“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. &