March 8 marked the 100th day of Randall Woodfin’s first term as mayor of Birmingham — a major benchmark for any newly elected politician. Woodfin spent much of last year’s campaign laying out his plan for this first stretch of his tenure in office, in opinion columns, on his website and along the campaign trail.
It was an ambitious slate of objectives to accomplish in just more than three months: conduct an audit, eliminate nepotism, increase neighborhoods’ input in the budgeting process and assess a wide variety of issues facing the city through a citizen-led transition team, among many others.
Now, nearly two weeks after the 100-day benchmark, those goals remain in various stages of realization. Some of them, such as the audit and the appointment of a LGBT liaison to the mayor’s staff, are nearing completion, with announcements, Woodfin said, coming soon. But others remain farther down the road, some dependent on the results of the audit, which is slated to be completed in early April, and others dependent on the slow-turning wheels of city government.
Woodfin spoke with BirminghamWatch on Wednesday about which campaign promises his administration has been able to meet, which ones it hasn’t, and his outlook on his term so far.
BirminghamWatch: Looking back at your first 100 days as mayor, what were some unexpected challenges you had to adjust to?
Randall Woodfin: I think the pace, the pace and the demand. The demand is high, being able to address all these issues and find a balance of addressing all of those issues at the exact same time. That was an adjustment, but it only took a couple of weeks. We’ve been at it now for a lot of weeks. We’re very settled in now. I’m humbled by the team I have. It’s a pretty good team, and we feel we can move on it and execute any and all things that come before us, because that’s what the people have charged us to do.
BW: During your “First 100” presentation March 16, you announced several changes you’d be making as a result of your transition committees’ reports but added that you were still working through all the information they’d given you. Now that you’ve had a little more time to study their findings and recommendations, what else sticks out as something you’d like to implement?
Randall Woodfin: One of the things is the recommendations around housing. Today, I went to an event where Wells Fargo made a donation to Habitat for Humanity and REV Birmingham. Two categories we talk about all the time are housing and supporting entrepreneurs. I just thought it was fitting, because everything we’re trying to do includes those two things.
It’s not enough to just tear down homes. We have to find a way to make sure we have enough roofs in our city. If we can continue to find partnerships on the housing development side, I think that’s very critical, because what Herschell (Hamilton, co-chair of the transition team’s public safety and neighborhood revitalization committee) said was, it’s disproportionate. We’re tearing down houses, but we’re not replacing them.
So you’re going to see a lot of energy between our community development department engaging private developers and other stakeholder groups to find a way to build more homes in this city.
BW: One of the promises you made during the campaign was that you would appoint an LGBT liaison to serve on your executive staff during your first 100 days in office. Is that still a priority?
Woodfin: We’re very close. What we’re excited about is a couple of things. One, keeping our promise. It’s important to keep a promise. Two, I think it’s important to show that City Hall can be open. City Hall can be progressive. City Hall can be attentive to all stakeholder groups in this city. We’re showing that. I look forward to that announcement. I look forward to several announcements.
Here’s the deal: when we talk about the mayor’s office of social justice, it includes LGBTQ rights. It includes environmental justice which is, of course, attached to sustainability. It will include the Hispanic community, and it will include many other things as well, (such as) re-entry services for those who have been part of the criminal justice system. In all those spaces, you will see many announcements, and I look forward to it.
BW: Another 100-day promise you made during the campaign was to implement a “participatory budgeting” program, allowing for neighborhood leaders to determine which projects in their neighborhoods receive city funding. Have you made any progress toward enacting that?
Woodfin: Yes and no. Yes in the form of talking with everybody that’s on our finance team, telling them this is what I want to do. No in the sense of the time. With participatory budgeting, you’d need to start a year out from the budget. For us, that would have been last July. Because of the time we came in, we had a short window to not only pass the (FY 2018) budget that already needed to pass, but a short window to get this (FY 2019) budget in front of the council. July 1 is what, 90 days away? It’s almost here.
From that standpoint, we won’t be able to start the participatory budget process for this fiscal year. But we will start it for the next year, because it requires a plan. It requires timing and a schedule. You need a long runway for that to be successful.
BW: You started the process of building the FY 2019 budget in January. After last year’s much-delayed budget, how has that process been?
Woodfin: The process has been very interesting. People have been very used to doing things the same way around here, and it hasn’t necessarily yielded more efficiencies or deliverable services for their department. With (the city’s new strategy of) zero-based budgeting, everybody had to start from scratch.
Everything’s on the table for this upcoming budget. I want everybody to know that. Everything’s up for grabs, everything’s up for discussion.
We’re having a conversation with department heads to say, “On the extreme end, (tell us) every wish you want. And if we had to cut, what is it that you need — not necessarily want, but need?” And then finding a middle ground to then be able to say, “This is going to work best with this department.” There has been a lot of interaction with department heads, a lot of back-and-forth, and there will continue to be back-and-forth before we are ready to engage the council.
(City Council President) Valerie Abbott is chair of the budget and finance committee and has been aware of some of the conversation’s we’ve had with our department heads, and I look forward to sharing this information with the council in a timely manner, well before July 1.
BW: You mentioned potentially making cuts to some departments, which ties into the performance audit you started when you entered office. When will we see results from that?
Woodfin: We look to have some information at the beginning of April, presented to us in full detail with recommendations on these departments: cost-saving measures, as it relates to efficiencies and delivering service, as well as some issues with personnel. So that’s been a very healthy process.
BW: The performance audit replaced your initial plan for a forensic audit of city finances.
Woodfin: There are three types of audits that exist. There is a standard financial audit that the city does annually, there’s a forensic audit and there’s a performance audit. When I was speaking as a candidate, I was pretty consistent in saying that we need to make sure departments are rightsized and that we need to make sure that they deliver services in the way they’re supposed to. We need to assess how these departments function. Everything I said is attached to an actual performance audit, but I was attaching it to the words “forensic audit.”
When you take a look at what a forensic audit means, there’s a couple of (obstacles). The biggest flag is, forensic audits cost millions of dollars. This is not a $100,000 or $500,000 project. A forensic audit, even just for one department, is extremely expensive. Two, with forensic audits, what you’re trying to see with that fine-toothed comb — it’s not necessarily about rightsizing. It’s more about, “We’ve identified something that’s wrong, or something that’s illegal.”
BW: During your campaign, you often talked about how city finances should be much more transparent. In fact, one of your 100-day promises was that you would have an online, searchable register of your expenditures and travel schedule. That hasn’t happened yet — are there still plans to do that?
Woodfin: We’re close. Transparency is one of our values. We over-communicate, over-share information. In the space of, whether it’s your business license, how our finances are allocated, etc., all this information will be available online. By the new fiscal year (in July), we will have all of these systems up and running. It’s taken some time to come in and assess some of the things that we deem inefficient, and now we’re in the process of saying, “How can it be more efficient?”
When we get this information back in the beginning of April, we’ll then go into our next phase of making it better and being able to share with people, “This is how we made it better. This is what costs we’ve been able to save by making it more efficient, by consolidating some things.”
Everything we do (will be searchable online). My whole schedule, including details of my agenda, meetings I’ve had while out of town, all that stuff.
BW: You also have five department head positions that need to be filled: police chief, human resources, information and technology, public works and finance.
Woodfin: By the new fiscal year (July 1), I want every new department head in place.
BW: Has the lack of leadership in those departments affected their functionality?
Woodfin: It has not. So where we currently are, I’ve been very open with the people who are currently in a leadership position. Every week we have meetings, in person, (saying), “This is what we need from this department, pushing the needle, and people have stepped up to the plate in their current positions. Everybody’s all-hands-on-deck. Everybody’s playing as a team, everybody’s communicating, and everybody understands their role. So it hasn’t necessarily hampered or slowed progress.
BW: Your transition committee identified a major problem for the future, which is that the city has been underfunding pensions for city employees since 2002. How do you plan to address that?
Woodfin: I tasked Daniel Coleman, who is the co-chair of the transparent and efficient government committee, with being responsible for bringing recommendations to us with regards to rightsizing our pension. (But) part of my waiting approach is attaching some cost-saving measures from this performance audit that we did, and when we roll out this new fiscal year, say, “Are there more resources we can put toward balancing our pension?”
BW: Last September, you wrote a column for AL.com saying that one of your priorities in the first 100 days would be codifying an anti-nepotism policy at City Hall. Has there been any progress made on that?
Woodfin: No progress yet. Once we’ve gotten out of this legislative session, engaging them on some of the things that we’ve needed from our legislators this session, I can then go into, in conjunction with the mayor’s office and our legal department, engaging the City Council, codifying some things as it relates to nepotism.
BW: Along those lines, one of the things you’d mentioned specifically was the “hookup culture” surrounding the previous administration’s contracts with outside legal counsel. What steps have you taken to reverse that?
Woodfin: What we’ve started is to engage a process of scaling back. You would think you could enter office and just be able to tell a lawyer, “Thank you but no thank you, your service is no longer needed.” But if they’re already in the middle of providing that service, in the middle of court cases, in the middle of settlements, etc., you just can’t cut it off like that.
So what we’re doing is phasing it out. And once we phase it out, we’ll definitely be able to easily identify some cost savings in that space. That’s something I’m excited about.
BW: One of the biggest milestones in your first 100 days has been the city’s commitment to building a new open-air stadium at the BJCC. That’s required some help from the state Legislature, which just passed a bill that will allow the city to collect revenue from a rental car tax, which will in turn fund the stadium. But the stadium has attracted some vigorous criticism, including from State Rep. John Rogers, who says that the city won’t see any financial returns from its investment in the stadium. How do you respond to that?
Woodfin: Here’s the most important thing people need to know: in the (state) House of Representatives, out of the 17 (members of the Jefferson County delegation) who voted on that bill, 14 said yes. So … 14 out of 17 people disagree with that notion. And those are (Rogers’) colleagues.
But I think the other thing is this: I am pro-progress. At a certain point, in a position of wanting to move something forward where certain people may disagree with you, sometimes you just have to show them through action that things will actually work out and be beneficial to this community. As mayor, in no way, shape, or form would I support this if it wasn’t beneficial to the community. But the truth is, it is.
I don’t have to sell that to you in any other city that’s in proximity to us: Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Atlanta. In the space of tourism and events, they invest in their current infrastructure and they have the ability to grow that tourism space. We are a progressive city, and we will do the same thing, because we believe that this return helps our city, it helps the quality of life in our city, it grows our tax base — which will be used toward a neighborhood revitalization fund to invest in all 99 neighborhoods — and it actually does benefit the entire community.
BW: Finally, how do you assess your performance as mayor so far? In terms of what you promised during your campaign, how would you grade your first 100 days in office?
Woodfin: I don’t know if I’m the best person to grade myself, but I will say this: There have been a lot of things we’ve attempted to accomplish in this first 100 days, even separate from the things I said I wanted to do as a candidate. The things we were not able to do, if we can get them accomplished prior to the new fiscal year, I still think that’s in the 100-day window’s grace period.