By Ed Reynolds
The Birmingham City Council sinks to new depths with an unprecedented round of name-calling and insults. Councilor Jimmy Blake has only a handful of meetings remaining before his eight-year tenure on the council ends, and some council members seem determined to make it an unforgettable time.Veteran activist Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth delivers the morning invocation. Prompted by Cincinnati’s recent racial turmoil, Shuttlesworth is hosting Cincinnati newspaper reporters and photographers doing a story on Birmingham’s Civil Rights legacy. Shuttlesworth notes that he and the reporting crew were denied access to the city jail due to their failure to make prior arrangements. As photos are taken outside the jail, Shuttlesworth laughs at the irony that he could not get into the jail after having spent several nights there decades ago when championing civil rights.
Public Health 101
Mayor Kincaid announces Jefferson County Health Department recommendations for minimizing infection by mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus: removing old tires, cleaning gutters, avoiding outdoor activities between dusk and dawn, and using proper insect repellent. Kincaid says that Jefferson County will distribute mosquito larvae-killing tablets (to be placed in standing water) at area courthouses, but adds that the county “has not turned to spraying as we have in Birmingham,” partly due to the large area involved. Councilor Pat Alexander warns that a dead bird was found in her district over the weekend, and urges all citizens to refrain from touching the bird. Councilor Blake urges daytime spraying; “Controlling mosquito populations is Public Health 101.” Street and Sanitation Department chief Stephen Fancher replies that the spray is not effective in sunlight, according to the pesticide’s label. “Mosquitoes can breed in a paper cup in a ditch,” warns Fancher, stressing that the public must take an active role to combat the summer nemesis. “All you need is a couple of ounces of stagnant water,” says Fancher. Urging the public not to panic, Blake cautions, “[The mosquito population] is a serious vector of infection. It always has been. It’s probably done more to hurt and kill people than anything else in the world.”Petition numbers affirmed
Probate Judge Mike Bolin confirms the number of signatures [10 percent of registered voters] on petitions for an ordinance that would give Birmingham residents a voice in policy concerning solid waste disposal. Bolin says that the initial petition, received on August 15, did not have the sufficient number of signatures. The deficiency was brought to the attention of the petition committee, as required by law. The necessary number of signatures was collected within the next week. The council can vote the ordinance up or down, but if it votes to reject, the ordinance will appear on the October 9 council election ballot.Council peers into the future
Proposed information management consultant services between the city and Advanced Systems Design, Inc., of Tallahassee, Florida, elicit the ire of Councilor Blake, who asks, “Would somebody tell me what we’re gonna get for this $800,000 in consulting?” Mayoral chief of staff Al Herbert, acting director of the Department of Information Management, explains that the service begins with “an assessment or inventory” of needs to move the city ahead in managing information. The city’s original computer system was installed in the early 1970s on a mainframe platform that is “an antiquated method of programming and using for client-servers,” notes Herbert. The money will also provide a “strategic plan” to educate city employees, as well as a “national search” for a director to replace Herbert on a full-time basis.
Blake, acknowledging that the current administration has not been in place for very long, complains about the inability to access information necessary for city decision-making. According to Blake, the city’s “information management has been trying to squirrel the data and make sure that nobody gets any information about anything.” The councilor urges that bids be taken: “For $800,000 we ought to be able to hire a new department.” Herbert informs Blake that a “request for proposal” [RFP] regarding information management was issued in April 2000, with 14 proposals finally narrowed to three.
Councilor Alexander asks if management information is destined to be privatized, which Herbert denies emphatically. Predicting that council meetings will one day be accessible online, Herbert also foresees access to City Hall via “hand-held pocket recorders.” Blake continues to argue against the consultant expense, noting that the computer business is “the most competitive business in the world,” which causes prices to continually plummet. “If we’ve got 60 people in that [information] department [Herbert confirms the number] and they don’t know what our inventory or needs are, what have they been doing?” Councilor Lee Loder interrupts to explain that the employees have been responding to city concerns on a daily basis by “managing the mainframe we have now.” Blake votes against the proposal, which passes, proposing that the item be delayed “till you-know-what freezes over.”
“Adult” cable audit
Councilor Sandra Little continues her weekly challenge against transferring money from “salary surplus” for other city projects. Various city departments will lose a combined $115,000 to the Finance Department’s “Adult” Fees Account in order to fund an audit of the city’s contract with Time Warner Cable. [It's the second week in a row that "adult" has mistakenly appeared in place of the word "audit" on the agenda handout available at each council meeting.] Little supports the cable audit but opposes funding other projects that she feels should not take precedent over problems in her district. Little denounces renovation of City Hall’s cafeteria “when we have a Sneaky Pete’s and a deli across the street!”
Councilor Blake notes with irony that councilors who once endorsed the use of salary surplus dollars for budget shortfalls now protest taking money from salary surplus. Blake does not want to pay “another consultant,” labeling outside hiring as “irrational.” Blake notes, “We’ve got 4,000 plus employees in the city of Birmingham, and I don’t believe we ought to be handing out money to outside people over and over again.” Blake says better television service would be available if Birmingham undertook a bid process for cable service, including more channels being offered “like they do in Montgomery.” Mayor Kincaid responds that the city undertakes a cable franchise audit every three years, with the previous audit uncovering $1.2 million owed the city. The audit is approved after the Mayor requests that “adult” be corrected to read “audit.”
Councilor Aldrich Gunn agrees with Blake that there is a monopoly in Birmingham on cable service. “When you’re competitive, the rates will be lower,” explains Gunn. As he denounces “filth” on television, Gunn condemns the “buck [sic] you!” attitude of cable monopolies.
Blake labels Bell a “fool”
A resolution allowing Council President Bell to enter into an agreement, not to exceed $100,000, with the law firm of Haskell, Slaughter, Young, and Rediker, LLC ignites council tempers. Haskell, Slaughter is representing the council in Mayor Kincaid’s lawsuit seeking to reverse the transfer of assets to the Birmingham Water Works Board. Councilors Loder, Blake, and Johnson oppose the asset transfer, prompting controversy about whether the law firm is representing the entire council’s interests. When Blake asks who is instructing Haskell Slaughter about what action to take, Bell says that he was authorized by the council to do so. The near-weekly feud between Bell and Blake escalates when an irate Bell says debates of attorney fees should include lawyers representing the Mayor. Bell further suggests that discussion should extend to money Blake made off the sale of his house. “No matter how much you talk, it still does not rise to the level of $2.2 million that certain people received for their home after trying to force us to deal with American Water [Blake's choice to privately manage the Water Works],” says Bell, adding that Blake’s house was not worth that much. Bell continues to interrupt Blake, explaining that Blake sold his home so he could move to a house on the Warrior River. When Blake demands that the interruptions cease, Bell says he is treating Blake the way Blake treats others. Blake defends the selling of his home as entirely appropriate, challenging anyone to show that he has benefitted from his eight years on the council, as he claims other councilors have. After several more interruptions by Bell, Blake shouts, “You’re out of order, you fool!” As the two continue to spar verbally about who has the floor, Bell promises to admit that he is indeed out of order if Blake will pledge never to interrupt councilors again. Blake finally smiles and says, “Well, spank your own pee-pee, then!” Giggles circulate through the audience, and the insult is later replayed on the evening news.
September 4, 2001
February referendum expenses again denied
Councilor Bill Johnson remains disturbed that Birmingham citizens are losing rights due to the council’s refusal to pay election expenses of the February referendum vote concerning the fate of Water Works assets. “We work for the citizens, not the other way around. And they have the ultimate veto power over what we do here at the council. And I think not paying for this is a continuous slap in the face to the citizens of this city.” Councilor Little continues to cite advice from council attorneys to refrain from paying for the referendum until litigation is over. “I think it would be very stupid of me not to [follow the council attorneys' advice],” Little surmises. City Attorney Tamara Johnson’s opinion has not changed, explaining that the expenses are required to be paid, according to law. Councilor Blake notes that 85 percent of those who voted in the referendum want the assets transfer to the Water Works Board denied. Blake reminds the council chambers that initiatives and referendum [which generated the referendum action] is the way Bull Connor was removed when Birmingham switched from a commission-style government to the present mayor-council form.
Councilor Gunn says one of the worst things that has ever happened to him was his visit to court [the first in his life, according to Gunn] last week “for disposition [deposition]” regarding the Mayor’s lawsuit to reverse the asset transfer. Gunn mistakenly alludes to Blake’s presence on the Election Commission when the February referendum was approved. He also suggests that Councilor Blake is currently on the Election Commission illegally since Council President Bell has not officially declared himself a candidate. [The Election Commission consists of the mayor, council president, and city attorney.] Blake corrects Gunn, stating that Bell was on the Election Commission when the February referendum was approved. “I don’t think the public properly appreciates the brilliance of Mr. Aldrich Gunn,” says Blake: “Mr. Gunn’s job, which he does brilliantly, is to talk so long and about so many different things, that you forget what we were supposed to be talking about.” Mayor Kincaid corrects Gunn, indicating that Blake’s appointment to the Election Commission is consistent with state law since Bell has said he is a candidate. Bell argues that he has not filed a declaration of candidacy, and denies that he has raised any money [a candidacy is official once $1,000 has been raised]. “I will immediately resign my position on the Election Commission with great glee and enthusiasm for the future of this city,” Blake promises, if Bell agrees to sign an affidavit indicating that he will not be a candidate in the October council election. &