Business as Usual
None of the candidates for mayor seem prepared to make needed changes at City Hall
The second trait that these candidates share is far less charming. None of them expressed more than a mild concern about how tax dollars are wasted by the mayor’s office and the city council. In fact, during interviews, we could barely interest them in the topic. The consensus among these candidates is basically that no one at City Hall is really wasting tax dollars, but if they are, the expenditures in question constitute only a small portion of the city budget. As for those instances where waste can’t be rationally denied, certain candidates merely promise that it won’t happen again, at least not on their watch.
That’s not to suggest that these candidates are oblivious to the city’s problem of misdirected funds. It is simply to observe that, for the time being, they are talking and acting as though they might be. Yet for all the campaign rhetoric about improving communication, working together, building a better Birmingham, and providing leadership, the fact remains that the primary task of a city council or mayor is to manage money that does not belong to them. Any secondary tasks for a Birmingham mayor have something to do with the school board, clean water, law enforcement, streets and sewers, trash collection, and business development. The connection between the two sets of duties is clear—one cannot efficiently manage city services if tax dollars are being recklessly spent on non-essential items.
Largely speaking, this election’s frontrunners have made a rather desultory effort at revealing how they might improve the city. The way to make roads better is “to eliminate potholes.” The way to fix the schools is “to improve education.” The way to improve city government is to “establish communication.” Obviously, nothing approaching genius has emerged from campaign ’03. It may be the case this time, as it has been before, that the proper ballot is merely to choose the lesser of two, three, or four evils.
In an attempt to provide some clarity for the voter, we have provided synopses of the leading candidates based on one-on-one interviews as well as the candidates’ campaign literature.
(Candidates listed in alphabetical order)
His name definitely has a certain ring to it. It’s an alarming tone that brings to mind Ethics Commission investigations and questionable financial deals at City Hall during Bell’s term as interim mayor. In most cases, such baggage would be a hindrance to a successful campaign, but Bell has a chance to counter that obstacle. His greatest asset may be a constituency unwilling, or unable, to recall the candidate’s colorful past.
Bell was also one of the candidates awarded $17,500 from the Voter News Network (the organization headed by Richard Arrington and Donald Watkins) for his campaign chest, though Bell later declined to accept the money.
Good Idea: For economic development, Bell proposes a land banking program involving the acquisition and renovation of existing buildings. If Bell could combine that approach with a parallel effort to put the right kind of businesses in those revitalized areas, then Birmingham residents might have something to get very excited about.
Bad Idea: Regarding the abysmal quality of city schools, Bell thinks that accountability can be enforced by requiring the Board of Education to submit a public, quarterly progress report to taxpayers. He does not say what would transpire if that report was unsatisfactory. Bell is also apparently unaware that progress reports already exist. They’re called report cards and test scores. We already know how the schools are doing; we’d like to know what someone is going to do about it.
Despite offering solutions to city problems that are nothing more than Baptist-preacher rhetoric, Reverend Paul Hollman must be considered one of the top contenders for mayor of Birmingham simply because he’s one of the Big Four (along with Kincaid, Bell, and Loder) to be awarded money from Richard Arrington and Donald Watkins’ Voter News Network organization (Hollman received $10,000). On the plus side, Hollman is not afraid to brazenly speak out against the chip-on-the-shoulder attitudes of fellow black residents in a city where the majority of the population is black.
Good idea: When asked about his candidacy for mayor, Hollman offered the following observation on race in the city: “There’s not going to be another candidate that has the Holy Ghost boldness to tell you what I’m going to tell you. The white community is working on the bruises [inflicted on the black community in the past]. We’ve been bruised historically, but now we’re doing some of the bruising. That’s why a lot of folks don’t want Paul Hollman in this race, and I’m not talking about white folks. Some of my contemporaries don’t want me in the race because I know we’re doing some of the bruising. We can’t blame everything on white folks . . . It ain’t just white folks trying to keep us down, we’ve got some black folks trying to keep us down.”
Bad idea: His “What I Say” campaign slogan is catchy though nonsensical. During Easter he ran an ad in local newspapers depicting Hollman’s image being hatched from a cracking Easter egg announcing: “At Easter, why keep the unborn potential of the City of Birmingham in an egg. It is about the resurrection!”
A highly successful private attorney who has made a buck or two representing the city’s Finance Department for more than 14 years, Jones articulates a “new vision” for Birmingham, which includes demanding “accountable, responsive, and cost-effective government.” But his eloquent tones and generalizations reveal little more than a generic, cookie-cutter agenda. His primary criticism of current Mayor Bernard Kincaid’s administration is that in the past four years the city has “not gained anything economically, socially, [or] infrastructure-wise . . . . We’ve failed in the line of communication in all aspects of that. And that’s why we haven’t accomplished anything.”
Addressing the bleak test scores posted by Birmingham public schools, Jones recites a familiar mantra that’s become a staple in any election in America: “Dollars are not getting to the classroom.” Jones paints a gloomy portrait of underachieving students. “When you look at statistics that show students coming out of high school that don’t pass the exit exam, most of them can’t read . . . we’ve wasted that child’s life. These are prime candidates for the prison system.”
Good Idea: “I want to make City Hall a family-friendly, business-friendly environment where people come in and they get served with a smile, where you treat the citizens and taxpayers as customers,” says Jones of criticism that City Hall is a difficult place to do business. Citing complaints from contractors, architects, and engineers, he labels the city’s red tape-ensnared permitting process as “awful.”
Bad Idea: Leave the drama to the actors-turned-politicians, Bob. Adopting a tone of despair, Jones disclosed in a recent interview the emotional turmoil he endured while contemplating a run for mayor. Spurred to enter the race by the blight he observed in neighborhoods while driving alone in deep contemplation on New Year’s Day 2003, Jones said in somber tones, “I looked at Birmingham. . . . And tears came to my eyes when I saw the condition this city was in.”
He’s the incumbent, and as the Mayor himself is fond of observing, there is not one scandal attached to the current administration. His key accomplishment has been putting the city’s finances in good order with reserve funds and the largest bond issue in Birmingham’s history. Kincaid is also regarded as the elected official who weakened Richard Arrington’s grip on the city by ousting interim-Mayor William Bell, who had been selected by the powerful Jefferson County Citizens Coalition to succeed Arrington as mayor. Two years later the Coalition lost control of the city council when the majority voting bloc of Coalition councilors was not re-elected to the council. So Kincaid enjoys, at least residually, the reputation of having once been the new marshal in town. The problem is that he’s not new anymore, and Birmingham residents are eager to see results, such as cleaned up neighborhoods, better schools, an increased police presence, and flood abatement.
Kincaid suffers from an adversarial relationship with the city council. Just who is at fault is a topic for debate, but the smart money wagers that sheer incompetence on the part of a few councilors is to blame. The Mayor characterizes the biggest obstacle in his past term as “the pettiness of city councils [the previous and current].” He simultaneously complains that his efforts to correct the problem brought him more grief: “I was a voice in the wilderness . . . and I got castigated in the media for not being in-sync with this council. I was the one raising all the hell about the way the council was acting. And I got vilified for it, about not being able to work with the council and all that. You know, once bitten, twice shy.”
Although politicians are known to play the sympathy card, it is odd that Kincaid would admit that the media affect how he communicates with the city council. It seems almost . . . petty. One wonders if such shyness and reluctance extend into other areas under the Mayor’s control.
Good Idea: He seems to be emphasizing the nuts-and-bolts aspect of operating a city. According to the Mayor, it’s a new day in Birmingham. Because of the largest bond issue in the city’s history, we have $18 million dollars for storm sewers, and money for street resurfacing, flood abatement and sanitary sewers, economic development, parks and libraries. Regarding the delay of some of these projects, Kincaid says, “This money just went in the bank last December. But now we are ready to move. New ambulances for Fire and Rescue, riding lawn mowers, dump trucks are all on order.”
So, when the Mayor says that it’s a new day, he’s also suggesting that it’s only about 3 a.m., but that we can rest assured that the sun will eventually rise. It’s just going to take a few hours.
Bad Idea: When the subject of wasted tax dollars comes up, specifically concerning the dubious grants to non-profit organizations, the mayor responds, “They represent only a small portion of the city’s budget. Some of the services they provide—but for their providing them—we would have to.”
When it was suggested that an official body that is careless with a few hundred thousand dollars might be even more careless with a few hundred million, the Mayor stated, “That kind of crass statement flies in the face of reality. We have a $286 million budget, 77 percent of which goes to [pay] personnel.”
No one is arguing that charitable organizations such as Meals on Wheels or the Jimmie Hale Mission represent poor stewardship of tax dollars, and it is true that the city has an obligation to provide such services, or assist the providers. But the city is not obligated to conduct seminars for learning about diversity and tolerance. Nor is it required to have awards parties for distinguished citizens, or send hundreds of neighborhood delegates to a convention in Chattanooga. The city is not required to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a so-called “education agenda,” the sole origin of which is the spend-happy imagination of councilor Gwen Sykes. There is a very long list of events, projects, and organizations into which the city does not have to pour tax dollars. We aren’t certain that the Mayor has closely scrutinized such a list, if he has seen one at all.
Of course, the Mayor does not have control over how the city council decides to spend most of that money. He also can’t control the fact that Birmingham is at a disadvantage in attracting businesses because it is surrounded by a majority of municipalities [Hoover, Vestavia, Homewood] that do not have an occupational tax. He can’t be blamed for the fact that two contentious city councils have thwarted his every move. Regarding crime, it turns out that the number of officers on patrol, and their salaries, fall under the purview of the Jefferson County Personnel Board. None of this is the Mayor’s fault. Just ask him, and he’ll tell you.
It’s taken Birmingham City Council President Lee Loder two years to develop anything remotely resembling leadership when it comes to controlling council meetings. Councilors regularly interrupt Loder to tell him how he should conduct meetings, but he finally snapped several months ago when he ordered a police officer to remove Councilor Roderick Royal if he uttered another word out of order. Loder brags in campaign literature that he “changed procedural rules to make council meetings shorter, more professional, and more efficient.” In other words, meetings now frequently last four hours instead of five.
Good Idea: Implementation of a performance-based management system that would allow Loder, as mayor, to “immediately gauge what it’s costing us to deliver all of the kind of services that we’re delivering and whether they’re being delivered effectively.”
Bad Idea: During our interview, Loder pushed for questions about his 2002 arrest on animal cruelty charges. When asked if it would hurt his chances of becoming mayor, Loder responded, “Well, of course, anything that happens to you will affect you. But Stokely [Loder's pet and subject of the cruelty charges] is doing fine . . . And at all times throughout this process I’ve been willing to do whatever was necessary to remove any question about his health and his care. And that’s what’s important.”
Entering his third year on the Birmingham city council, former Fairfield police officer Roderick Royal boasts that he’s perfect for the job of mayor because the city needs a new administrator, and “I’m the only one on the council that’s a career-trained public administrator.” After repeatedly deeming Kincaid as “absolutely no good for the city,” Royal criticizes the Mayor for not being better informed, not being proactive, and failing to use available resources to run City Hall. But his angriest tirade is directed at Kincaid for taking advantage of the city council’s lack of understanding bond issues because the mayor failed to inform them that the council enjoyed the privilege of choosing the categories for bond expenditures. “It’s the way the current mayor has tried to bamboozle when he didn’t have to,” grumbles Royal.
As for Royal’s claim that Kincaid has not been well-informed on issues, well, people in glass houses . . . Roderick Royal is the most experienced public administrator of the 18 mayoral candidates. One would think that, with all his public administration experience (including five years working as an assistant to council president William Bell), Royal should have been the first to recognize that the council can select the categories for bond spending.
Royal has definitely been a valuable asset on the Public Improvement Committee (PIC) during his council term. He is also the only candidate who brings real law enforcement experience to the table when communicating with the police department.
Good Idea: Introduced the “Smooth Ride” street resurfacing program, which Royal defines as the “hallmark” of his campaign. It’s the first massive street resurfacing project in years, according to Royal.
Bad Idea: As mayor, he will forge a “partnership” with interim Birmingham school superintendent Wayman Shiver to raise the school system to a higher level of academic achievement. With a score in the 36th percentile on the SAT in 2003, Birmingham schools ranked among the worst in the state. [The state average is the 51st percentile.] By contrast, Mountain Brook and Vestavia scored 86th and 82nd percentiles, respectively, in the state. Shiver’s interim appointment as school superintendent in May 2002 followed the stormy tenure of Superintendent Johnny Brown. But Shiver still has not been given a job performance review by the Birmingham Board of Education, and some city councilors and community activists say it’s time for Shiver to vacate that position so that a permanent replacement can be found.
Smitherman may be incumbent Kincaid’s most formidable challenger. The District 6 councilor has 20 years of law experience, she’s the first black woman to serve as a circuit court judge in the state, and her husband, State Senator Roger Smitherman, provides name recognition and political connections. She promotes the idea that business is the business of city government, but like so many candidates this year, she seems to have a blind spot for wasted tax dollars. She says that the $250,000 education agenda, for example, was “a waste of money,” but she did not engage in any significant effort to oppose it. [When asked if she voted for the education agenda that was approved by Councilor Gwen Sykes education committee, Smitherman replied, "I think I did. Parts of it."] Also, many voters are just beginning to get curious about the city’s retainer with Smitherman, estimated at $5,000 per month, that was in place during Richard Arrington’s term as mayor. Smitherman was an “on call” consultant to the city’s law department for six years. According to the Birmingham News, she was retained shortly after losing a bid for a Jefferson County circuit court judicial position in 1992. Arrington told the News that he felt some responsibility for her loss because Judge Smitherman had acquitted Arrington’s daughter in a misdemeanor case, and Smitherman’s opponent used this involvement in the case against her.
Good Idea: According to Smitherman, “It’s important that Birmingham’s governmental structure lead the way. No longer can we rely on Operation New Birmingham and MDB [Metropolitan Development Board]—although they do great services for the city in terms of recruitment tools for business. No longer can we turn that strictly over to them. Some of that’s got to be us. We’ve got to have a strategic economic development plan for the city that is posted and planned out by the city.”
Smitherman also strongly advocates making the licensing and permitting process available online. She plans to speed up the implementation of the online service, and to streamline the process overall. “One of the first stops I’ll make when I’m mayor, is in the permitting department . . . there’s a lot of confusion there. Not only contractors, but regular Jane and Joe Doe are having problems just finding out what they need to do to get their permits given to them.”
Bad Idea: When Richard Arrington and Donald Watkins candidly announced that the Voter News Network was making sizeable funds available to candidates of their choosing, Smitherman wrote an open letter to Richard Arrington in rebuke of his attempt to influence the election. She writes: “I was saddened and surprised to read in the Birmingham News that you and Donald Watkins plan to handpick the next mayor of Birmingham. This election should be left to the voters.”
Smitherman accuses the former mayor and his pal of attempting to disenfranchise voters. She also expresses “surprise” that Arrington and Watkins might do such a thing, which suggests either a severe memory disorder or a measureless capacity for denial, neither of which are desired traits in a mayoral candidate.
Smitherman continues: “If you choose to support me independently, I will welcome your counsel and assistance.”
Having established, in writing, her opinion that Arrington is attempting the purchase of an election and the disenfranchisement of voters, Smitherman nonetheless welcomes the former mayor’s “counsel.” She thus offers some insight into her nature: though she feels Arrington may suffer a shortfall where ethics are concerned, he’s a wealth of practical information.
Smitherman ends: “To say that Donald Watkins is going to handpick a candidate and give that candidate $300,000 is to say that Birmingham’s government is for sale . . . Therefore, please remove my name from consideration of support by you and Donald Watkins’ new coalition.”
One wonders if Smitherman did not conclude, sour grapes-wise, that her name had already been removed from the VNN sweepstakes. She was certainly aware that her war chest, replenished through her husband’s political connections, made refusing the money very easy. Either way, we have a grandstander. &
Animal Control Contract Extended
On January 21, the Birmingham City Council voted to extend the contract it has held since 1999 with Steve Smith
to maintain local animal control services in conjunction with Jefferson County. Though the county retains primary authority over animal control, the city contributed $667,942 to the jointly held contract during the shelter’s fiscal year 2001, as opposed to the county’s $384,498. Smith’s tenure has also been controversial, with many questioning the practicality in allowing a “for-profit” business to retrieve and care for stray animals. An October 2001 National Animal Control Association (NACA) evaluation of Jefferson County animal control services was critical of Smith’s daily operations, which included euthanizing animals without first sedating them. The report also criticized euthanization of dogs in front of other animals in the holding area, missing drain covers in pens (puppies and small dogs can become easily trapped), and the absence of line-item budgeting for shelter operations. Smith has reportedly taken steps to address most of the complaints.
Councilor Joel Montgomery had previously expressed dismay at local television news reports of euthanasia procedures at the shelter. But after a recent tour of the site, the councilor told Smith, “I do not see any indications of animal abuse in your facility. I’m an animal lover, and I don’t see [abuse] going on.” Nonetheless, Montgomery promised he would continue to visit the facility unannounced. “I am going to come back spontaneously to see what’s going on . . . because this will come before the Public Safety Committee [which Montgomery heads].” Montgomery was also concerned that Smith did not respond to NACA criticism that Smith did not disclose any information regarding his budget history or current budget allocations. The councilor quoted the NACA report: “Oddly enough, the agency does not even offer a line-item budget. Instead, expenditures for equipment and training occur on an as-needed basis. This is only the second time in a NACA evaluation that an agency-government, non-profit, or for-profit-was found to conduct business in this manner.” Montgomery surmised that the Council had no way to determine whether or not animal control was operating at a deficit that is being carried over from year to year. Smith responded that he planned to follow a line-item budget in conjunction with an audit currently being conducted by a local CPA firm at the county’s request. Preliminary findings show expenses to be about the same as those for Mobile. Councilor Montgomery expressed concern that $55,000 per month for animal control seems excessive. “We ought to be picking up dogs on the moon for that much!” growled the councilor.
Councilor Valerie Abbott called the NACA report “quite horrifying.” Condemning the contract as “severely lacking,” Abbott said, “I’m disturbed that this is a for-profit operation, because any smart businessman knows that the less money you spend on your business, the more you get to keep.” Only Abbott and Councilor Roderick Royal opposed the contract extension. Royal, who is on the Greater Birmingham Humane Society board of directors, said he could not support the contract in light of the NACA report. Noting his respect for animals, the councilor had stated at last week’s meeting, “I don’t believe a dog should be tied to a tree, I don’t believe in fighting dogs.” Council President Lee Loder, arrested four months ago on animal neglect charges, recused himself from the item. (Among the charges against Loder were that he had tied his dog Stokely to a tree in a backyard pen in the rain out of reach of shelter.) Council President Pro Tem Carole Smitherman presided over the issue in Loder’s place. Interestingly, when the item first came up for discussion during the January 14 meeting, Loder left the room for the duration of the discussion.
After the council meeting, Steve Smith noted that Animal Cruelty Officer Dana Johnston comes by the shelter several times a week and has made no complaints. “The only allegations of cruelty that we ever heard were those voiced by a certain T.V. station. They haven’t come from the NACA study, they didn’t come from the Birmingham cruelty officer, or the Jefferson County cruelty officer, they didn’t come from any of the members we’ve had from HSUS (Humane Society of the United States), any members of the County Commission or the City Council,” said Smith. He added that his most vocal critics have never set foot in the shelter. Smith said the NACA study “was an opportunity to find out the things that we were doing wrong and do better. And even though we’ve assured them that we’ve done these things that NACA asked us to do, and gladly did them, they just say, ‘Too little, too late.’ They don’t want us in there to begin with, for whatever reason.” Smith acknowledged the Council’s vote as a show of support for his services. He said that in the early 1990s, the city was paying the Jefferson County Health Department, which formerly ran animal control, almost what he is being paid at present. Smith noted that the private contractor before him was running only two trucks at a total yearly cost of over $400,000, while his company runs 12 trucks at a cost of $667,000. Smith said that seven of the trucks are committed exclusively to the city (four and a half trucks) and county (two and a half trucks), with the other five owned by Smith for private animal control contracts he holds with other municipalities in the county. &
By Ed Reynolds
Local Tibetan Buddhist monk Ven. Tenzin Deshek will create a Chenrezig sand mandala from December 5 through 14 at the Energy Pointe Institute in conjunction with “10 Days of Tibet: A Celebration of Tibetan Buddhist Culture.” The mandala, which means “circle” in Sanskrit, is used as a meditation aid. Tibetan monks build sand mandalas symbolizing the residence of Enlightened Beings to help people as they meditate on the vast and profound enlightened state. Chenrezig refers to the Buddha of Compassion (a deity). The Dalai Lama, who is currently in his 14th incarnation (the first Dalai Lama was born in 1391) is the manifestation of Chenrezig. The primary deity of each mandala is located at the center of the design, which is the location of the throne within each palace.
“Meditation is trying to reduce our negative part, our negative actions . . . We are trying to gain a positive part,” Ven. Tenzin Deshek explained one recent afternoon at the Energy Pointe Institute, where a group meets each Tuesday evening to meditate. Deshek, who readily expresses appreciation that he is living in a country that allows him to practice his religion, fled Tibet for India in 1969, eventually arriving in the United States in July 2000. He has been in Birmingham since August 2002. In the past year, the meditation group has grown from half a dozen people to more than 25 weekly participants. The Tibetan monk, who has participated in the creation of approximately 25 mandalas over the past two decades, admits that Buddhism is perhaps not for everyone. “Different people have different tastes, you know?” said Deshek, whose Western influence is evident in the number of times he employs the phrase “you know” as he explains the elements of Buddhism.
This is his first time to create a mandala alone, and he stresses the importance of meditation in keeping his hands steady while delicately pouring the colored sand into impossibly precise patterns and shapes through the chakpur, a metal funnel. When asked if there is any significance to creating a sand mandala this time of year, Deshek responds, “It’s the best weather.” He adds that December 10 is the anniversary of the Dalai Lama receiving the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.
The opening ceremony is Saturday, December 6, at 10 a.m. The mandala’s progress can be observed from 1 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 6 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call 262-9186. &