March 09, 2006
William Bell Is Finally Back
Councilor William Bell’s District Five election win over incumbent Elias Hendricks four months ago raised more than a few eyebrows around the city. After having been chosen interim mayor when longtime Mayor Richard Arrington stepped down in 1999 several months prior to the end of his 20-year reign (the council president is next in line for the mayor’s position if the mayor steps down), Bell lost a mayoral runoff to present mayor Bernard Kincaid. Purportedly, the plan was for Bell to run against Kincaid as a pseudo-incumbent. Bell’s loss essentially drove a stake through the heart of Arrington’s powerful political machine, the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition. Most figured Bell’s political career in Birmingham was essentially over. Everyone, that is, except William Bell.
In his years as council president in the 1990s, Bell’s theatrics ran interference for Arrington in the former mayor’s weekly showdowns with former Councilor Jimmy Blake. Among Blake’s complaints were his objections to minority preference in a city that is predominantly black. Blake never backed down from his premise that whites were the real minority. So it was with great irony that minority hiring would initiate a showdown between Bell and Councilor Roderick Royal at the February 28, 2006 Council meeting.
Bell has been surprisingly quiet during his current tenure, maintaining a low profile that fulfilled his promise of humility upon return to the Council. His suggestions at committee meetings and his grasp of how city politics function have been mildly impressive. Fortunately for those who report on City Hall, William Bell appears to have eaten his last slice of humble pie, returning to his former high-profile, ready-for-a-fight persona.
At issue was the city’s hiring of All Seasons Travel to facilitate travel arrangements for the 198 neighborhood officers attending the 2006 NUSA (Neighborhoods USA) Conference in Kansas City in May. Birmingham’s representation at NUSA has been a source of controversy in years past, primarily because the city has, by far, the largest delegation, and many local citizens regard the trip as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Other past controversies stemmed from fish fries held by delegates on the balconies of their hotel rooms, which did little to erase perceptions that the city was being represented by a bunch of country yahoos.
Bell questioned why All Seasons Travel was the only company the city sought bids from. Jim Feinstermaker, chief of the Community Development Department, which oversees the neighborhood associations, replied, “We’ve worked with All Seasons in previous years, so we just went back to them.” Bell asked that the resolution earlier approved in the meeting be brought back before the Council for reconsideration, to allow bids from minority travel agencies that might also offer cheaper rates. Councilor Roderick Royal, who acknowledged that “it’s important to find minority participation where we can find it,” said the city had worked with All Seasons for more than 15 years. “Certainly, if there was concern, we should have been addressing it a long time ago. And I hope that falls on good soil,” added Royal, in what appeared to be a slap at Bell. Royal at one time was Bell’s administrative assistant before a rumored falling out occurred between the two.
“You know what, Madam President? That little twerp over there, he needs to get a life!” Bell exploded in anger. “I mean, I’ve sat here and let him shoot at me all these years. Now what happened here 15 years ago, I asked Mayor Richard Arrington the same thing [regarding minority hiring]. I’ve been consistent. When you look at all of the minority participation bills [in the past], you’ll see one name on there. None of the [current councilors’] names were on those bills passed in the past. You’ll see one name on there: William A. Bell!” At meeting’s end, Bell apologized for not attending a recent function at Lily Grove Baptist Church. He then added, “And I may want to apologize for something else, but let me think about it a little bit longer.” With her usual dry sense of humor, Councilor Valerie Abbott deadpanned, “I want a definition of twerp . . . I truly don’t know what it is.”
Council Approves Wal-Mart Corporate Welfare
Freshman Councilors Miriam Witherspoon and Steven Hoyt have made minority contract hiring a priority regarding tax incentives and cash payouts to those who wish to do business with the city. Hoyt demanded 20 percent minority representation for sub-contractors building the new Wal-Mart in the blighted Eastwood Mall location. Despite protests from Councilor Joel Montgomery and some city residents that there is no guarantee that Wal-Mart would stay in the location, many believe Wal-Mart will be an economic boon for Councilor Carol Reynolds’ District Two. The $11 million cash deal to purchase the Eastwood Mall property for Wal-Mart was approved unanimously by the council on February 28. District One Councilor Joel Montgomery, who was absent from the meeting due to his claims that he was sick, set a City Council precedent when he phoned from his sickbed to voice opposition to the Wal-Mart deal via the council chamber’s public address system. Reynolds walked out in protest when Montgomery began speaking. Council President Carole Smitherman properly refused to allow Montgomery to vote and went so far as to tell him he didn’t sound sick.
Montgomery remains angry that Wal-Mart left his district a few years ago to build a Wal-Mart Super Center in District Two, an arrangement that has caused a rift between Councilor Reynolds and himself. Reynolds has been a cheerleader for Wal-Mart, despite complaints from many nationwide that the mega-corporation fails to pay wages high enough to provide health insurance for many employees. Reynolds, who is employed by the Birmingham Water Works and recuses herself from Water Works issues that come to a vote by the Council, has been vocal in the past about encouraging Water Works employees into a union. But despite her rallying behind Wal-Mart, she’s savvy enough to hedge her bets with the odd statement: “I’m not a huge fan [of Wal-Mart] I’m a K-Mart girl.” &