Monthly Archives: December 2004

City Hall — The council shall determine its own rules


December 30, 2004

“The council shall determine its own rules,” read Mayor Bernard Kincaid from the Mayor-Council Act , which sets the rules of governing for the city of Birmingham. At issue was whether or not Councilor Gwen Sykes could ask for reconsideration of a vote that failed earlier that day. That vote would have secured the remaining $22 million Kincaid had requested from the council for end-of-year budget requests, which total $31 million. The council approved $9 million of the request on November 23.

Sykes abstained on the first vote at the December 7 meeting, causing the budget request to fail in a four-to-four deadlock. The only way a vote can be recalled is by request from the prevailing side, a councilor who had voted against the budget request in this instance. But Sykes asked for a ruling on whether someone who had abstained could seek a second vote. City Clerk Paula Smith, parliamentarian for the council meetings, said that Sykes was allowed to do so. City attorneys and council attorney J. Richmond Pearson agreed with the city clerk.


However, Councilor Joel Montgomery, reading from Robert’s Rules of Order, said anyone abstaining from a vote could only bring it back up in a special or standing committee, such as when the council meets for work sessions in what is called a “committee of the whole meeting [requires a quorum].” Montgomery argued that a regular Tuesday council meeting did not meet such criteria, as it is a legislative body. Council President Lee Loder overruled him and allowed Sykes to bring the vote back, which passed this time when she voted “yes” along with Councilors Royal, Reynolds, Miller, and Hendricks [who had voted "no" the first time]. Councilor Carole Smitherman abstained after voting “no” initially, while Councilors Abbott and Montgomery retained their “no” votes.

It was the second time in a month that a vote has been reversed with Sykes as the swing councilor. On November 9 Sykes abstained from voting to approve the hiring of Henry Sciortino as the city’s financial advisor. That vote had resulted in confusion about whether three votes constituted a majority when two voted “no” and two abstained. Loder allowed the vote to be taken again at meeting’s end, by which time Sykes decided to vote “yes” after talking with Mayor Kincaid. Whether Kincaid will now support Sykes in next October’s council elections is a matter of great curiosity at City Hall.

The budget request has been before the council since October, yet oddly, councilors reportedly did not meet to work out the details, though Kincaid did huddle individually with all but Councilor Montgomery. [Kincaid said that Montgomery failed to reschedule a canceled meeting, while Montgomery said no meeting was ever scheduled.] Councilor Valerie Abbott said she was not opposed to all of the items in the year-end budget, but simply wants the council to sit down as a group to develop a policy for spending from the city’s reserves. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m against fixing a dam or against fixing any of the things on this list. The Mayor was really kind to talk to us individually, but we need to sit down as a group and hear what each other has to say—not to be operating in a vacuum,” said Abbott.

The $22 million, which will be taken from the city’s approximately $88 million in reserve funds, includes $13 million for a Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex parking lot, $1 million for flood mitigation, $500,000 for the Birmingham Zoo, $575,000 for a minority disparity study, $500,000 for repair work at East Lake Dam, and $120,000 for roof work on the A.G. Gaston Motel. Another $5 million appeared to be the most controversial, as it was earmarked for nothing other than “emergencies.”

Councilor Carol Reynolds expressed displeasure with the initial deadlocked vote that caused the budget request to fail. “I’m pretty dismayed about the vote that we just had on the spending,” Reynolds noted. “There are a lot of things in here I maybe could not have supported. But the East Lake Dam and the million dollars for flood mitigation are two of the most important issues in this city.” Then Reynolds shocked her colleagues with this dire warning: “I hope we have enough money to buy body bags if that dam [East Lake] breaks.” Councilor Joel Montgomery immediately took umbrage to that comment. “To characterize us as sitting on it [East Lake Dam], committing murder, and putting people in body bags is totally out of order,” said Montgomery in disgust. “We can pull East Lake Dam out of this entire amount here and vote on it by itself at any time this council deems it necessary.” Montgomery added that a second option was to have the dam declared an emergency if it was that dangerous.

After the council initially failed to approve the budget request, Councilor Bert Miller expressed shock that his colleagues could not reach a consensus to financially help residents: “We’re going to set this city back 20 or 30 years, possibly more than that!” Miller, who filed for bankruptcy in November with $93,000 in debt (according to an article in the Birmingham Post-Herald published the day the council approved the remaining $22,000,000), admitted, “I’m not ashamed to say it. I’m broke; I’m not afraid to say that, because I’ve tried since I’ve been here to help other people . . . There are the haves and the have-nots.” Miller, who in the past has bragged that he was “the money man,” has made headlines during his council tenure by drawing the names of poor to help. To this observer, it looked like a blatant attempt to purchase votes. Perhaps the councilor should consider that a politician who can’t handle his own finances has no business meddling with taxpayers’ money. &

Sewer Tunnel Proposal Returns

Sewer Tunnel Proposal Returns


December 30, 2004 

On December 14 the Jefferson County Commission conducted a public hearing regarding a county proposal to purchase both the Riverview sewer system in north Shelby County and the Moody sewer system from the Birmingham Water Works at a total cost of approximately $27 million. Hendon Engineering, which oversaw the building of the controversial supersewer trunk line that was halted two years ago after public outcry over plans to tunnel beneath the Cahaba River, recommends tunneling under the river to connect Riverview to the county system. Another consultant, Engineering Service Associates, proposes instead to connect the systems by going over the river, replacing the existing 12-inch pipe that runs under the Cahaba River Road bridge.

At the hearing, Hendon Executive Vice President Bob Holbrook warned that any damage or overflow from the pipe above the river would directly discharge sewage into the Cahaba, the region’s main drinking-water source. Hendon’s plan would connect the Riverview system to the county system by running an 18- to 24-inch diameter pipe beneath the river to a portal of the 12-foot diameter supersewer line. A previous tunnel collapse during construction of the supersewer, which was partly responsible for stopping the supersewer project, has drawn a barrage of protest from critics.

Jayme Hill, executive director of the Alabama Environmental Council, serves on the Citizens Advisory Committee for Environmental Services and did not learn of the county’s proposal to tunnel beneath the Cahaba River until she read it in the morning paper the day of the public hearing. “It was shocking because there has been an increased need for transparency since the supersewer, which was why this citizens’ advisory committee was put together [by the county],” said Hill in an interview. “We’ve been meeting for two years now. That plan from Hendon was prepared and ready for distribution, but for some reason that topic [tunneling under the river] never came up at the early December meeting of the citizens’ advisory committee.”

Tricia Sheets, administrative director of the Cahaba River Society who is also a member of the citizens’ advisory committee, was disturbed that the committee was not notified of the tunneling proposal. Sheets was baffled that Hendon Engineering was more concerned about the risk of a pipe leaking into the Cahaba River than the peril of attempting to tunnel beneath the area’s drinking source. “I thought that was a red herring,” she said of Hendon’s apprehension about connecting the systems above the river. “The bigger issue is that all the pipes in the watershed have a potential to leak. That particular pipe is pretty visible and should be pretty easy to repair,” she added.

County officials argue that purchase of the Riverview and Moody systems would add customers and therefore reduce the amount that ratepayers are currently paying. Rates have increased substantially since the county borrowed $3 billion after a federal consent decree in 1996 forced sewer improvements due to damaged pipes and direct discharge into the Cahaba River.

At the public hearing, community activist Peggy Gargis expressed disappointment at the proposal to purchase the systems. “The general public that I’ve heard are distressed at the prospect of the sprawl and the threat to the watershed that this project would generate,” said Gargis. “We do wonder why a program that has visited so much grief upon the ratepayers and has been run by management which has assisted in that, why you’re still taking the advice of those people [Environmental Services Department].

Adam Snyder, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, also serves on the county’s citizens’ advisory committee. Snyder told county officials at the hearing that he had no problem with the county purchasing the systems, but was disturbed about reintroducing the tunnel proposal. He is also troubled that the county’s Environmental Services Department would continue to oversee any sewer expansion. “I am concerned about the management of the system,” said Snyder. “I have no problem with the county expanding and buying this system. And I think it’s probably advisable to consolidate a lot of these sewer systems — to have one sewer authority. But I am worried about who’s guarding the hen house. I’m worried about the leadership of the Environmental Services Department. I am very concerned about giving them more power and more sewers to manage, as far as their track record has been in the past.”

In October 2004, federal investigators served search warrants at the home of Jack Swann, director of Jefferson County Environmental Services, and Roland Pugh Construction, which received much of the sewer repair work. According to the Birmingham News, FBI agents photographed and searched Swann’s Vestavia Hills home, which has had $350,000 worth of remodeling and improvements, including installation of an elevator, since Swann bought the home in 1997. The FBI also confiscated boxes of records from Pugh’s construction office. County officials learned of the investigation of the sewer program in 2002. &

Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present

Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present

Liberace, the Chipmunks, and the Vienna Boys’ Choir as Proustian moments? The author makes a compelling case.

By Ed Reynolds

December 16, 2004

The best thing about Christmas music is that it has a three- to four-week life span, so before you grow completely sick of the songs, they’re gone—at least until next year. Holiday musical offerings exist in every genre imaginable, and a new batch is cooked up every year to generate cash flow for somebody somewhere. Most of the current stuff is boring and predictable—either too happy, too rocking, or too sentimental. The traditional elements are severely lacking. And while it might be a stretch to include Christmas favorites like “The Chipmunk Song” and Liberace’s version of “Silver Bells” as anything remotely traditional, they’re among a handful of favorites that keep impostors off my record player this time of year.

“The Chipmunk Song”

(Click Here to listen to this song)


The first time this song made a real impact, with its circus carousel-invoking melody and high-pitched voices singing, “Me, I want a Hula Hoop,” was one July spent at the home of family friends in Cocoa Beach, Florida, not far from Cape Canaveral. (The distant sky would glow through their living room window when rockets were launched at the Cape.) Not being very fond of the water, much less what might be lurking on the ocean floor, I spent much of my vacation time with their teenage daughter’s collection of 45 rpm records. “The Chipmunk Song” soon became my favorite, which made me the object of the girl’s endless ridicule. She repeatedly told me that if I knew anything about music I’d be listening to Nat King Cole’s “Ramblin’ Rose.”

(click for larger version)

The Chipmunks became a Christmas obsession. The evolution of their creator, Ross Bagdasarian, is an interesting pop music footnote. Bagdasarian, who played a songwriter in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, also composed “Come On-a My House,” the 1951 hit that made Rosemary Clooney a star. (Mitch Miller convinced Clooney to record the song despite her objections that it was a silly novelty tune, a genre in which Bagdasarian proved his expertise during the ensuing decade.) Singing as David Seville, Bagdasarian made the pop charts in 1958 with “The Witch Doctor” (the chorus: “ooh eee ooh ah ah; ting tang wallah wallah bing bang”).

This was Bagdasarian’s first time to experiment with recording himself at normal speed, then speeding up the tape to create what later became a pop phenomenon, The Chipmunks. Bagdasarian’s original notion was that the sped-up recording emulated rabbits and butterflies, until his young children convinced him that the voices sounded like chipmunks. In 1958 he introduced Alvin, Simon, and Theodore singing the Christmas classic, “The Chipmunk Song.”

As an adult, I would probably choose the catalog of Nat King Cole over that of The Chipmunks. But if it comes down to a single song, I’ll take “The Chipmunk Song” over “Ramblin’ Rose” any time of year.

“In the Bleak Mid-Winter”

(Click Here to listen to this song)

The a capella recording of this traditional ode to the tortuous cold of winter by Birmingham’s Independent Presbyterian Church Choir is the most breathtaking version I’ve ever heard. Oddly, the melody first came to me in the form of Muzak at a thrift store in Midfield one Christmas season around 15 years ago. It was the perfect soundtrack for mingling with the lower class in a secondhand clothing and appliance store.

A couple of years later I discovered the IPC Choir’s rendering on their mid-1980s album The Joyous Birth. The composer of “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” was indicated as Gustav Holst. But a recent conversation with retired IPC choirmaster Joseph Schreiber, who directed the choir and played the organ at the church for 34 years (including during recording of the song), revealed shock on his part that Holst and not Harold Darke was listed as the writer. A web search indicated both men listed as the composer, among several others [Darke in 1911, and Holst in 1906]. The lyrics originated half a century earlier in a poem by Christina Rossetti. Still, Schreiber insists that Darke is the true writer. “It’s gorgeous, kind of haunting,” Schreiber describes, obviously touched by the memories of his choir’s performances.

“Haunting” is an understatement. The first couple of phrases, “In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,” paint a desolate picture that sends chills down the spine when accompanied by the eerie but exquisite melody. As for that Midfield thrift store, now known as America’s Thrift Store, it remains a Christmas favorite as well.

“Silver Bells” by Liberace

(Click Here to listen to this song)

My mother forced piano lessons down my nine-year-old throat, insisting all the way that I would thank her one day. Of course, years later I realized she was right and I was wrong. But before she was right, whenever neighborhood kids found out I was taking piano I was taunted with “You’re a queer like Liberace!” “Am not,” I replied. Nevertheless, the taunts were humbling and embarrassing.

Twenty years later I came to appreciate Liberace, entertained as much by his feminine ways as his sentimental, crescendo-laden runs up and down the keyboard. But what’s so intriguing about his version of “Silver Bells” is his vocal styling. Naturally campy yet irresistibly sincere, his voice is anything but pretty. It’s tough to describe. He sounds so . . . Liberace.

Placido Domingo and The Vienna Choir Boys

(Click Here to listen to the Schubert arrangement of “Ave Maria”)

The Vienna Choir Boys was the first live musical act with which I recall being smitten when I was about eight. A version of the Choir Boys came through Selma one Christmas, and I was forced to attend with my mother because my father refused to go. It was like an epiphany the first time I heard them in person. I was astonished that a bunch of kids my age could sound like angels. Their interpretation of “Silent Night” was stunning.

The recording with Placido Domingo remains a Christmas favorite. They perform both the Bach-Gounod and Schubert renditions of “Ave Maria” in addition to “Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful).” I had another epiphany while listening to the Choir Boys this Christmas: they sound a lot like The Chipmunks.

All On a Wintry Night by Judy Collins

(Click Here to listen to Collins’ version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”)

I discovered this collection when it was released in Christmas 2000 because I was doing a story on Collins’ performance at the Ritz Theatre in Talladega. Included here are Collins’ lovely originals “Song for Sarajevo (I Dream of Peace)” and a duet with actress Tyne Daly on “In the Bleak Mid-Winter,” a song Collins told me she was not familiar with until Daly brought it to her attention.

Christmas of 2000 was one of the more memorable ones due to the political climate. Controversy surrounding the Florida vote tally after the presidential election consumed attentions usually given to the holiday spirit. Forget peace on earth; it wasn’t even going to exist in America that holiday season. Collins was scheduled to perform in Florida’s Broward County the night after the Talladega concert, and I’ll never forget prompting a hearty laugh from her backstage after the show when I asked to whom she would dedicate “Send in the Clowns” the following evening. &

Staff writer Ed Reynolds thinks The Chipmunks could have been as big as Elvis if they’d only had better management.

City Hall — Hey Big Spender


By Ed Reynolds


December 02, 2004“Half a loaf is better than none,” was Mayor Bernard Kincaid’s assessment upon receiving less than a third of the $31 million in reserve funds sought for year-end budget requests. Funding requests range from $500,000 for repairs at East Lake dam to $1,500,000 to remove the condemned upper deck at Legion Field. Kincaid has been jousting with councilors for the past two months, deflecting complaints that he failed to consult with them on how he chose to spend the money. Complaints focus on an October Finance and Budget Committee meeting at which the mayor said that his thought process “was not to be put on paper.”

To garner support for the spending proposals, Kincaid eventually huddled individually with each councilor except Joel Montgomery, who noted at the November 22 vote on the $31 million that he did not confer with the Mayor. After the council meeting, Kincaid insisted that he had reached out to everyone. “I invited all of the council members for one-on-one [meetings]. One council member canceled and never made arrangements for a subsequent meeting. Need I say more?” Kincaid said.


At the behest of Councilor Valerie Abbott, the $22 million that the council did not approve was delayed until the December 7 council meeting. “Every time I look further at this stuff, I come up with more questions,” said Abbott, who expressed concern about spending the city’s reserves. The councilor is not convinced that Legion Field’s upper deck constitutes an emergency. “I know that it doesn’t meet code, and we can’t put any people in it. But we’ve been told that it isn’t falling down. It’s not in danger of structural collapse. So to me it doesn’t qualify as an emergency,” she elaborated.

Among the approved projects are $25,000 for Birmingham Foot Soldiers [behind-the-scenes participants during the Civil Rights struggle], $623,182 for demolition of dilapidated buildings, $103,000 for maintenance of the scoreboard at Legion Field, $500,0000 for weed control, $40,000 for City Stages, $25,000 for Rickwood Field, $200,000 for the Entrepreneurial Center, $417,775 for 20 employees at the new Roosevelt City fire station, and $1,500,000 to remove the upper deck from Legion Field.

The East Lake Park dam remained a source of some contention with rainstorms forecast the day after the November 22 meeting. “[East Lake dam] is the only thing that is hanging out there that is unfunded at this point that has some urgency in my mind,” Kincaid said after the council meeting. “It’s amazing that the person whose district that is in [Councilor Gwen Sykes] voted to wait two weeks. That’s incomprehensible to me . . . If it were to become an instance where I thought that there was imminent danger, then I would go ahead and have that processed as an emergency.”

The day after the council meeting, Councilor Joel Montgomery insisted, just as he did during the meeting, that the council should not have had to vote for the entire budget. “You didn’t have to vote for the whole enchilada. You could have pulled out what items you wanted,” Montgomery said, insisting that Kincaid never wanted the council’s input. “He wants to be the commander-in-chief. He wants to be the administrative branch and the legislative branch. He wants to hand us these things and say, ‘Here it is, vote for it, take it all, or nothing at all,’” said the councilor. Montgomery added that he never scheduled a meeting with Kincaid. “He called over there [council office], and I had meetings or some event or something to go to, and we just told him what my schedule was, and that’s the way it is . . . He didn’t pursue it and neither did I. What difference does it make? He’s gonna put what he wants to in the budget. He doesn’t want anything from us up front where he conceives these brilliant ideas of his, and he doesn’t want it from us after he hands it to us. It’s his way or the highway.” &