By Johnathan Austin
Over the last few months, the Birmingham City Council has been subjected to some very harsh criticisms, and has had our collective work as the city’s Legislative branch of government demonized by fellow elected officials, local leaders, respected members of the community and members of the media. While it is par for the course when you’re a public official entrusted with the oversight of billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money, the fodder has been malicious on many accounts and peppered with so many self-serving untruths by some of these same individuals. The good work this City Council has done, and will continue to do, on behalf of the citizens, has been wholly and unfairly mischaracterized on several fronts. However, this will not deter us from continuing to do what is best for the largest and most progressive city in the state.
Since 2013, my colleagues and I have been steadfast in our collective goal to push Mayor William Bell and his administrative staff to clean up blighted neighborhoods and revitalize communities all over Birmingham. The responsibility of ensuring that overgrown lots and city-owned property is well maintained lies solely in the Mayor’s wheelhouse. It was this Council that, after years of being stonewalled, worked in conjunction with the Mayor’s office to have the public nuisance and eyesore known as Larkway Gardens permanently demolished. We delivered on our promise to have Uber on our streets, and have worked tirelessly to enhance the relationship between the City and UAB. Our work in Montgomery and Washington, D.C. has yielded several “wins” for Birmingham that include securing a $20 million federal grant to improve local public transit and strengthening our relationship with the U.S. Department of Labor, which fully continues to support this Council’s goal to raise the local minimum wage. Just last year, the Council took a monumental and unprecedented move when we declared we would not pass the City’s budget if it did not include a clear plan and funding to clean up and revitalize our neighborhoods. Considered a “bold move” by many, we simply were doing exactly what we were elected to do: act on the reasonable requests of the citizens.
The level of cooperation that this Council has shown to the Mayor is unprecedented in Birmingham. Yet, it is not always reciprocated by the Mayor. It is this Council that has voted to approve more than 6,000 different items that the Mayor has placed before us on the City Council agenda, and only denying two items. However, the Mayor flat out refuses to sign off on legislation and contracts that the Council approves regarding Council business, which continues to hurt our neighborhoods. Because of the Mayor’s actions, there are contractors doing work on behalf of the City that are not being paid, even though their contracts have been voted on and approved by this Council.
The mischaracterization that this Council is difficult to work with, that this Council doesn’t support the Mayor and the Administration, that this Council wants to strip the Mayor of his ability to lead and make decisions, that this Council is not about the business of the city or the people who live in it, couldn’t be further from the truth.
The truth is each of us were elected by our constituents to represent them on issues that they care about. The truth is we take our roles as stewards of the public’s money very seriously. The truth is the proposed changes to the Mayor-Council Act, which clearly lays out the roles and responsibilities of the Mayor and Council alike, are an unnecessary power grab that, if passed, will set a precedence diminishing the sanctity of democracy, not only in Birmingham, but across the state of Alabama. The truth is even as we continue to face an unprecedented attack from members of the Jefferson County Legislative Delegation, attempting to orchestrate a state takeover of Birmingham, we will continue to be steadfast in our collective goal of improving the quality of life for the citizens of Birmingham and making our beloved city a beacon of progress, inclusion, unity and access that we can all be proud of. The truth is the legacy of this Council will show that we were transformational, much to the chagrin of some, and we took bold and appropriate steps to shift the paradigm in City government and continue to protect and revitalize our long forgotten neighborhoods.
Johnathan F. Austin is President of the Birmingham City Council