December 4, 2001Demon rum treads an inconsistent path
Food Fair Market’s application for an off-premise beer and wine license in the Fountain Heights community is a prime example of the City Council not wanting to appear insensitive to residential neighborhood desires, especially when it comes to selling booze. Attorney Ferris Ritchey, who has appeared before the council on several occasions (successfully defending the Lakeview District’s notorious Cueball Lounge), is representing the Food Fair Market. He dismisses as “suppositions” neighborhood fears that alcohol sales would increase the frequency of drug-related activity in the area. Referencing three other stores in the area that sell alcohol, Ritchey says his client is at a disadvantage in attracting store traffic. “There is no valid, legal reason that this man should not be allowed to sell beer and wine,” pleads the attorney.Neighborhood residents are appalled that “economic revitalization” is a primary reason some in the community favor alcohol sales. Irate citizens argue that more alcohol sales nullify gains made by the community to change its “drug-infested” image. But a store employee, who also lives in Fountain Heights, differs: “We don’t sell drugs. We’re just a convenience store.” Another resident says what she tries to “install [sic] in her children is a sense of fairness.” The woman believes that the store should be allowed to sell alcohol if other stores in the area are doing so. The council is ready to refuse the store’s request until Mayor Kincaid warns that neighborhood protests are not enough to forbid alcohol sales; an applicant can take the city to circuit court, forcing the city to pay legal fees. The council agrees to a delay so that the issue can be studied further after City Attorney Tamara Johnson recites the three scenarios whereby an alcohol license can be denied according to state code: if a nuisance is created, if the circumstances are clearly detrimental to adjacent residential neighborhoods, or if there is a violation of applicable zoning restrictions and regulations.
Montgomery frowns on neighborhood and city vehicles
Councilor Joel Montgomery addresses complaints from constituents that people are “running garages out of their homes” in the eastern area of Birmingham. Montgomery has personally witnessed “motors dropped out of cars in driveways,” and promises residents that he is taking care of the problem.
Montgomery later raises more automobile objections when the usage of the seven-vehicle fleet available to the council is brought up. “I was elected to be a ward of the taxpayers’ dollars,” explains Montgomery as he rails against “any one person [having] exclusive use of a vehicle that is not a moderate vehicle.” He is not pleased that an expensive vehicle such as the city’s Ford Expedition is driven exclusively by the current council administrator. (Previously, the council administrator and council president have had personal city vehicles, with five other vehicles available for the rest of the council to share.) Councilors Valerie Abbott and Gwen Sykes join Montgomery in voting no.
December 11, 2001
Teen parties create mayhem
Recent applications for alcohol licenses are quickly focusing the spotlight on public safety chairperson Councilor Sykes. L.R. Hall Auditorium, located near the Civil Rights District, is the latest battleground. Efforts are underway to renovate the building for community events, with representatives of the facility defending its cultural contributions and viable economic benefits to the local business district. Though alcohol is the legal issue before the council, it soon becomes apparent that “teenage parties” are the real problem. Councilor Carole Smitherman is concerned about traffic problems resulting from teen events as L.R. Hall representatives quickly respond that a moratorium has been placed on “youth parties” until recent complaints can be addressed. They acknowledge that college-age students have attempted to join the parties but were denied access due to their ages. They then often refused to leave the area when told. “Throughout the history of time, there’s always been dirty old men that want to look at little girls, and they’ll sit there and ride all night and won’t leave, and we can’t make them leave,” says one representative. Facility officials say the teens cannot afford to pay for security, so police have been asked to “donate” patrol time, which is impossible due to limited manpower, according to L.R. Hall representatives.Opposing teen parties at the facility is attorney Arthur Shores Lee, who complains that his nearby office building “has sustained damages of epic proportions due to the juvenile events.” Lee says that not only has a gun been waved in his face, but that he also had to call police after seeing a security guard being beaten up by several youths one evening. The attorney urges the council not to allow any alcohol at the facility, explaining that he currently has a collection of bullets gathered from his office roof. However, the council approves alcohol sales for special events at L.R. Hall, with Councilors Loder and Smitherman abstaining.
Residents of the Collegeville area are present to protest railroad trains blocking community streets, sometimes for as long as five hours. The neighborhood notes that 37 states have laws forbidding such blockage, and urge the council to adopt a resolution in accordance with an Alabama House of Representatives bill requiring trains to be moved in certain circumstances, placing a time limit on standing trains obstructing streets, and giving municipalities prosecution power, including setting penalties. School children are reportedly forced to crawl under standing trains to get to and from school.
Abbott forges lone path of dissent
Councilor Abbott is wasting little time inheriting predecessor Jimmy Blake’s position as a gauntlet-tossing insurgent, standing alone against the council on what she admits is an unpopular position. Raising eyebrows all around, Abbott stubbornly cautions that Mayor Kincaid’s recommendation providing $17,500 to each councilor to replenish last minute discretionary fund depletions by the previous council is nothing more than “pork.” Noting that she appreciates the Mayor working with the council to find more money, Abbott says she is “eminently qualified” to take the position, because only Councilor Sykes has less money than Abbott in remaining funds to be spent in respective councilors’ districts. “I know from the looks I’m getting up here, my comments are not popular,” laughs the councilor as she urges the passing of legislation that would forbid outgoing councilors from such action in the future. “I have a personal concern about our asking for, and receiving, additional ‘pork money’ to spend in our districts. I know ‘discretionary funds’ sounds better than ‘pork,’ but in reality, that is what this is,” argues Abbott. She urges the council to “suck it up and tough it out until the [new] budget comes in seven months, and then get the $30,000 that is allocated every year for us to spend.”
“I’ll do the heavy lifting on this one, since I was the one that recommended it,” says Mayor Kincaid as he prepares to defend his position, angrily denouncing recent press opinions, including a Birmingham News editorial, that the discretionary fund boost is “pork.” Referring to respective district projects as “worthy,” Kincaid explains: “These are taxpayer dollars, of which you are the stewards. But they provide an opportunity for you to address needs in your community, primarily. Sometimes council people give funds for city-wide projects, but it’s done at the discretion of the council. The whole $279 million budget is at your discretion. And the fact that you have dominion over $30,000, or any parts thereof, is part of the democratic process.” Those who label the funding as “pork” are “short-sighted,” concludes the Mayor.
“Any council person who wishes not to use theirs can give it to Roderick Royal in District Nine!” says Councilor Royal. The councilor regards the “small amount of money” as a vital asset to his community. Noting that there is no playground at South Hampton School, which he says will cost $5,000, Royal explains that such discretionary funding will enable children in his district to “enjoy a playground just like little kids in elementary schools in suburban areas.” Councilors take turns graciously thanking Kincaid, with Councilor Sykes saluting Abbott for “being courageous enough to deal with that.” Councilor Montgomery is appalled that the money has been called pork, and promises that neighborhood officers in his district will have the opportunity to vote on how the money will be spent. Noting that seven months is too long to make his constituents wait, Councilor Bert Miller, who has emerged as the council funnyman, tells the Mayor, “You can give me my check whenever you get ready!” As looks of uncomfortable amusement cross councilors’ faces, Miller hastily adds with a smile, “Nah, I’m just kidding.” &
Sky Boxes, Chitlins, and Committee Appointments
On Monday afternoon, December 3, the Birmingham City Council convened a “committee of the whole” meeting to discuss committee appointments, staff organization, and vehicle-use policy, among other issues. “How was y’all’s weekend?” Councilor Bert Miller asked as he greeted reporters seated at a table behind the council. Apparently, many on the council had a fine weekend at the SWAC championship game at Legion Field. Councilors laughed that they had to pilfer meatballs from the Mayor’s skybox at the stadium after running out of the delicacies in their own luxury box. A brief discussion about food resulted, prompting Councilor Valerie Abbott to admit that she had never had chitlins, pig ears, or pig’s feet. “There are some parts of an animal that I just will not eat,” noted Abbott as other councilors erupted in laughter.
Getting down to business, Councilor Joel Montgomery demanded to know why the council committee assignments have been scheduled for a vote at the December 4 council meeting since the council has not yet discussed the assignments as a group (Council President Lee Loder made committee assignments after the previous week’s meeting). Councilor Gwen Sykes, a middle-school assistant principal and vice-president of the Birmingham Education Association, reportedly had requested appointment to the Education Committee, which Loder had assigned to himself (Loder has headed the Education Committee for the past two years). “Why hire a plumber to do carpet work when building a house?” Sykes asked, noting that she has served “twenty years in the education arena.” City Attorney Tamara Johnson said that Sykes’ appointment to the Education Committee might appear to be a conflict of interest, so it is decided that the Ethics Commission should review the issue. Loder agreed to relinquish his position as chair of the Education Committee if the Ethics Commission rules in Sykes’ favor.
After requesting that she be removed from the Administration, Education, and Community Services Committee because the Birmingham Water Works falls under its purview, Councilor Carol Reynolds, a Water Works employee, swaps assignments with Councilor Montgomery, taking his place on the Planning and Zoning Committee. Worth noting is Council President Loder’s decision to separate Finance and Administration into two different committees. Four years earlier, former Council President William Bell created some controversy when he combined the two in a power grab that ensured him control of cash and legislative flow. Councilor Elias Hendricks has been appointed to head up the Finance Committee.
Councilor Montgomery was not pleased that upscale vehicles are part of the city’s seven-vehicle fleet available for council use, citing as an example the Ford Expedition currently used by Council Administrator Jarvis Patton. Councilor Hendricks disagreed. “It would be stupid to turn this [Ford Expedition] in to get a cheaper vehicle,” noted Hendricks, who sees nothing wrong with going “first class” when representing Birmingham in an official capacity. “We don’t have to drive Omnis,” said Hendricks. Refusing to budge on the issue, Montgomery voted against the present fleet, concluding that it’s unfair to taxpayers for the council to go “first class.”