The idiosyncratic world of the Birmingham City Council.
City Hall Hires State, National Lobbyists
The controversy generated three years ago when the previous Birmingham City Council decided to hire its own lobbyist has revisited City Hall in recent weeks. Though a compromise has been worked out between the Mayor and the present City Council, some councilors fear that having two lobbyists under contract would drive an even larger wedge between the executive and legislative branches of local government. “When we were first elected, the previous Council had two lobbyists, or employed a lobbyist in Montgomery, and the Mayor’s office had a lobbyist, and it was just a big mess,” notes Councilor Roderick Royal. “It makes no sense to have two firms [representing the city of Birmingham] in Washington, D.C.” Pointing out that the Birmingham Airport Authority has its own lobbyist focusing on the same matters as city lobbyists, Royal surmises that Birmingham has a “lobbying fiasco.” He adds, “We ought to leave well enough alone, and if we’re not going to leave well enough alone, then we ought to only have one [lobbyist].”
In a compromise with Mayor Kincaid, the City Council voted to approve the hiring of Washington, D.C., firm Holland and Knight, the fourth largest law firm in the nation, to handle federal lobbying efforts. Alabama-based Balch and Bingham will lobby in both Washington and Montgomery. Holland and Knight will receive $10,000 per month to lobby on legislative priorities that include transportation, airport issues, the General Service Administration, the environment, and education. Balch and Bingham will receive $15,000 per month to lobby on behalf of housing and other designated issues. Several months ago, the Council’s Economic Development Committee originally recommended only Balch and Bingham.
“I can’t vote to send two lobbyists to Montgomery and Washington, D.C. I think it’s absolutely a waste of taxpayer dollars to do so,” says Councilor Joel Montgomery, who characterizes lobbying as “a necessary evil.” Montgomery elaborates, “Why is it that we have to pay people to go and do what we have elected people to do already? Shouldn’t the representatives in the Congress and Senate be trying to get this money for Birmingham without us having to pay somebody to come up there and beg them for it, wine and dine ‘em and everything else?”
Councilor Carole Smitherman, who is in charge of the Economic Development Committee, wanted only one lobby group. “I still maintain that Balch and Bingham is the superior firm to handle our work for us. Certainly, we can have ‘one-stop shopping’ with them. They know who to contact, they have federal and state contacts, and that’s who we need. If you have two firms, then you’ve got a lot of finger-pointing, in my opinion. One says one thing, the other says another thing. Also, we need to keep Alabama dollars in Alabama.”
Noting that it’s not unusual for a city the size of Birmingham to have more than one lobbyist, Councilor Elias Hendricks says that the city will get better return for its lobbying investment if it has two firms concentrating on separate areas. Hendricks finds it inexcusable that Birmingham has not had a lobbyist in Washington in recent years. “It’s unconscionable that a city of our size would not have a significant lobbying presence in Washington . . . It would not be right for the Mayor to have his firm representing all the issues and us to have our firm representing all the issues. That would be at cross-purposes.” Hendricks, a member of the Economic Development Committee supports the idea of dual hirings. “What this is is a compromise, so we wouldn’t have two or three lobbyists on the same purpose going into somebody’s office with different kinds of objectives . . . It’s not that much money compared to what cities of our size pay . . . we should have had someone months ago. This is long overdue,” said Hendricks, who added that Holland and Knight were “more Republican.”
Mayor Kincaid hired Holland and Knight for one month on February 6, as matching federal transportation funds were due to expire February 28. The current arrangement will keep both lobbying firms under contract until the city’s fiscal year ends in June 2003. “This Council, much to its credit, bends over backwards to keep from looking like the other Council. This is the other Council with kid gloves,” Mayor Kincaid notes, adding that Alabama’s Congressional delegation had urged the city to hire lobbyists. “If you do not have lobbyists, then you are behind other cities, and other cities will eat your lunch. Birmingham’s lunch has been eaten in the past.” -Ed Reynolds