2017 Birmingham Mayor Elections

As He Takes Office, Mayor Randall Woodfin Looks to Hard Decisions Ahead

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin talked about his plans the day before his inauguration. (Source: Sam Prickett)

Randall Woodfin was officially sworn in as the 30th mayor of Birmingham today, beginning a four-year term that he has promised will bring major changes to the organization and operation of city government, including pushes to increase transparency and reduce crime.

On Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours before his swearing-in, Woodfin plays it cool. “I hear there’s some people excited about that,” he says of the inauguration, sitting down at a conference table on the third floor of a downtown office building. Just before the interview, he’d been standing at the window with his back to the door; when the interview wraps up, he retreats back to that spot, hands behind his back, gazing down at the traffic moving across Third Avenue North.

Moments of quiet like these are rare and getting rarer for Woodfin. He’s been so immersed in the transition process, he says, that he’s surprised to learn of the debate that occurred at Nov. 21’s City Council meeting, in which the city’s budget was once again placed on the agenda for passage. It was, for the second week in a row, sent back to committee after protestations from several councilors that Woodfin had not had a chance to comment on it.

Now, Woodfin is certain to weigh in on the 2018 budget — and his administration is scheduled to start work on the 2019 budget in January. He’s also planning to start an audit of city finances and to reassess the structures of all city departments — which, he says, is going to lead to some “heavy” decisions. There are other challenges ahead as well, he tells BirminghamWatch — in working to reduce the city’s rampant gun violence, advocating for an increased minimum wage, and improving the quality of life for Birmingham citizens.

BirminghamWatch: One of the first things you’re going to have to look at as mayor is the budget, which the City Council has held off on passing in order to get your input. What suggestions are you going to have?

Randall Woodfin: I’ll be doing a whole lot of talking to all nine council members well prior to asking them to vote on anything, because that’s just appropriate and the right thing to do. You don’t count to five (a majority of votes) and ignore four other people. You talk to nine people, and you share with them the exact same information and why it’s important to you as mayor that you want the council to support this. It doesn’t matter if it’s the budget or a capital project or anything in between.

BW: But as far as the budget goes?

Woodfin: It’s simple. Anything I feel is an abuse or some form of a hookup shouldn’t be in there. Outside of that? Everything else is cool. Pretty simple, right?

BW: Over the past month, you’ve amassed a transition team, led by Gen. Charles Krulak and former Alabama Power VP Bobbie Knight, to analyze some changes your administration will need to make. What have you learned from that process so far?

Woodfin: We’ve got some organizational issues within Birmingham, at City Hall. And you know something that the general and Bobbie Knight both have unique behind them? Their HR backgrounds. I’m inheriting a 4,400-member organization in the form of employees. They’re either performing at the level they need to, or they’re not. If they’re not, as CEO/mayor, what am I doing to invest more in my employees, to make them be in a space where they can deliver services in a more efficient, effective way, and do it in a transparent way and be accountable? That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned.

BW: You also announced your administration’s executive staff earlier this month, and judging by their job titles, you’re restructuring the way the mayor’s office functions, even at the top.

Woodfin: Yes. Listen, the mayor’s office — the people that serve at the pleasure of the mayor — they’ve got to work. They actually have a function. They actually have to do something all day. 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. It’s real work. And part of the intentionality around that team, and even their titles and functions and job descriptions, (came from) going through the personnel board to see, ‘Here is the role, functions, and duties of this position,’ and then going to find a person that fits that, versus hiring a person and saying, ‘I want you to do this.’ That’s responsible government, responsible hiring decisions.

BW: Earlier this month, you asked 100 city employees — 60 administrative assistants and 40 department heads — to reapply for their positions. You’ve also spoken about reducing the number of employees in the mayor’s office. Is there a magic number you’re hoping to whittle that down to?

Woodfin: I don’t have a magic number. What I can tell you is that I’m going to make some decisions that will be heavy. Some of them will be unpopular, but they have to be made. No one can have a realistic expectation of me that I keep 100 people that currently serve at the pleasure of the administration, and also bring in my own people. Some of these people have been there since Bernard Kincaid (was mayor). We’ve got to do things differently.

That doesn’t mean they’re bad people; they’re great people. If we can be in the position to help people have a soft landing, let’s do that. But the lens I view everything through is, “What’s in the interests of the city of Birmingham?”

BW: You recently spoke with the Birmingham Association of Black Journalists, during which you said that you’ve already started to look into city finances. What have you learned?

Woodfin: Since 1979, the same firm has been doing an internal audit for the city of Birmingham. There are three types of audits: there’s the standard internal audit — checking the books against the accounting laws of the state — there’s a forensic audit, and then there’s a performance audit (which examines governmental efficiency).

Looking at those numbers, at the audit that’s been done every year, accounting measures are in place. What’s not in place is the performance. So, we’re dealing with an organization that has been in existence since 1871, and we know at least since 1979 there has not been a performance audit. That’s a long time.

Rightsizing — is it top-heavy? Is it understaffed or overstaffed? I’m assessing human capital, the functions of the people in these positions. I’m aligning resources. What’s the budget attached to this department? What’s the actual function and goal of this department? None of that’s been done. That’s scary because the budget has increased so much, but we’re saying we’re short of resources at the same time. Something’s not aligned — misspent, misused or spent on the wrong thing. It doesn’t make it illegal, but it makes it where the performance is not optimal.

If we can do an internal audit every year, we can now be in a space to do a performance audit. We know one hasn’t been done in over 30-plus years. And then I can look the public in the face and say, “Hey, this is what’s going on in each department. Come see it yourself.” Man, I’ll share that with the world. We’ll be forced to take our medicine.

BW: During the campaign, you said you wanted the city to implement a $15-per-hour minimum wage. The state Legislature prevented the city from doing that in the past. How do you hope to approach that antagonistic relationship?

Woodfin: Yeah, it doesn’t have to be that way, though, right? You’ve got to build a rapport and be intentional about the relationships with not just the Jefferson County delegation, but those down in Montgomery. If you know no home rule exists in this state, how do you get around it, or how do you get to some form of a compromise?

I call it the “opt-out” clause. You know, Montgomery doesn’t have to necessarily tell a local municipality what it can and can’t do. Just give the municipality the option to let the residents and voters within that local municipality vote on it. Right?

I don’t care if it’s Republican, Democrat, Independent, white or black down in Montgomery, I am here to do a job and represent the people of the city of Birmingham, and I’m trying to improve the people’s quality of life. If I believe raising minimum wage is part of that improvement of the quality of life, I’m going to talk to everybody.

BW: As you take office, is there any issue that you’re anxious about addressing?

Woodfin: Crime is tough for me. In 2017, I’ve read and/or watched news where we’ve had a 2-year-old, a 4-year-old, a 15-year-old — children — die, murdered, innocent victims of crime. And I just think as a community, we’re way too silent. In the space of being mayor, I can’t be that way. What do you say to all those mothers who have lost their children? How do you combat crime in a different way?

How do you address gun violence — which, in my opinion, we’ve reached a tipping point where I’d define it as an epidemic or crisis? In any situation on earth where there’s an epidemic or crisis, you get to the point where you’re ready and willing to do anything necessary to stop it. So that makes me anxious, because I know that there are things I’m going to have to do in unorthodox ways some people may not approve of. But you can’t approve of innocent children dying, either. So it’s time to do something about it.

BW: You’ve been critical of the Violence Reduction Initiative in the past, and it’s something that’s garnered a fair bit of controversy.

Woodfin: There is no controversy. It’s not working.

BW: Does your plan involve overhauling the VRI or getting rid of it entirely?

Woodfin: I’ll know very soon. I can promise you that. Very soon.