Monthly Archives: June 2003

City Hall — Council Spending Spree Continues

City Hall

The idiosyncratic world of the Birmingham City Council

Council Spending Spree Continues

The Birmingham City Council continues to toss money around like confetti; this time it’s $90,000 to fly a contingent of area youth to San Francisco for the 2003 Youth Games. And that’s just the transportation costs. Another $95,000 has been budgeted for lodging, coaches, uniforms, and registration fees. As dismal public school test scores and perpetual neighborhood flooding cast a pall over the city’s future, few councilors appear willing to make the unpopular decision to direct money where it is apparently most needed. The number of local organizations that receive city funds to aid Birmingham youth is staggering, but the City Council continues to hand out cash “for the children” like a senile, generous grandparent.

As expected, Councilor Joel Montgomery is against it. “I think we’ve got too much playing going on in this city and not enough education. Not enough taking care of our neighborhoods,” said Montgomery at the June 10 council meeting. “And I have a serious issue with the amount of events that we’ve got going on here. We’ve got midnight basketball. I don’t know how many things that I’ve identified line by line in this budget right now that are for extracurricular activities for the children, and I think this money would be better spent in our educational system and in our schools, in the form of mathematics, sciences, and those type things. I just have a serious problem voting this money outta here the way we’re voting it outta here, and I hope the public looks very hard at what’s going on up here, and watches every week how much money is flying out these doors. It’s ridiculous to continue to spend this kind of money.”

The Youth Games are an “Olympic-style competition between cities throughout America in 10 sports,” explained Scotty Colson, an administrative assistant to Mayor Bernard Kincaid, to the Council. Councilor Carole Smitherman asked Colson why the Division of Youth Services (DYS) doesn’t administer this type of program. Colson explained, in a cautious, measured tone that only served to cloud his response: “We work closely with them on that. . . . One of the things is that the Youth Games is a collaborative effort of so many different programs, as is DYS. So DYS works with us on this and we’re going to be working with them even more closely.”

Those eligible include youth ages 15 and under who live within 10 miles of Birmingham. Colson reassured concerned councilors that most of the kids are from Birmingham and not surrounding communities. According to Council President Lee Loder, “This is another really good promotional event for the city ’cause Birmingham is the guru around the nation for this particular event since it’s housed here [Birmingham is where the Youth Games are headquartered].” Loder attended last year’s Youth Games in Newark, New Jersey, at the public’s expense. Councilor Gwen Sykes noted that young people need such programs: “We cannot do enough for our young people in recreation, and these type activities are very important,” said Sykes. Warning that youth with too much free time on their hands frequently end up as thugs, Sykes urged the Council, “Step up and do more before we risk them to the street, to activities that are really not wholesome and good for our community . . . before [they] become preys [sic] on some of the other people in the community.” Sykes chairs the Council’s Education Committee, and her recent $41,000 proposal for Birmingham schools was approved by the Council only after she removed a “cruise” for graduating seniors from the appropriation that she wanted taxpayers to finance. —Ed Reynolds


City Hall — The New Moses

City Hall

The New MosesAs political rallies go, William Bell’s May 29 gathering in Linn Park to announce his candidacy for mayor of Birmingham was almost as surreal as the night that 1982 gubernatorial candidate George Wallace was wheeled across a red carpet while a barefoot Tammy Wynette sang “Stand by Your Man.” As strains of “The Twilight Zone” theme segued into the theme from Star Wars Bell was loudly introduced by a local preacher: “Ladies and gentleman, I introduce . . . the new Moses, whom God has summoned to come back again, and to lead Birmingham back to victory . . . Dr. William Bell!” The former council president and interim mayor, who departed city headquarters three years ago after losing his council seat to Elias Hendricks, circulated through the crowd and shook hands with supporters to initiate what he hopes will be a triumphant return to City Hall.

Taking his cue from the reverend, Bell did his own impersonation of a Baptist minister. Grinning as though he were preparing to part the Red Sea, he pointed toward City Hall and shouted, “Each day I get calls from people out of that building over there. I get calls from people who are working with the community for the city of Birmingham who say, ‘William, we need you to come back and straighten things out!’” Supporters cheered as Bell proclaimed, “This city has a great future ahead of itself. Birmingham has a future that will rival any city in this country! All we have to do is believe that God has anointed this city to be that shining city on the hill!”

The 20-year council veteran reached for his props, which included a black cap with “MAYOR” emblazoned on the front—the same style often worn by Mayor Bernard Kincaid outside of City Hall. Kincaid defeated Bell in 1999 in a monumental upset, even though Bell, as interim mayor following Richard Arrington’s early departure, ostensibly enjoyed an incumbent’s advantage. Referring to the cap, Bell intoned, “This is a symbol of city government . . . but this is not a crown to be worn. This is a badge of servitude . . . It’s not something to put on your head and parade around. You don’t see the governor walking around with a cap on saying ‘GOVERNOR.’ You don’t see a senator walking around with a cap saying ‘SENATOR’!” Bell then grabbed a white cap imprinted with the word “LEADER.” Cheers rose again while Bell shouted, “This city’s going to take off like a rocket!”

After his campaign speech, Bell addressed reasons for the $16 million budget deficit. “Too much revenue was projected. That’s primarily because you’ve got an inexperienced person who is director of finance.” Bell added that others at City Hall were not experienced enough to know the “real questions to ask.” When asked how he would heal the rift that unexpectedly developed between several councilors and the mayor’s office, Bell said, “Just by sitting down with the council, whether it’s a public meeting or whether it’s a one-on-one meeting. I get the impression from some council members that they don’t have the opportunity, really, to sit down with [the Mayor] to get a sense of direction or guidance, or have input. And that’s what’s really causing that division there. As mayor, I plan to reach out to them, and really be a servant to the council.” Bell said that he would approach this campaign differently. “The last time around, I was traveling with a lot of baggage. I was the interim mayor for about three months. And during that time I took on a lot of baggage . . . but that’s gone. I don’t have that baggage. I’m running free and loose. I’m not attached to anybody, except the people of Birmingham.”

—Ed Reynolds