Tragic City: Residents suffer as mayor, council feud

By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

The Birmingham City Council's Budget and Finance committee hearing with Mayor William Bell held Monday August 8, 2016. (Frank Couch photos, The Birmingham Times)
The Birmingham City Council’s Budget and Finance committee hearing with Mayor William Bell held Monday August 8, 2016. (Frank Couch photos, The Birmingham Times)

Bitterness and standoffs roiling the City Council chambers. Clashes and confrontations on display in the public arena. Potholes proliferating on worn streets. Weeds tightening their hold in vacant lots.

Birmingham is quite familiar with contentious politics, and the situation at City Hall in summer 2016 seems to be sinking to new lows—dragging much of the rest of the city down with it.

That’s the consensus opinion that emerged from a wide range of interviews conducted by the Birmingham Times over the last few weeks, both with those on the inside wondering how to make things right and with those on the outside wondering why nothing is getting done.

On one point, there’s firm agreement: The relationship between Mayor William Bell and the majority of the nine-member City Council is as strained and tense as any in Birmingham’s political history.

“This is pretty awful,” said council member Valerie Abbott, a veteran of 15 years in the District 3 seat. “Bell is at fault because he doesn’t communicate with the council. The council is at fault because we have a group of members who are just out to get the mayor. We have forgotten who we work for.”

“I have never seen it this bad between a Birmingham mayor and city council” said attorney Emory Anthony, a familiar face in city governance who closely follows local politics. “There is a lack of willingness to work with Bell. If [the mayor] says, ‘Let’s make the city the most livable city in the world,’ they will ask, ‘Why?’”

Meanwhile, a litany of complaints arises from downtown corners, well-established neighborhoods, and bustling commercial blocks. Asphalt needs to be repaired. Abandoned lots and public green places need to be mowed.

Betty Clark, who lives in Druid Hills, blames the City Council.

“If anyone knows how to bring life back to the city of Birmingham, William Bell does,” she said. “I think it’s the members of the council [holding things up]. I think they need to cooperate with him more. I think they need to have confidence in our mayor.”

Keith Aaron, who lives in the Arlington–West End community, said the mayor hasn’t done enough for inner-city neighborhoods.

Since Bell has been in office “the neighborhoods are not on the agenda, obviously,” he said. “The youth are not on the agenda. It’s like only downtown, the city center, Avondale, Woodlawn are the only neighborhoods getting attention.”

Efforts to Revitalize the City

That’s not true, according to the mayor.

“I take the welfare and well-being of each citizen very seriously,” he said. “Our neighborhoods are of prime concern each and every day. I speak daily with the city’s department heads to challenge them to do more with less, to be innovative, to be creative, and to provide the best in city services to each neighborhood and community.

“We are working on programs like the Bethel Ensley Action Task Inc. [BEAT] program to revitalize Ensley. We are building new homes in the Enon Ridge community. We have hired the best of the best from the Railroad Park project to develop the Pratt City superblock. We continue to see successes in Woodlawn, as well as in new spots like East Lake and Norwood. The Land Bank Authority is beginning to have an impact on getting rid of vacant lots and abandoned homes.”

Still, some council members are vocal in their dissatisfaction with the mayor’s leadership. That was on display during a Budget and Finance Committee meeting on Monday, Aug. 8. Councilors sparred with the mayor over everything from his lack of attendance at finance meetings to whether Director of Communications April Odom worked for the mayor or the city.

In an interview last week, Council President Johnathan Austin said the mayor “refuses to work with the council. He doesn’t do anything that even promotes, unity, harmony, or working together. In 2013, after the tumultuous time with [former Council President Roderick Royal], he said was going to ‘reset the relationship with the council.’ The only thing he reset were his efforts to continue to be a dictator. He had and has no intention of working with anyone.”

Behind the Rift

The current impasse at City Hall was unthinkable six years ago, when Austin and Bell were allies. Austin even campaigned for the mayor in late-2009.

Some say a series of incidents split the two: one internal, the second more public.

In the first, which took place about a year into the 2013–2017 term, Councilman Marcus Lundy, another Bell ally at the time, felt the mayor was not sharing information with the council. Lundy voiced his concerns to Austin, who felt the same way. Both believed the mayor expected blind loyalty and felt he should not be questioned about information, documents, attachments.

The mayor, however, has said that he freely shares information with any council member who asks.

Those differences over shared information became the first step toward a skirmish that would evolve into a full-scale war.

The second incident caused an irreparable split between the mayor and council leadership, many say.

Here’s what happened in the fall of 2014, according to three separate sources: Jarvis Patton Sr., the mayor’s chief of operations, told his son that there were a bunch of idiots and clowns on the council and that he (Jarvis) had the votes needed to get what he wanted. Patton’s son shared that information with Birmingham lawyer Courtney French, who is one of Austin’s closest friends. Those comments angered Austin and Lundy. Austin, still an ally of Bell’s at the time, asked the mayor do something about Patton Sr. Bell said he would look into it and talk to Patton Sr.

Some council members said Patton Sr. denied making the statements and said his son didn’t make them either, but they didn’t believe him. They felt Patton Sr. never owned up to the statement, and the mayor gave him a pass.

Austin was angry that the mayor wouldn’t get rid of Patton Sr. Bell, on the other hand, was angry that Austin had the audacity to tell him how to handle a longtime friend and loyal ally, according to the sources.

Sources say the relationship between the mayor and council leadership has been strained ever since.

Efforts to reach French for comment were unsuccessful. Austin would only say that Patton is not the issue. Lundy, since his physical altercation with the mayor last year, does not comment on matters not related to city business.

A source close to the mayor did not deny that the councilors shared those concerns about Patton Sr. with Bell, but said Patton Sr. had been reined in and is no longer vocal in a lot of public matters.

Fire Station vs. Historic Theater

A symptom of all that is wrong with the Birmingham City Council and the mayor can be summed up with the ongoing fight over Fire Station Number 8 in the Kingston community.

Over the years, there had been complaints about mold and potential asbestos in the building, which residents viewed as an eyesore. The facility was closed in May 2016 and demolished in late July.

The closing left residents in the area without a fire station and, according to the mayor’s office, increased fire department response times. The station has been on the City Council agenda eight times over the last eight weeks as part of the phase 2 bond projects list. And after eight times, no action has been taken—even after Kingston residents marched on City Hall, signed petitions, and staged a sit-in on Monday in City Council chambers.

While the mayor wants $3 million to pay for a new fire station in Kingston, council members want approximately $4 million to fund renovations for the historic Carver Theatre, home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, in downtown Birmingham.

Including both the fire station and the Carver Theatre, at the $4 million requested by the council, in the budget would create a $3.8 million deficit, and the projects list must remain in balance, according to the mayor’s office. The Carver is on the list at $2.2 million, as it has always been, they say.

“The mayor does not care about black Birmingham,” Austin said. “The Carver Theatre is our building. It’s our facility, and it has been in disrepair. If we keep up the way we’re going, we’re going to have to rebuild the Carver Theatre just like we have to rebuild Fire Station Number 8 because we didn’t take care of what we already had.”

Bell said he cares about all areas of the city and “the council’s request for $4 million exclusively for the Carver and the push from the council president are not backed up with documentation outlining where or how that money will be spent. We have so many critical needs—the Kingston Fire Station, our police department training facilities, and others that have an impact on the public safety and well-being of our neighborhoods—that we cannot just put money into a project that has no place to spend it.”

Austin said it was the council that recommended $3 million be added to the city’s capital budget to rebuild the fire station.

“The City Council has always been in support of rebuilding Fire Station Number 8 which is why it was included in the City Council’s response to the capital budget,” Austin said. “The council’s budget recommendations are now in the mayor’s hands. It is up to him to operate in the citizens’ best interests.”

Two other factors may come into play, according to some observers.

One, the mayor’s critics say he doesn’t want to fund the Carver because the venue’s board chairman Bishop Jim Lowe, senior pastor of the Guiding Light Church, led the fight against changes to the Mayor-Council Act to give Bell more power.

The mayor’s office has denied that is the reason.

Two, the fire station happens to be in the district of Councilman William Parker, who has turned into one of the mayor’s staunchest allies on the council. Critics say the city knew about the problems at the fire station for years and never did anything to make repairs.

“This is a public-safety matter,” Parker said. “The residents of the Kingston community deserve a new fire station, but this is not just for Kingston. People in East Birmingham, Inglenook, Woodlawn, North Avondale are in the service area for this particular fire station.”

Parker added, “A lot of people utilize this fire station to get their blood pressure checked, as well. It’s a cornerstone of the Kingston community.”

The entire matter is a sign of the juvenile behavior that has permeated Birmingham’s city government, said attorney Anthony.

“Go ahead and appropriate the money for the fire station. If the mayor doesn’t use it correctly, then it’s on him,” he said. “I don’t think they really care about the people. That’s the sad part. That’s the biggest problem in everything.”

What About Residents?

Citizens are split over who is responsible for the rift at City Hall, but they agree on one thing: They’re not seeing much improvement in some neighborhoods.

“You buy a new car, and your car gets torn up on the streets. It’s terrible,” said Arlington–West End resident Keith Aaron. “The African-American neighborhoods are not part of the agenda. That’s my personal opinion. Druid Hills, Titusville, Fountain Heights, Norwood—those neighborhoods don’t get built, up but downtown does. The neighborhoods don’t get improvement.”

Betty Clark, president of the Druid Hills Beautification Committee, said, “There is a house in back of me [where] the weeds are as tall as I am. I don’t know who owns this particular lot. I never would have bought a home up here if I had been exposed to what I am exposed to now. It’s gone from weeds to trees.”

The mayor’s office said the city has pushed a massive cleanup and revitalization initiative through which more than 400 structures have been torn down and thousands of acres and lots have been cleaned. Those efforts will continue with $1.4 million for weed-abatement and more than $1.3 million for demolition budgeted in the fiscal 2017 spending plan, they say.

All of that is on hold for now, though, because the mayor and council can’t settle on a budget, which was supposed to be adopted July 1. On Monday, Aug. 8, the two sides spent three hours in a budget and finance committee meeting and couldn’t agree.

“Nobody wants to give in at all,” councilwoman Abbott said. “Somebody is going to have to help us to meet in the middle. As long as there are five on one side and four on the other side, it’s just going to be a mess. I think it’s extremely sad. It’s hurting Birmingham. It’s hurting our reputation. It makes us look like a bunch of half-wits.”