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Reward and punishment: How Johnathan Austin got re-elected president

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By Barnett Wright

Times staff writer

 

Reward and punishment.

That was a message sent by five Birmingham City Councilmembers this week to the Alabama Legislature, the Birmingham mayor’s office and even some members of the City Council.

The panel on Tuesday re-elected Johnathan Austin as president by a razor-thin 5-to-4 margin.

That vote set in motion a series of moves that led to some councilors, who were on the short end of the vote, being moved out of offices, reassigned council parking spaces and stripped of committee chairmanships.

But the message went beyond City Hall.

“The Alabama legislature only strengthened our resolve to do what’s best for Birmingham at the local level,” Austin said in a statement.

Reshuffling Priorities

Last week, state lawmakers approved changes to the Mayor-Council Act that give Birmingham’s mayor more power and require new council leadership elections. Many believed the amended law would leave Austin vulnerable—especially because it’s no secret that he and Mayor William Bell have been at odds. In fact, some believed Austin no longer had enough votes to remain as president until 2017.

But Austin, still angry because lawmakers never met with the council about modifications to the Mayor-Council Act, wanted to deliver a message to his opponents and teach a lesson about building and rebuilding coalitions.

Few remember he first came into the council presidency with the support of William Parker, Valerie Abbott, Kim Rafferty, and Marcus Lundy; the only one who remained in his corner.

Over time—and for the recent vote—Austin was able to get two strong-willed, independent councilors, Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson, and then add Steven Hoyt, who is known for being as strategic as he is tactical.

Parker, who ran against Austin for president on Tuesday, never really had a chance. Nor did Jay Roberson, the incumbent president pro-tem, who was up against Hoyt, for pro-tem. Hoyt won with the Austin majority.

With Austin and Hoyt in charge, even changes to committee assignments were calculated.

Tyson replaced Parker as chair of the Parks and Recreation committee, which oversees millions of dollars in bond work, determines which parks are first in line for renovations, and is responsible for all events at Legion Field. And Hoyt as replacement for Roberson, as president pro tem, has the ability to influence every measure that comes through the council.

Austin played his hand to near perfection on Tuesday. Apparently, those who sought to replace him missed one key aspect of his biography: Austin falls in the middle of six children. If he’s learned anything from being part of a large family, it’s how to build a coalition.