When the Mayor-Council Act was modified by the state legislature last year amid continuous jockeying for power between the elected officials representing Birmingham’s legislative and executive branches, city councilors lamented that the changes would give too much power to Mayor William Bell.
Today, even as the mayor and some councilors continue at odds over various issues, one thing is clear: how the mayor has used his broadened powers in the past year has not eased the tension.
One example: Bell’s office has paid nearly half a million dollars to one lobbying firm, and at least $122,000 of that was done without the council’s approval as of January 2017.
The mayor’s monthly financial reports, provided by the city council office, show that the mayor has paid $422,500 to Handprint Bell Consulting LLC as of January 20. The contract with the firm, which dates back to April 5, 2016, stipulated that the lobbyist would be paid a total of $300,000 over the course of one year.
Records show that, starting on May 12, 2016, a week after the legislative changes of HB 515 were made to the city’s Mayor-Council Act — which allowed the mayor’s office to “retain the services of outside counsel” through executive fiat — Handprint Bell was paid $65,000, well above the approved rate of $25,000 for a monthly retainer.
Moreover, the particular firm in question — an LLC registered to Ralph Cook Jr., who is the son of one of Bell’s former transition team members, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Ralph Cook Sr. — has been a point of contention since Bell came into office in 2010. Prior to the Mayor-Council Act changes, the council routinely denied contracts for the lobbying firm as late as 2015.
The company’s history includes erroneously claiming credit for securing $10 million in federal grants, according to a 2010 report by The Birmingham News. “One of the [Handprint Bell] entries claimed responsibility for securing $10 million in federal money for clean drinking water,” the report reads. “But that work was done under a separate contract with the Birmingham Water Works. Cook later said his company erred in listing the Water Works funding in the city’s report.”
Bell has recommended the firm since that error was made public. The president of the city council said the council is not sure what Handprint Bell does for the city.
“This is just sad,” Council President Johnathan Austin said on Monday when asked for a comment on the nine payments to Handprint Bell. The mayor’s office made those payments between May 12, 2016 and January 20, 2017. “It’s a pathetic, clear abuse of power,” Austin said. The documents obtained by Weld were most recently dated to February 5, 2017, so it is possible more expenditures have been made in the time since.
Austin said the council was unaware the mayor’s office was spending money with Handprint Bell beyond what was approved by the body in April, a vote from which Austin abstained. The council has sent several memos to Bell’s office requesting a list of the contracts he has entered into since May 5, 2016, but has yet to receive a response, Austin said.
“We are the fiduciary agents of the city. We have a responsibility to make sure the city is operating within its means,” Austin said, citing the “unbalanced” budget Bell submitted to the council in May.
“While the law that was passed last year said the mayor can make the expenditures without coming before the council as long as it doesn’t impact the budget, that can be interpreted very broadly,” Austin said. “So, for instance, as long as it’s in the police department’s $90 million budget, he can spend it. One of the problems, though, is once he does that, if it goes beyond what was budgeted, it will be difficult for him to balance that budget before coming back to the council to get more money to replace what was spent.”
Despite multiple requests, according to Austin, Bell has not provided the council with up-to-date paperwork on the work being done by Handprint Bell since “early 2016.” The same is true for other consultants hired by the mayor since 2016.
“We only hear from them when it’s budget time. I cannot speak to what [Handprint Bell does] because I don’t know. We have not spoken to them,” Austin said. “For the last several years this has been an issue, and there’s been the question of whether what they are providing to us is worth whatever amount of money they are getting, based on the contract … . If the work they are doing is so important, where’s the paperwork?”
Austin had previously taken issue with the specific services Handprint Bell provides. In a January 2016 interview with Weld, he said that he had gotten no satisfactory information on those services from the mayor. “We’ve brought it up to him and he just says, ‘I just want you all to vote it up or down,’” Austin said. “The mayor is yet to come to a meeting and show us empirical data on what services are being provided. I’ve asked him personally to come to committee meetings and explain this. But the mayor refuses to come to committee meetings.”
Efforts to reach Ralph Cook Jr. for comment were unsuccessful. As of press time, Bell has not responded to questions regarding the nature of the work done by Handprint Bell and other contractors, or in what ways the changes to the Mayor Council Act have impacted the authority granted to his office, if at all.
Here is a brief summary of the most recent payments to Handprint Bell. Despite the contracted terms of monthly installments of $25,000, not to exceed $300,000, these payments total $422,500:
- May 12, 2016, $65,000
- May 26, 2016, $65,000
- June 30, 2016 $90,000
- September 13, 2016, $2,500
- November 15, 2016, $100,000
- December 1, 2016, $25,000
- December 8, 2016, $25,000
- January 5, 2017, $25,000
- January 20, 2017, $25,000
In recent months, Bell has demonstrated the financial autonomy accorded to him by the changes in the Mayor-Council act with multiple contracts he has entered into without the council’s prior knowledge or consent. In February and March alone, Bell hired five separate law firms for “assistance with legal matters,” with fees totalling $1.06 million for a period of work set to end June 30.
The council voted down Bell’s recommendation for at least one of those firms, Lawrence Cooper, on September 29, 2015, for a $50,000 contract that was to last until June 30, 2016. The most recent contract, signed by Bell on March 3, 2017, was for $100,000. That contract was also five months shorter than the failed resolution — twice as much money for about half the time.
Cooper, a former Birmingham city attorney, was fired by former Mayor Larry Langford, who characterized the law department under his guide as “sloppy” and “inefficient” according to Birmingham News headlines from July 1, 2009. Cooper had also been representing a client who was in the process of suing the city for a denied liquor license when Bell unsuccessfully recommended securing his services to the city council in 2015. Messages were left for Cooper at his office, but as of press time he had not responded with a comment.
From Working the Campaign to Filing Complaints
Seated next to a window on the 31st floor of the Regions-Harbert Plaza, Iva Williams recounted his long, bumpy history with Bell, from working on his campaign in 2009 to the present tension brought on by what he described as a “complete lack of transparency.”
Williams made a Freedom of Information Act request to the mayor’s office on May 2 seeking, among other things, a “complete listing of contracts Mayor Bell has signed under $10,000 since January 26, 2010.” As of print time, Williams had still not received a response to his request.
“A lot of people have been asking me what’s been my driving force,” Williams said. “It’s frustration.”
Williams is a political operative in Birmingham who has worked as the director of governmental affairs for Charlie Waldrep, the former attorney who was fired from the Birmingham Water Works Board in 2015. Williams has also worked on multiple mayoral campaigns, including Patrick Cooper’s 2009 special election bid, before joining Bell’s campaign in its latter stages. On the December 9, 2009 election, Cooper garnered 40.1 percent of the vote to Bell’s 25.1 percent, forcing a runoff which Bell would eventually win after Williams joined his campaign “with a few weeks left.”
“You got to remember, I got him elected. There was some B.S. in that game, so at the last minute I switched over to Bell’s campaign,” Williams said. “I put Patrick’s infrastructure together, but two months out I had to leave.” When pressed on this decision, Williams declined to comment on the record.
He attributes Bell’s victory in 2010 to his own effort to turn the tide by engaging with young voters. “He was wildly popular; he was our guy. So to look at where we are now, compared to eight years ago, it’s just insane. I can’t stress enough the importance here. This man’s glass was full when it comes to community support. But people in the community, we tie dollars to sense,” Williams said, chuckling at his own wordplay. “What makes sense to us is dollars. It’s not what you say or your charisma. It’s that abandoned house that’s been sitting there for three years. Period. I know one of [Bell’s] trips could pay to knock down every abandoned house on a block.”
While the standard amount the city has given to individual neighborhoods has risen from $2,000 to $5,000 in recent years, total neighborhood allocation numbers are down from 2016. Last year the city gave a total of $1,193,175 to neighborhoods. According to the most recent proposed budget, that number is down to $495,000.
Williams, who said he has been asking to city to address the dilapidated house adjacent to his in Titusville for three years, also filed a FOIA request for the mayor and his assistants’ travel expenses and what the city gained from such outings. That request, according to Williams, has also gone unanswered.
Over recent months, Weld has submitted records requests to the city as recent as May 26 with a similar result — a brief acknowledgement of the request, but no indication on when the request, if at all, will be fulfilled.
“We want to see how our dollars are spent, and when we request that, we are not given an answer,” Williams said. “Having worked for Charlie Waldrep and knowing how this works, I know this game. A long time ago I would’ve been the one facilitating requests like this. But now there is much more money involved. I see these people building fortunes… . Of course, that’s speculation — but if I’m wrong, prove it.”
Williams, along with other members of the grassroots activist group Outcast Voters League, have also filed three state ethics complaints, one of which alleges that the mayor failed to report campaign contributions from a fundraiser held April 20, 2017.
“There were no in-kind or cash contributions on the report from April. So mind you, it’s incumbent upon you, if you got all these campaign signs out here and I say, ‘Yeah I’ll put up some signs for you, but you can pay me later,’ you still have to register that as an in-kind contribution. There was way too much activity at this point for there to be no in-kind or cash contributions,” Williams said.
According to the Alabama Secretary of State’s campaign contribution database, Bell has not reported any campaign contributions since 2016, despite announcing his candidacy on February 3, 2017.
“We really didn’t change anything”
Rep. Mary Moore, who voted for HB 515, which amended portions of the Mayor-Council Act, said on Monday that she does not think the changes have impacted the structure of city government in Birmingham, despite recent transactions that point to the contrary.
“Not at all. Not at all,” Moore said when asked how, if at all, the power structure in Birmingham has changed since the bill was signed into law. “The mayor still makes the budget and council has to vote on it. That was the major focus looking at it… . The mayor has always been able to have contracts with outside lawyers.
“Of the five or six issues [Bell] sent to Montgomery, there was nothing in there that was giving the mayor any additional approval. Every issue he was concerned about was already in the Mayor-Council Act. That’s why I don’t understand my colleague John Rogers. I don’t think he read the bill.”
Moore contends that people are conflating two separate bills, the aforementioned HB 515 with HB 399. That latter bill gave both the mayor and the council three appointments to the Birmingham Water Works Board, and an additional appointment to the Jefferson County Mayor’s Association. Previously, the council made all five appointments to the board, a body that was increased to seven members. Moore did not vote for the latter bill.
The goal of the changes, according to Moore, was to update the governing constitution for Birmingham. “Over the years mayors have asked for certain parts of the Mayor-Council Act to be amended. But when they did that, they pretty much left everything there,” Moore said, citing a change made by the council regarding a new election day. “So the election code still said October. It needed to be redone.”
According to Moore she has asked every mayor and council since Richard Arrington was in office to amend the Mayor-Council Act to “reflect what is currently happening in Birmingham.” Does she think the changes made last year reflect that? “I don’t, because we really didn’t change anything.”
Some changes that were in fact made to the Mayor-Council Act include: prohibiting members of the council from serving on another city board, commission, or other like body while serving on the council, except as an ex officio officer (which led to Steven Hoyt tendering his resignation from the Birmingham Airport Authority); requiring yearly elections for council president and president pro tem; and, as previously mentioned, allowing the mayor to “retain the services of outside counsel, to the extent that it is in the budget, and will not impact the budget, to meet the needs of the city when, in the opinion of the mayor, such action would best serve the interests of the city,” as stated in the bill.
Rep. John Rogers rummaged through some papers on his cluttered desk while he gathered his thoughts on Tuesday. He was looking for a copy of the bill his colleague Moore claimed he did not read.
He has been a vocal critic of the Mayor-Council changes since the 2016 legislative session, when the bill was making its way through the legislature. He characterized it as a classic example of Montgomery intervening in Birmingham’s governmental affairs.
“The irony is, no other city has their problems brought to Montgomery like Birmingham,” Rogers said in his trademark gravelly voice. “That means everybody outside the city of Birmingham gets to vote on matters that affect only Birmingham. We shouldn’t be governing Birmingham from Montgomery. When Mayor Bell went to [former state Representative Oliver] Robinson to do this, it was wrongheaded.”
Robinson, who sponsored the bill to amend the Mayor-Council Act, told Weld in 2016 that Bell had provided “some input” when drafting the changes and that the council was never consulted. “I had a couple of conversations with the mayor,” said Robinson. “We talked about several things that are reflected in what you see on paper now.”
Since the amendments were signed into law on May 4, 2016, the tempestuous relationship between Bell and the council has been on display on a near weekly basis, with members of the council contending the changes have shifted power away from the legislative body and have been granted to the mayor.
Rogers cited recent legislative efforts to prevent a measure the Birmingham City Council voted on that would have given themselves a 233-percent raise, a bill that blocked the city from being able to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and the reshuffling of various board appointments, as further examples of state legislators intervening in local politics. The consequence, he said, has been detrimental to Birmingham’s growth, which, in terms of population, has remained unchanged since 2010.
“The council and the mayor need to be transparent. But there’s no transparency now. [Bell has] spent millions of dollars and nobody knows about it but him and the people he hired,” Rogers said, rocking back and forth in his high back leather chair. “He has a security budget of over $1 million. He’s got an armored car like a mafia boss. It’s a total abuse of power and beyond the fact he can’t work with the council. The main thing is the people suffer.”
Short of completely repealing the Mayor-Council Act, Rogers urged Bell to be more transparent. “That bill is so far reaching it’s got more tentacles than an octopus. A city council member told me the mayor has spent millions, and they don’t know where it went, or who got it or what, and nobody can get the records,” Rogers said, pausing for a moment to gather his thoughts. “It really makes you wonder. What’s he really hiding? If everything is above water, you should be glad to share it with us. There’s something in there, because why else is he running this city like he’s the Godfather?”
With additional reporting by Sam Prickett
BirminghamWatch and Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper collaborated to cover the Birmingham City Council and the Jefferson County Commission.