Birmingham City Council

Transparency, Neighborhoods and One Uber Battle: Three Former Birmingham Councilors Talk About Their Time at City Hall

The Birmingham City Council Source: Sam Prickett

The Birmingham City Council started its 2017-2021 term last week without three familiar faces.

Kim Rafferty, Johnathan Austin and Marcus Lundy left the council; Rafferty and Austin were defeated in their reelection bids, while Lundy did not seek another term.

During their final week in office, the three spoke with BirminghamWatch about their successes, their failures and their views on what the election means for the city. 

Points of Pride

“I just want the folks to know I tried,” says Marcus Lundy. He’s sitting at a table at the Original House of Pancakes in Five Points South, just a few days after delivering his final remarks at the council’s Oct. 17 meeting.

Marcus Lundy during a Birmingham City Council meeting.

“All I’ve tried to do is hold folks accountable and improve processes and make this city better,” he said then. “I have not taken a dime of y’all’s (the taxpayers’) money,” he added.

Coming at the end of a tense council meeting, Lundy’s remarks had seemed pointed. Now, in a more relaxed setting, he says he just meant “to reaffirm to the folks who put their trust in me that I was trustworthy … that I’m the same guy walking out as I was walking in. I’m proud of maintaining my fiduciary responsibility to this city, and I’m proud that I’m able to go to bed at night with a clear conscience, knowing that everything I did was for progress and for transformative change.”

Lundy, who was replaced as the District 9 representative by John Hilliard, says he’s proudest of the changes he made regarding city government “being responsive to the people.” He cites use of the mobile application EverNote, which allowed his office to go paperless, as an example.

Providing constituents with updates on their concerns — letting them track the process of getting dilapidated houses demolished and vacant lots cleared via routing numbers for each case — was another major change.

“To be able to track that every step of the way is something that the average citizen doesn’t get updates on,” Lundy says. “It feels like, oftentimes, that it’s gone into a black hole — and we eliminated the black hole for our constituents.”

Another point of pride, Lundy says, is his ability to corral votes.

“From the moment I got there, I’ve always been able to count to five and get the votes,” he says. “And in doing that, I’ve been a part of moving this city forward. And there are some folks who haven’t had that luxury.”

Kim Rafferty says she had more difficulty making progress with her initiatives.

“In the face of the adversity of council and the mayor fighting, or the council fighting among themselves, any positive result that a councilor achieves is a great accomplishment,” she says.

Rafferty, who lost her District 2 seat to Hunter Williams, is more specific about what she sees as her successes than Lundy or Austin. There’s a no-texting-while driving ordinance that, “although it’s hard to enforce, helped to solidify that movement, where it then became a state initiative.”

Most of the achievements she cites, such as ensuring the financial steadiness of specialized transit system ClasTran or the creation of the Birmingham-Jefferson Port Authority, which she said she believes will grow to become a multi-billion dollar industry, are directly related to Birmingham transit.

Despite a lingering dissatisfaction with the 2015 firing of Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority Executive Director Ann August, whom she describes as “one of the best executive directors the transit system ever had,” she says she’s satisfied that, “We at least have been able to secure a moderate level of service for constituents that need the service, not just within the city of Birmingham, but people in the county at large that use the system.”

Speaking over the phone a few hours after the inauguration of his successor in the District 5 seat, Darrell O’Quinn, Johnathan Austin says his biggest success as councilor comes from “really steering the city and council back in the direction of the neighborhoods.

“That’s evidenced in the election, even though I didn’t come out on top of mine,” Austin said. “(Neighborhood revitalization) was something that we continued to press and identify as the main issue affecting the city …

“While we were doing all the great work that took place downtown, the neighborhoods were still being neglected. So, I am proudest of focusing the city’s attention on where it should be, which is on every citizen, every neighborhood, every tax dollar, every day,” he said, loosely quoting a slogan the council adopted in 2016 to indicate renewed focus on neighborhood revitalization.

Austin remarks that most of the council’s work was accomplished in spite of a lack of cooperation from Mayor William Bell, whom he describes as “constantly intent on dividing and conquering instead of working together collectively.”

“But we were still able to accomplish a lot,” he says. “We were able to change the direction, message and image of the city.”

Unrealized Goals

Kim Rafferty

“I’ll be blamed for Uber forever,” says Rafferty. She’s sitting in her empty office on the third floor of City Hall, her window looking out onto a bleak Monday morning sky. It’s the day before the swearing-in of the new slate of councilors, and Rafferty still wells up with emotion when she speaks about how she won’t be one of them.

The reason for her substantive loss against Williams in the runoff — nearly 2,000 votes separated the two candidates — is often attributed to her stance on Uber, the ridesharing service that launched in Birmingham in late 2015.

The road Uber took to the city was one littered with legislative stalemates and communication breakdowns between the company and the council. Rafferty, the chair of the transportation committee at the time, was often seen as Uber’s primary obstacle. One Independent Journal Review opinion piece declared that Rafferty was singlehandedly “stopping Uber from coming to Birmingham.”

Rafferty insists her position on Uber has been widely misunderstood, and that she actually had invited Uber to Birmingham.

“I’m a five-star Uber passenger,” she says. But she says her attempts to create “a model ordinance” that would “generate revenue sources for all levels (of government) as well as for (Uber) and would challenge the current transportation companies to up their game” were met with insults from Uber representatives, who “proceeded to formulate a social media attack with which they attempted to discredit us (and) defame our character.”

Uber pushed for an ordinance that would allow the company to conduct its own background checks without requiring city permits for its drivers.

An ordinance to Uber’s liking eventually was drafted and passed; perhaps aware of Lundy’s criticisms that she was “too close to this subject (and) blinded about being open to other options,” Rafferty abstained from the final vote. She’s still unhappy with the outcome.

“The end result was a private company came in and wrote a law specific to themselves and got it passed,” she says. “That’s not free enterprise.”

The rest of her dissatisfaction with her tenure, she says, rests with the mayor and her council colleagues.

“I wish I had a mayor and a council who would budget more responsibly,” she says. “I think that would have resolved all the other issues that I have.”

She says she was the only councilor with real attention to detail and the only advocate for measures such as priority-based budgeting, which would involve making sure public safety and infrastructure improvements received funding before anything else. With the change in leadership and her election loss, she says, that plan is “probably dead in the water… . If you don’t have somebody who loves to be in the weeds of things, pushing it forward, it’s not going to happen.”

Lundy, too, feels that some of his projects won’t go forward now that he’s out of office, including a housing development in Enon Ridge that became a focus for him during his last months in office.

“With me out of office, I don’t think it will ever happen,” he says. “I have no faith in that project, because I think there’s no priority around it … . I’m afraid politics got in the way.”

What he most regrets not being able to push further, though, was his championing of diversity and inclusion at City Hall, particularly with city contracts.

“That’s where this city could be catalytic in transforming certain businesses by mandating that we spend local and that we spend with women and minorities … . It will move the economic needle in our city rather than allowing the corporate mules to continue to drain Birmingham and take the money to other municipalities. That’s something I wish I had more input and influence on and more time to accomplish.”

Austin doesn’t see any of his initiatives as dead in the water.

“No,” he says, “I believe that everything I supported will continue, because there was nothing that was just specific to me … . You can’t do things for yourself. You have to do what’s best for the group, and you’ve got to make those decisions and live with them.”

He would have liked to have done more, he says, with neighborhood stabilization programs and economic empowerment zones, as well as the implementation of robotics programs in Birmingham high schools, which is a longtime passion of his.

But ultimately, he says, he’s satisfied. “I believe that the city is a much better place than it was four years ago when I was elected council president, or nine years ago when I was appointed to the City Council. I know that the city’s a better place when you look at the body of work that I have done and participated in and worked to make a reality. “

What Happened

When Lundy announced in May that he would not be seeking re-election, it drew dramatic reactions from some of his fellow councilors, some of whom suggested Bell was forcing Lundy out of office with threats to his job at Regions Bank.

“I know you aren’t going to agree on everything, but you shouldn’t have to choose between your job and serving the public,” Councilor Sheila Tyson remarked from the dais. Councilor Steven Hoyt ominously remarked, “The day of reckoning will come when things will be dealt with like they should.”

Lundy maintains there was no such conspiracy.

“I was offered a promotion and I took it,” he says. He’s now a senior vice president at Regions, which he said would have pulled too much of his attention away from the council.

“If I can’t do a job all the way, I’m not going to half do it,” he says. His fellow councilors “are free to read into something. They have their own imagination, and sometimes it’s active,” he said.

Of course, the animosity between Lundy and Bell was far from imagined. A physical altercation between the two during a council meeting received national attention in December 2015. Though Bell’s charges against Lundy eventually were dropped, the incident significantly eroded public confidence in City Hall.

Lundy winces when the incident is mentioned. But he doesn’t argue that it had an impact — albeit a small one, he insists — on the results of Oct. 3’s election.

“I think all of the four years, not just one moment in time, helped to bring us to where we are today,” he says. “I don’t think any one incident, but I think it was a combination of a multitude of things that led to the change. Did I play a part in that? Probably. But when I think you look at the total picture, it was just a blip.”

Austin, on the other hand, has a succinct answer for his election loss.

Johnathan Austin

“I would say that my election was certainly a result of the friction that existed between the mayor and the council,” he says. “That was the main issue that voters had with me … Of course, as president of the council, I’m the one that has to bear the brunt of it.”

The context of the other election results, particularly Woodfin’s win, has made Austin optimistic despite his loss.

Both Lundy and Austin have expressed enthusiasm for Woodfin’s win. Austin was present at Woodfin’s victory party Oct. 3 despite his own political loss. He says he’s “excited about the future” because he believes Woodfin “is going to do everything he possibly can to communicate with the council and make sure the council is informed.”

“You see what happens when the mayor is not communicating with the council, and we were still able to get things done,” he says. “It just didn’t look good. It was ugly getting done. But now, imagine that we have a mayor who has campaigned on the promise that he is going to work with every single council member, and he was elected by 7,000 votes because of it. … I’d like to see what it’d be like to work with someone who does want to work with everyone.”

Lundy said Woodfin’s win in the election brings “hope” to the city.

“He could very well become the face of progressive politics as we know it in America. The guy has a great story and a bright future.”

Lundy cautions anyone who doesn’t “get on the Woodfin wagon.”

“The voters will remember them, because they came out overwhelmingly for this guy’s vision and what he ran on.” he says. “Anyone who lines up against that, whether they’re on the council or the commission or the state Legislature, the voters are going to make a way for this young fellow’s vision to transform this city.”

Austin has a similarly dire prognoses for those positioned against Woodfin.

“When you have the old guard still in place, and that would include all of those organizations and individuals that chose the other candidate over Woodfin, they have lost their relevance in today’s politics in Birmingham,” he says. “I hope this is a signal to those legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, who are running for reelection in 2018 that the people have been engaged. … This election should serve as a wake-up call that things are not going to continue to be done the same way they have always been done. We’re tired of that in Birmingham.”

Rafferty seems much less at peace with the results of the election. Her loss, she says, was partially due to the influence of “two special interest groups that were interested in changing the overall setup of the council itself.” When asked to name those groups, she pauses for several moments.

“The Jefferson County Democratic Party wanted a Democrat in the seat, even though it’s a nonpartisan seat,” she said. Her affiliation with the Libertarian Party and fiscal conservatism led to them taking “an extremely active interest” in her race,” she said.

Hunter Williams, who defeated Rafferty with nearly 72 percent of the vote, disputes this.

“My campaign was in no way partisan, which is one of the nice things about municipal elections,” he wrote in an email. “My campaign received no money from either party.”

Rafferty offers more explanations for her loss, including the lack of debates during the runoff election, myopic voters, fake news, the dangers of campaigning door-to-door as a woman, and a lack of public knowledge about what councilors are actually capable of doing.

“Any candidate who goes around and makes promises to do things, unless they’re already in the job and they know what they can and can’t do, then they’re not necessarily speaking from a trustworthy platform, I’ll put it that way,” she says.

That’s what makes her “very nervous” about Woodfin’s election, she says. “Looking at his qualifications for office, I am very hesitant to be positive or negative because he has no administrative experience,” she says. “And a lot of the things I heard being promised are things that the mayor cannot achieve. The mayor may want to champion (issues), but his primary job is as administrator of the city … . If the administrative head spends all of his time advocating, then he’s not running his departments. He’s not making the administrative decisions he needs to make that are in the best interests of the city.”

A Future — Or Not — in Politics

As for plans for the future in politics?

Birmingham City Council

“I don’t have one,” said Rafferty, growing teary-eyed. “I don’t know what to do next, because I’m at a loss. It hurts my heart to not be able to keep doing this. And it’s not about the election; I was here to do a job. I wasn’t here to be popular. … I was here to try and make things better for city government, in communities I represent and in other communities around the city, and hopefully to make this a place where people wanted to come and live and work or be entertained … . I’m going to miss all of that. And that’s all I have to say.”

Austin, meanwhile, says he has no plans to return to politics.

“My plan is to practice law and serve the community that way,” he says. “I feel like I have certainly served my time as a Birmingham City Council member and I am grateful for every moment that I was able to serve, to the last day. I’m very thankful for that. But in my future, I don’t see myself being in politics. I believe that’s not something you do forever. It’s not a long-term job … . I’ve served my time.”

Austin added that he planned to make himself “open and available to help, give advice, anything (Woodfin and the new council) need.”

Lundy said he was open to working as a public servant in the future, but he stressed that anything he did would be contingent on his faith.

“There is a huge void in government right now of capable, competent, qualified leaders,” he said. “Because of that void, I think people will be calling upon folks who have experience. I may be one of those people called upon. But I operate on a different clock; I operate on, ‘Thus sayeth the Lord.’ So, if God doesn’t give me the vision, I won’t step out. It’s that simple.”

“What would help serve Birmingham as well would be to have qualified business owners, people with terminal degrees like accountants and architects and doctors and lawyers, get involved in the political process,” Lundy continued, before pausing to chuckle. “I pray others step up so that folks like me don’t have to stay in.”


Editor’s note: Shortly before the Oct. 3 runoff election, Rafferty’s surname changed, by marriage, to Abbott. Since she was known as Rafferty for the vast majority of her tenure as councilor, that is the name by which she is referred here.