This is the second in a series of three articles looking at the first year of Randall Woodfin’s tenure as mayor. To read Part 1, click here.
The grey concrete exterior of City Hall might look the same as it did a year ago, but inside, real changes have been made.
Since he took office last November, Mayor Randall Woodfin has made significant changes to his office — including reducing perceived inefficiencies, emphasizing inclusion, and working to undo a budgeting shortfall that could affect city employees for decades to come.
“The Most Efficient Office Possible”
One of Woodfin’s first steps in restructuring City Hall happened before he even took office. In November 2017, he asked 100 city employees, including 60 administrative assistants and 40 department heads, to reapply for their positions.
This was, in part, meant to pare back what many had criticized as an overstaffed mayor’s office under his predecessor, William Bell. Bell had maintained a 101-person staff, which included as many as 56 administrative assistants in 2017. During the campaign, Woodfin had suggested that the salaries for those positions could better go toward understaffed police and fire departments; Bell argued that he ran “the most efficient office possible.”
The performance assessment Woodfin commissioned from private consulting firm Crowe Horwath painted a different picture, pointing to “duplicative administrative positions” in various departments, “indicating potential overlap in duties.”
Woodfin’s FY 2019 budget pared that number down, trimming the number of salaried administrative assistants from 56 to 20.
“Listen, the mayor’s office — the people that serve at the pleasure of the mayor — they’ve got to work,” Woodfin told BirminghamWatch the day before his inauguration, promising to make some “heavy” staffing decisions. “If your paycheck is in the form of tax dollars, you’ve got to work. Because I’ve got to work! I take my job pretty seriously in the form of representing people. We’re all public servants. It’s not leisure.”
Woodfin also quickly replaced the heads of several departments and offices, many of whom resigned or retired from their positions shortly after his inauguration. Those included Police Chief A.C. Roper, economic development Director Lisa D. Cooper, community development Director John Colon, public works director Stephen Fancher and human resources director Peggy Polk.
Thirty-one department heads and deputy department heads, including city clerk Lee Frazier and Fire Chief Charles Gordon, kept their jobs.
It was roughly half a year before some of those department head positions were filled. Human Resources Director Jill Madajczyk was appointed April 2, followed by Information Management Services Director Patrick T. McLendon and Department of Public Works Director Walter Gibbins.
Woodfin also hired Brandon F. Johnson as director of community engagement, tasked with strengthening the relationships between City Hall, law enforcement and Birmingham residents.
Woodfin characterized the delay in finding the new department heads as part of a “healthy process” and told BirminghamWatch in March that it had not hampered city efficiency.
“Everybody’s all-hands-on-deck,” he said. “Everybody’s playing as a team, everybody’s communicating, and everybody understands their role. So it hasn’t necessarily hampered or slowed progress.”
Though he had initially set a July 1 deadline for filling those vacant positions, Woodfin didn’t quite make the cutoff. But at Nov. 27’s Birmingham City Council meeting, Woodfin told councilors that there was “only one piece to go” in completing his administration, presumably referring to the replacement of outgoing Director of Finance Tom Barnett.
“I think we’re off to a great start,” he said.
Opportunity and Inclusion
Woodfin also reorganized several city departments, most significantly the Office of Economic Development, which he retooled into the Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity. The change from an office to a department, Woodfin said in March, would allow for it to receive “more resources, more people, more potential… It’s a priority.”
Woodfin also placed the new department, which was approved by the City Council in August, in charge of issuing funding to community development organizations. IEO Director Josh Carpenter, who was appointed in February, oversaw a process through which those organizations would apply for economic incentives — totalling $1.3 million — instead of being part of the initial budgeting process, as they had in previous years.
When funding for the last of those organizations was approved Nov. 21, Woodfin highlighted what he described as a “more fair, neutral and objective” process.
“We brought minorities, women-owned organizations to the table, which is very important to us, highlighting and being intentional about supporting black- and women-owned businesses,” Woodfin told reporters the following day.
That echoed the goals for the IEO that Carpenter had laid out in a Birmingham Times opinion column. “Our vision is to make Birmingham a hub for qualified and diverse talent and a premier destination for small business, startups and businesses looking to expand — propelling prosperity through inclusive growth,” he wrote. “When a woman of color wants to start a business anywhere in the nation, we hope she chooses to launch in Birmingham because it has earned a reputation for being the best place for women and minorities to start a business.”
Woodfin made another move toward inclusion by announcing the Mayor’s Office of Social Justice and Racial Equity, which he tweeted would “put resources into issues such as sustainability and environmental protection, health equity, LGBTQ, cultural exposure and racial justice.” That office has not yet been codified. In October, Woodfin’s office confirmed it was in an “actionable phase,” along with the creation of an Office of Re-Entry Services “to develop and implement ‘wraparound’ programs to reduce recidivism.”
In June, Woodfin appointed the city’s first LGBTQ liaison, Josh Coleman, fulfilling a promise he had made throughout his campaign that “all of our citizens (will) have a voice in this administration.”
For the second year of his administration, Woodfin says, he wants to deepen his administration’s approach to issues of inclusion and social justice. “I think in the second year we really want to add to the conversation around environmental issues and sustainability,” he said. “I think we also want to take a deeper dive into racial equity, in regards to, ‘What does that really mean?’”
But the new hires at City Hall also highlight an ongoing issue that Woodfin’s administration has made a priority — addressing the city’s unfunded pension liability. The issue was first discussed by his transition committee in March, when it was revealed the city would need to contribute $378 million in funding over the next 30 years.
After increasing the budgeted funding for the pension by $2.9 million earlier this year, Woodfin called on the pension board — of which he is one of nine members — to work with him on solving the issue in November. “If we act now, there is time to correct this problem, protect our employees and avoid a financial crisis for the city,” he said.
“I was a city employee for eight years, so I understand the city pension because I put into it well prior to being the mayor,” Woodfin told reporters on Nov. 22, referring to his time as a city attorney. The concern, he said, is not for employees who are retiring soon — but for those new hires looking for a long-term career with the city.
“If anybody is on a trajectory to retire this year, next year, three years from now, five years from now, y’all good. No worries, everybody’s cool,” he said. “But it’s folk who are brand new employees, who have only been with the city one year or five years. If (they) decide to stay with the city for 30 years… will a pension be available for (them) 30 years from now? … It’s kind of scary.”
“I don’t think we can kick this issue down the road anymore, and it is a tough conversation, man,” Woodfin said. “But here’s the overall goal: save the pension. I look forward to being on that solutions end.”
One Year and Counting: A Look at Mayor Woodfin’s First Year in Office
Part Two: City Structure and Employees
Part Three: Neighborhood Revitalization