggestions at the end of each committee’s presentation.
Among the changes he said would be coming, Woodfin said he’s willing to form a formal partnership with the city school system. He also said he will reshape the mayor’s office’s division of economic development to the Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity, and he said he would create the Mayor’s Office of Social Justice during his next 100 days.
A 35-page booklet titled “The Woodfin Way: A Citizen-Led Transition for Progress in Birmingham” summarized the transition team’s findings and Woodfin’s resulting plans. The booklet was handed out during the event and is available online.
Neighborhood Revitalization and Public Safety
Herschell Hamilton and Birmingham Police Det. Ralph Patterson, co-chairs of the Neighborhood Revitalization and Public Safety Committee, were the first to present their findings. Woodfin described their focus as “one of the most incredible tasks assigned” to a transition committee.
On the subject of neighborhood revitalization, Hamilton noted that, while the city had focused on demolishing dilapidated structures, it had not placed as much effort on new construction and development. The city has demolished roughly 1,700 structures over the past 10 years, and only 400 new structures have been built in that same period, a 4-to-1 ratio that Hamilton remarked was “not sustainable.”
“Mayor Woodfin, this is that ‘Mission: Impossible’ moment,” Hamilton said. “Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to help us reverse these ratios that we have seen over the last 40 years, to put in place a solid, stable, actionable revitalization program.”
But Woodfin, who spent his administration’s first days emphasizing his commitment to clearing up neighborhood blight through demolishing abandoned structures, said he felt it was most important to continue with his aggressive demolition approach.
“You have to get rid of these dilapidated structures that are beyond repair,” he said after the committee’s presentation. “What we want to do is be aggressive in that space.”
Woodfin promised to demolish at least 125 such structures by the summer, which he said would make the city “an open canvas” for development.
Patterson emphasized the pervasive importance of public safety and the collective responsibility that all city departments, not just fire and police, share. The committee looked at several departments nationwide, he said, including the Denver and Los Angeles fire departments, the Los Angeles Police Department and Alabama’s State Troopers for examples of best practices. The best of those, he said, “embraced diversity; they treated every customer with respect, compassion, equality and fairness; and they worked in a way that builds community trust and support.”
Patterson also referenced an active shooter situation at UAB’s Highlands hospital the previous evening, which he said showed the need for annual training so that Birmingham’s law enforcement would be prepared to deal with such situations.
Woodfin did not address the public safety half of the committee’s findings during the presentation, though his plans to hire a new police chief to replace retired Chief A.C. Roper were mentioned in the published report.
Education and Workforce Development
Fred McCallum, co-chair of the Education and Workforce Development Committee, was joined by Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring during a presentation that mostly emphasized the need for a stronger partnership between the mayor’s office and Birmingham school board.
“We feel great about our relationship with Mayor Woodfin and his administration, but … there is no formal partnership,” said Herring. But, she said, her presence onstage was a hopeful sign.
“The mere fact that I have been so involved in helping shape the mayor’s education agenda is a great opportunity for us to build on — and we will,” she said.
Woodfin, who served as president of the Birmingham Board of Education from 2013 to 2015, said he was willing to commit to a “formal agreement between the actual school system and the city of Birmingham at City Hall” for a stronger partnership. Herring enthusiastically agreed.
McCallum also highlighted the need for “a greater focus on birth through pre-K education for children and their parents,” as well as a “better integration and expansion of wraparound services that help our children grow and learn outside of school hours.”
McCallum emphasized the Woodfin administration’s stated goal of a Promise Scholarship to allow BCS high school graduates to attend one of Jefferson County’s two community colleges, and his goal to provide workforce development services for students looking to go straight into their careers.
Woodfin said he would set workforce development “as a priority, because we have to acknowledge that, even if we go full-in on the Promise Scholarship, which I plan to do … I think it’s really important that we give them the option and man them with the tools that, if they so choose to go straight into the workforce, they can.”
Entrepreneurship and Economic Development
Perhaps the transition committee best positioned to codify its recommendations into policy was the Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Committee. One of its heads — Josh Carpenter, a co-chair along with Tracey Morant Adams — was appointed as Woodfin’s director of economic development in February.
The committee’s report highlighted the difficulty of obtaining a business license from the city, which Adams said the committee had heard from several members of the public.
“In our survey responses, the issue of business licensing was cited as one of the most significant barriers to doing business in the city of Birmingham,” Adams said. “I distinctly remember one comment made by an entrepreneur who said, ‘I don’t even tell people how to get a business license, or (even) to get one. I just tell them to wait until they get (a) $100 fine. Now, that’s a problem.”
Adams also expressed concern with the city’s inability to collect data on businesses operating in the city — including, for example, the number of licenses issued to businesses owned by minorities or women. The solution, as suggested by the committee, would be for Woodfin’s administration to establish a clear mission statement for the city’s economic growth — including the definition of “Key Performance Indicators” to be used to measure inclusive growth in the city’s economy.
Carpenter highlighted the ongoing economic inequality present in the city despite economic growth in some neighborhoods. “There are too many people who are still hurting, too many people who haven’t felt the opportunities in their neighborhoods and their backyards,” he said.
Carpenter also presented a new mission statement for Birmingham’s economic development: “Birmingham will become a hub for qualified, diverse talent, propelling shared prosperity through innovation and inclusive growth.”
“Every strategic goal that we have needs to be anchored in that concept,” Carpenter said.
Woodfin described the committee’s finding as “super on-point,” and he said he shared the frustrations that the committee’s report cited, particularly with the lack of available data regarding minority- and women-owned businesses.
“Think about this,” he said. “This city is 74 percent black, but we don’t know (those numbers). We don’t collect that information. That’s just bad business.”
Woodfin then announced his plan to rename the mayor’s office’s division of economic development to the Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity. A department, he reasoned, gets “more resources, more people, more potential… It’s a priority.” Woodfin said he would bring his proposed changes before the City Council for approval “soon.”
Transparent and Efficient Government
The Transparent and Efficient Government Committee conducted in-depth interviews with six key city departments, said co-chair Annie Allen, due to the 100-day time constraint. But, she said, those interviews did give the committee a clear picture of the silos that had formed at City Hall.
“Departments are not talking to each other as they have to if we’re going to be inclusive, if we’re going to ensure that one hand is not fighting with the other,” she said.
She also pointed to a number of outdated processes in city government’s functions that increased overall costs for the city, many of which — such as public records requests — could be automated with some technological improvements. The creation of a contracts management division or department, she said, would also centralize the city’s numerous contracts, eliminating redundancy.
Allen also recommended either moving the city’s fitness centers from the purview of human resources to parks and recreation or outsourcing it entirely.
Co-chair Daniel Coleman, though, got the attention of the numerous city employees in the crowd when he started discussing the city’s finances.
“On the surface, the finances don’t seem so bad,” he said. “We’re close to a balanced budget, we’ve had small deficits, but we’re able to cover those… But if you look back at the next level, we’re creating new deficits, big deficits that won’t go away — holes in our balance sheet. One of them is the lack of investment in basic infrastructure in city government, as well as the city itself. The other deficit is the employee pension plan. We’ve been underfunding it for nearly 10 years,” he said, to gasps from the audience. “That’s the bad news.”
Coleman said those challenges were solvable. “If we run a more effective and efficient government, we can move resources to fill up these holes over time,” he said. “We believe that’s exactly what we have to do to make sure the city has a strong financial foundation for its future.”
The report shows that the city has underfunded its employees’ pensions “by over $80 million” since 2002. The report suggested the formation of a plan to address this. That would include comparing the city’s benefits to other cities’, as well as increasing pension funding and restructuring benefits for new employees. No specifics have been laid out.
“You want to break that down?” yelled someone from the audience as Coleman finished his presentation.
While Woodfin said that his administration was working to introduce ways of centralizing government communication, through a “data dashboard.” and rendering it more transparent, he did not comment on the issue of pensions.
Social Justice Committee Co-Chair Richard Rice admitted that his committee’s scope was quite broad, but the focus was narrowed to five categories: civil and human rights, health disparities, poverty reduction, environmental justice and sustainability, and art education and cultural exposure.
Rice pointed to North Birmingham as an example of the city’s most marginalized community, according to those categories. “One of the things the mayor talked about during his campaign was really providing support to the North Birmingham community, and we found that was a topic that came up several times in our subgroup meetings,” he said, saying that the members of the committee were hoping to move forward with the mayor’s office and other community organizations to begin outreach to that area.
Of the five committees, the social justice committee provided the smallest amount of concrete information during the meeting, saying that they had “compiled over 25 proposals and initiatives,” which would be made available online after the meeting. Instead, they focused on one large suggestion – the creation of an office of racial equity and social justice.
Woodfin agreed. “I think many times in our activist community, people who are passionate in their individual lane, in the raw space of social justice, who believe that elected officials never take the time to even hear them … I want (them) to know that I not only hear you, but I’m listening to you,” he said. “I know as mayor I have to be so intentional to make sure I give voice, audience, resources and actual priority to addressing those social issues.”
To do that, he said, would require a plan for his administration’s next 100 days — and he promised to create the Mayor’s Office of Social Justice before that time period was over.
“I think the mayor’s office has a huge role to play (in social justice),” he said. “This is something we will create.”
With that promise, Woodfin brought the “First One Hundred” event to a close — though before he did, he held aloft the copy of “The Woodfin Way,” encouraging people to find a copy, in print or online. The book represented his next immediate goal as mayor, he said: “I’ve got a lot of reading to do, y’all.”
The Nuts and Bolts
In addition to the Woodfin’s Way report, each of the committees submitted more detailed reports that also are available online. Links are near the bottom of The Woodfin Way site. Or you can find them here:
And the Social Justice Committee published its Citizen Project Proposals