Category Archives: City Hall

The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon

Originally published in WELD on October 24, 2015

The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon




Those who have followed city politics in the past decade or spent evenings as bar flies at any time between the 1960s to the ‘90s in local drinking establishments perhaps know of Terry “T.C.” Cannon. In 1962, Cannon and his older brother Joe opened the Plaza bar (better known as the “Upside Down” Plaza) on 11th Court South behind Western Supermarket on Highland Avenue (currently the long time home of Hot and Hot Fish Club).

Cannon recalls with a grin that his brother Joe had been ‘captured’ (involved with) then gambling kingpin of Birmingham, Little Man Popwell. “So everything (at the Plaza) was in my name,” T.C. says.

The Plaza drew a nightly cast of characters, creating an oddball clientele mix; Lawyers, doctors, students, businessmen, musicians, librarians, and schoolteachers made it the most eclectic bar in town. Bohemians drank with professionals. “It’s a wonder that the magnolia tree outside the Plaza survived because almost every lawyer in Birmingham has pissed on it,” an attorney friend and long ago Plaza patron told me.

The lounge was a Southside landmark. The Upside Down Plaza is currently still in business in the Five Points South area beneath Pickwick Plaza, where it relocated when the lease was not renewed in the mid-‘80s. In 1987, the nightclub began operation under new ownership.

Cannon claims the Plaza was forced out of its original locale because the landlord discovered religion. “A local preacher instructed them that they had to get rid of this horrible beer joint,” says T.C. “We still had three years on the lease and when we went to court, we won and got to stay three more years. And that was a lot of fun.” Continue reading

City Hall

City Hall

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

City Hall

By Ed Reynolds

June 27, 2000

Councilor Don MacDermott is absent tonight, presumably awaiting election returns in his Republican runoff bid for Jefferson County Clerk . . . Mayor Bernard Kincaid is a few minutes late to tonight’s meeting. He has no formal report but does express rage over insinuations that Birmingham school officials and students resorted to cheating in order to raise SAT scores. Council President William Bell and Councilor Lee Wendell Loder both agree with Kincaid. Only Councilor Blake suggests that reported low scores in reading but high scores in math and science indicate a possible problem somewhere in the standardized testing system . . . A resolution that would allow the city of Birmingham to pledge city resources to help repair Vulcan by leasing Vulcan Park to the Vulcan Park Foundation is up for discussion. Blake complains that several people on the board of the Vulcan Park Foundation are not Birmingham residents, though supporters of the Foundation’s board members indicate that all at least work in Birmingham. Councilor Bill Johnson and Blake continue their recent butting of heads, with Johnson angrily telling Blake that Vulcan is a symbol of the “community” and that the funds for the project will be coming from the “metro area,” not just the city. Considering how long the issue has been in the works, Johnson says he is “appalled” by the fact that Blake has not reviewed documents addressing the Foundation. Johnson reminds Blake that the statue is in Blake’s Southside district. Johnson also refuses to include an amendment to the resolution that would keep Vulcan from being moved from Red Mountain. Noting that he appreciates the Vulcan Park Foundation, Blake protests that Birmingham has put $1 million into the project over the past two years. The councilor notes that the city is also paying a monthly consultant fee in order to receive $2 million in federal money for the project. The resolution is approved, with only Blake casting a “no” vote . . . The controversial Solid Waste Disposal Authority is back on tonight’s agenda. A resolution is under consideration allowing the Council four weeks to look at alternatives to the deal between Masada Oxynol and the Waste Authority, which wants to lease the New Georgia landfill to Masada for $1 a year for 99 years. A $250 million processing and incineration plant designed to convert garbage to ethanol, a cleaner burning gasoline, would be built by Masada Oxynol. The corporation would be paid by the city to pick up Birmingham garbage. Councilor Blake continues to take issue with what he believes is a prearranged plan between Masada Oxynol and the Solid Waste Authority. Defenders of the Masada Oxynol relationship with the Solid Waste Disposal Authority tout the benefits of recycling, thereby saving what they believe is rapidly disappearing landfill space. Blake has a few questions for Councilor Johnson, who has upset some on the Council by siding with the usual Council majority that has sought to strip Kincaid of a variety of mayoral powers. Blake asks if the Mayor’s office or the Streets and Sanitation Department had any input in changes to the solid waste plan. Johnson says he doesn’t know of any of their input, but notes that it’s his understanding that the Solid Waste Authority instigated the changes in tonight’s resolution. Explaining that he believes the Solid Waste Authority was “put in place specifically for the benefit of Masada,” Blake questions the motivation behind proposals to alter Birmingham’s methods of handling city garbage. Answering his own query, Blake reacts with anger, explaining that the need was for “Darryl Harmes and Masada to gain a monopoly on the disposal of waste in the city of Birmingham!” He accuses Johnson of helping to orchestrate the deal, asking Johnson if he’s on the payroll of Masada or acting as a consultant for any of the corporation’s engineering, accounting, or law firms. Johnson angrily tells Blake he’s not at all affiliated with Masada, and is only interested because he is very impressed with Masada Oxynol’s technology. Blake and other critics of the Masada proposal are irate that no cost studies have been examined. “We are turning over all authority of the Council of the city of Birmingham to an unelected group of officials who can contract with anybody at any price to take care of our solid waste. I just don’t believe that is in the best interest of the city.” Blake wants to know how a pipeline will be installed to take the millions of gallons of water that are necessary for the garbage conversion process from the Cahaba River to the New Georgia landfill. No one is able to answer the councilor. Addressing a portion of the resolution that covers the toll taken on landfill space when population increases, Blake points out that Birmingham’s population has declined from 340,00 in 1960 to 265,000 at present. A representative from the Streets and Sanitation Department confirms that Birmingham has had an “exponential decrease in landfill waste.” Blake also warns that Birmingham could be the processing and receiving site for garbage from around the state. The councilor condemns the 30-day period for alternative proposals as a “scam.” Resounding applause from the audience fills the school auditorium. Councilor Loder voices his opinion on the waste plan, citing studies by California that have determined costs to convert waste to ethanol as being exceptionally high. Loder notes that the uncertainties of such new technology makes high investment an irresponsible action. Calling the Masada technology the future of garbage disposal, Councilor Johnson jumps back into the fray, defending the technology but concedes that a review period is needed to determine the present status of the area’s landfills. In sarcastic reference to Councilor Johnson’s recent acknowledgement that his degree in chemistry was a primary reason for his [Johnson's] support of the Masada plan, Blake says that he was also impressed by the technology even though “I don’t have a chemistry degree,” noting that he came close [Blake is a practicing physician]. Blake again condemns what he sees as an attempt by Masada to monopolize control of city waste as well as city land. Mayor Kincaid notes that he is perplexed by the rapid speed with which the Masada plan is moving, calling on the Streets and Sanitation Department to issue a report on the status of solid waste collection and disposal in Birmingham. Kincaid calls the 30-day study period “a charade.” He says the time period is “absurd” and gives the “favorite [Masada] a year’s leg up,” alluding to the year of preparation Masada has had to work out a plan with the Solid Waste Disposal Authority. “I don’t have a degree in chemistry either, but I do know you don’t need a degree in chemistry for this, you need a degree in alchemy. This is changing trash into dollars, and not for us [Birmingham].

Cash Flow

May 31, 2012

A selective list of funding requests approved by the Birmingham City Council.

(Dollar amounts and the name of the organization that received city funds are followed by text from the Council’s agenda explaining how the money is to be used.)

May 1, 2012

Item 35
$3,000 to the Birmingham Board of Education.
“to be donated to Princeton Alternative Elementary School for general education purposes to purchase/finance materials, resources, incentive books, field trips, professional development, parent education, reading programs, etc.”

Item 36
$2,000 to the Birmingham Board of Education.
“to help cover the costs of Huffman High School’s band uniforms.”

Item 39
$1,000 to Railroad Park Foundation.
“to help fund the Park’s ‘Relax by the Tracks,’ music series at the patron level.”

Item 41
$250 to Vulcan Park and Museum.
“to help fund the 2012 ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ show at Vulcan Park.”

Item 42
$1,200 to Vulcan Park and Museum.
“to help fund the 2012 ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ show at Vulcan Park.”

May 8, 2012

Item 15
$45,000 to Charles Williams & Associates, Inc.
“to provide basic architectural services for ADA Accessibility Upgrades at George Ward Park Project.”

Item 16
$20,200 to Building and Earth Sciences, Inc.
“to provide special inspection and construction materials testing for the Fire Station #14.”

Item 34
$136,650 to Battle Miller Construction Corporation, Hoover.
“for ADA Accessibility Upgrades for W. C. Patton Park.”

Item 35
$43,443 to Covington Flooring Company, Inc.
“for Crossplex Bleacher Padding.”

May 15, 2012

Item 32
$37,500 to Alabama Roofing and Sheetmetal Company, Inc., Anniston.
“for Rickwood Field Cupola Roof Repair.”

May 22, 2012

Item 33
$350 to the Vulcan Park and Museum.
“to help fund the 2012 ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ show at Vulcan Park.”

Item 34
$500 to the Vulcan Park Foundation.
“to help fund the 2012 ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ show at Vulcan Park.”

Item 35
$250 to the Vulcan Park and Museum.
“to help fund the 2012 ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ show at Vulcan Park.”

Total expenditures noted in this issue: $291,343

Total expenditures noted in this column since July 1, 2011, the start of the fiscal year: $30,932,554.92

Total expenditures noted in this column since November 22, 2005: $435,217,144.67

Ghost Dogs Update

Ghost Dogs Update

The stray dogs who make Oak Hill Cemetery their home are finding more permanent dwellings.



May 12, 2011

It’s been nearly a year since an eight-year-old girl named Mina Oates sent Black & White a story that she had written about the homeless dogs that roam Oak Hill Cemetery downtown where her father, Stuart Oates, is executive director. Her story was included in a July 8, 2010, Black & White feature about what Mina had dubbed the “graveyard dogs.” Last October, self-proclaimed dog lover Ellen Chisholm organized an effort to find homes for the stray and abandoned creatures haunting the grounds of Oak Hill.

“It’s a group of approximately 10 or 15 people. We got together last fall and had a meeting to try and help these particular dogs,” Chisholm says. “We started talking with Stuart Oates to see how we could help. Our group just stays in contact by emails and stuff like that; we don’t have an actual name. All of us are volunteers who are animal lovers.”

Baby Doll serves as the Ghost Dogs’ unofficial mascot. (Photo: David Young.) (click for larger version)



Chisholm’s efforts caught the interest of Birmingham’s Animal Adoption and Rescue Center (BAARC), which has donated time and effort to care for the dogs until homes can be found, as well as having the animals spayed or neutered, usually at the Alabama Spay/Neuter Clinic.

“BAARC Rescue is helping us with housing and socializing some of the dogs, as is a local company called Creative Dog Training,” Chisholm explains. “And there are several vets in the area that have been helping us out, either with medications or with actual visits that the dogs have needed for one medical reason or another.”

The group has rescued five dogs from the cemetery and the surrounding area in the past six months, and found homes for two of them. Three others await adoption. “We’re doing everything we can to give them fresh lives, and try and help with the local stray population as well,” Chisholm says. “It took us a while to get different organizations who would be willing to help. Everybody is basically doing it on a pro bono basis. We’ve found some great organizations. But we’re limited, so we can’t take in too many dogs at one time.” According to Chisholm, their efforts appear to be paying off. “We really have not had a whole lot of dogs come through the cemetery recently,” she says. “Now it’s just an occasional dog that runs through there. So we’re doing pretty good so far, getting things under control. But there are always going to be strays.”

Seger was a homeless dog rescued from the Oak Hill Cemetery. (Photo: David Young.) (click for larger version)



The group catches the strays thanks to a dog trap contributed by local animal-advocacy organization Friends of Cats and Dogs Foundation. “We don’t set the trap up on bad weather days,” Chisholm explains. “During the wintertime . . . we had to be really careful so that we didn’t have a dog trapped in there during a super cold day.” Once a dog is caught, it’s usually taken to BAARC’s no-kill facility in Irondale.

“My greatest relief is that we haven’t really had to have animal control come in to deal with situations, so far,” says the cemetery’s director Stuart Oates. “The only time we would have animal control come in is if we get an aggressive animal that was imposing a danger on other animals or people in here.”

Oates says he has noticed fewer stray dogs at the cemetery in recent months. “I can’t really say what accounts for that because, generally, what I would observe is when you’ve dealt with one pack of animals that would come in and you got rid of them, another pack would move in within a short time. And we really haven’t seen that. Our only constant out here has been Baby Doll, who is also called Wrinkles or whatever . . . she’s got a million names. I think she should be the poster child of this whole thing.”

Lump was the name given to this water-loving Ghost Dog. (Photo: Melanie Tumlin.) (click for larger version)

Oates says he has been impressed with Chisholm’s dedication in spearheading the effort to find homes for the “ghost dogs.”

“She’s doing a magnificent job of communicating and getting other people organized. That’s what it takes. You’ve got something to inspire somebody to take a step in a certain direction. That’s the beautiful thing—you never know what the consequence of any of your actions is going to be. It can sometimes be a casual comment or a little essay by an eight-year-old girl that inspires people.” &

For information on adopting one of the Ghost Dogs, go to or contact

Behind the 8 Ball

Behind the 8 Ball

Larry Langford’s wit and wisdom.

By Ed Reynolds

(click for larger version)

March 20, 2008

Visitors to the WERC 960 AM web site ( will find a Magic 8 Ball flanked by two images of Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford. One is of Langford in his days as a WBRC Channel 6 reporter, complete with towering Afro. The other is the modern-day Langford, the savvy political animal we know, his hands folded as if in prayer.

Click on the ball to hear audio clips of various Langfordisms such as “Larry likes to move quickly without thinking,” “It’s gotta be something in hell we want, because we’re fightin’ so hard to get there,” “Mayberry R.F.D.—that’s all we are,” and “Do something, do anything.”

City Hall section — Langford’s Way


Langford’s Way

Mayor Langford continues to express himself in a unique fashion.

February 21, 2008

According to Mayor Larry Langford, repaved streets, additional streetlights, laptop computers, and school scholarships are going to stop residents from fleeing Birmingham’s dismal school system. At the January 29 City Council meeting, the mayor announced plans to start his economic revitalization agenda in the Collegeville community. “The reason we chose Collegeville is because—geographically—it’s small enough in size that whatever we do there will have such a major impact that you can actually get a benefit and see the impact of your dollars and use it as a model for other areas,” Langford assured the council. “You begin to re-house a community, street repaving and lighting, you bring people back into your city. You add to that component the laptop computers, and I can assure you . . . once that’s up and running by the end of this year, we are going to find a lot of people who will want to send their children to school who do not have the resources, moving back into our city to take advantage of the scholarships and that sort of thing.”Langford addressed the ever-present crime that has made Birmingham the nation’s sixth most dangerous city. “Our children are acting out on what they’re seeing us doing. We keep talking about these kids. We’ve got too many 50-year-old teenagers in this community. Big ol’ grown men walking around with their pants down, their butts showing, earrings in their ears! We need men to once again stand up and be men. Run your house . . . Ladies, don’t get offended, because some of the best men I know are women. My momma was a better man than any man I ever knew. And I got the scars on my butt to prove it. Now, every time you say ‘discipline your kids,’ I’ve got all of these groups popping up [saying], ‘It’s child abuse to talk about spanking.’ Child abuse is taking your child to the mall and paying $200 for a pair of sneakers for a kid. That’s what child abuse is. Taking your little boys to the mall, punching holes in their heads to put earrings in ’em and them hollering, ‘Black kings wore them!’ Name one!”

Langford went on to criticize parents for expecting teachers to instill discipline that should have been taught at home. “If you are a teacher, be glad I am not your superintendent, for I would make it mandatory that all teachers take a karate course,” Langford said. Recalling his days as a youth, the mayor reminisced, “[Teachers] would knock the paint off your body. And when your parents came, they would finish the job . . . And it’s not against the law—it may be against man’s law to go home and knock your kids out, but it ain’t against God’s law, and God’s law takes precedent over man’s law every day!”

• • •
Two weeks later, at the February 12 council meeting, the mayor was again hyperventilating, but this time it was to complain about people calling City Hall to ask that their neighborhoods be cleaned up. “When we picked up almost 20,000 tons of garbage the first time around [during Langford’s initiative to clean up 23 communities in 23 days], and the second time around we’re picking up equally as much garbage and trash. There’s something wrong, something dreadfully wrong,” said Langford. “I hate chicken, I just absolutely don’t like chicken because of all the chicken boxes that’s thrown [out], they just drive past your house and [throw out] chicken bones . . . And this is adults doing this. We blame everything on these kids . . . They drive in front of your house, take the cigarette ashtray, open the door and pour all of the butts in the middle of the street. We need to put their little butts in jail for this nonsense. I mean, how long do we want to keep paying for the irresponsibility of people? And yet they call in here on a daily basis, ‘Will you come pick up this and pick up that.’ We just picked it up yesterday . . . You fine some of these people $2,000 to $3,000 for doing this . . . Forget the fine. It ought to be required by the courts that you ought to go out there and clean up a whole mile of where you dumped it for 30 days. That’ll stop it!”

Langford later admonished women who pursue relationships with men who mistreat them, in the process offering men a glimpse of what they’re missing because he wasn’t born a woman. “C’mon, get a life. If he mistreats you early on, don’t you kid yourself, it’s only going to continue,” Langford scolded. “Because if I was a woman—yeah, and be glad I wasn’t born one ’cause I would have been a fine little thing. Yeah, that’s right. I’d have been the kind when you’re walking down the street [that] looks like two little boys under a blanket fighting.”

• • •
Also on February 12, the city council approved spending $3.5 million for 15,000 laptop computers for Birmingham students in grades one through eight. Only Councilor Valerie Abbott voted against the expenditure. Questions about the Birmingham Education Initiative, the non-profit foundation that would manage the program, forced that organization’s creation to be delayed for a week. “You’ve got to have a foundation in place to receive this money. These companies cannot and will not give you money unless there’s a tax-deductible foundation for it,” said Langford.

However, councilors were hesitant to approve the group to oversee the computer program, as the Birmingham Education Initiative has yet to be granted non-profit status. Councilor Roderick Royal, who requests that every dollar go toward the computers “and not be siphoned off by staff costs, etc.,” prefers that the school system oversee the computer program. “The school system has enough issues of its own to deal with,” responded the mayor. “We need a foundation that can go out and recruit funds for this program.”

The stand-off over the management group prompted an antagonistic exchange between Langford and Abbott, who wanted to know more about who would be in charge of the organization. Abbott said she recently discovered a July 2002 memo from then-City Finance Director Folasade Olanipekun regarding the city’s inability to audit the nonprofit Help E-Learn program that was affiliated with Computer Help for Kids, organized by former Healthsouth magnate Richard Scrushy, Langford, and former City Council and County Commission member John Katapodis. Some $200,000 was never accounted for.

Langford grew defensive. “As far as these computers are concerned, I’m the person directly responsible. If I wanted to hire this person you’re talking about, you can’t direct me who to hire and not to hire. Right now, we’re talking about computers coming in for a totally different issue. If you’ve got a problem with E-Learn, we’ve got lawyers here, let them sue them, if that’s the case.” Abbott replied, “If I’m going to be approving this, I am concerned about accountability and the veracity and honesty of people that you are hiring on behalf of the city.” Langford answered, “They may have the same concern about you, since we’re going to play this game!” Abbott maintained her composure as always, and simply replied, “Well, that’s fine and dandy.” &

City Hall — The Honeymoon Phase



The Honeymoon Phase

The Birmingham City Council and area residents appear willing to follow new Mayor Larry Langford anywhere.




December 13, 2007

On December 4, the Birmingham City Council overwhelmingly approved Mayor Larry Langford’s plans to increase the city’s sales tax by 1 percent and double business license fees. Councilors voted 7 to 0 for the sales tax boost, with Councilor Valerie Abbott abstaining (Councilor William Bell was absent). The sales tax increase is projected to raise $36 million for police and fire departmental improvements, economic development, upgrade of streets and sidewalks, and scholarships for Birmingham high school graduates with at least a “C” average (residents will have to vote on the scholarship proposition). Though he approved of the sales tax increase, Councilor Joel Montgomery was the lone “no” vote on the issue of doubling business license fees, a proposal on which Abbott again abstained. The projected $28 million that will be raised by the fee increase is earmarked for a domed stadium and public transit. In the week prior to the vote it was learned that license fees paid by insurance companies have been capped according to state law, making $8 million of the original $36 million projection questionable. Proponents of the Langford plan point out that business license fees have not changed in 25 years and are among the lowest in the region. The average license fee is $983. Of the 28,000 businesses in the city, 80 percent pay $500 or less, according to Deborah Vance, Langford’s chief of staff. The sales tax and business license increases will take effect January 1, 2008.

• • •
On November 27, the Birmingham City Council conducted a public hearing at Boutwell Auditorium on Mayor Langford’s tax and fee proposals. (The hearing had been scheduled only a week earlier.) All councilors were present except William Bell, who had been hospitalized. (No reason was given other than Bell’s administrative assistant oddly telling the audience, “Due to no circumstances of his, he’s in the hospital.”) Council President Carole Smitherman requested a moment of silent prayer. Mayor Langford’s chief of staff, Deborah Vance, apologized that the mayor could not be present due to his having to fly to Boston on city business.

Approximately 75 percent of residents who spoke were in favor of the tax increase. A minority, however, voiced loud dissent. Thomas neighborhood association president Alonzo Darrow questioned the wisdom of building an entertainment district in downtown Birmingham without legalized gambling. “If we had a lottery or legalized gaming, would we be sitting up in here tonight?” asked Darrow. About a dozen people in the audience shouted, “No!” He continued: “So your problem is not a one-cent sales tax. Your problem is not a business license. Yo’ problem is Montgomery!” Darrow opposed the tax increases and urged the council to “think about what you’re doing.”

Local schoolteacher Natasha Everett spoke in favor of Langford’s plans. “Not only am I a resident of the city of Birmingham but I’m also a small business owner, and I support the business license fee. I have no problem giving our children a penny. I have no problem hooking up with the vision,” said Everett. “I hear some of the senior citizens saying, ‘Well, we can’t afford it!’ But when you look over there in Five Points West at the casino buses on the weekend . . . Hey! We can afford it! We can quit talking about what we cannot afford!” Everett, a world history teacher at Carver High School, brought two dozen of her students and asked her class to stand as she pleaded, “They want the scholarship money! They need the scholarship money!” Smitherman then requested that the council allow one of Everett’s students to speak. The teen spoke in favor of Langford’s proposals and added that he will be voting for “Barack Obama because I believe he is another Martin Luther King, just like Mr. Langford.” The student elaborated, “I want to be the next Larry Langford, honestly. I want to be the next Barack Obama . . . Not as corny as it may sound, but I have a dream . . . I want to be as big as Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King, Larry Langford, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton . . .” Shouts of “amen!” reverberated through the audience of approximately 400. As the student finished, Smitherman suddenly announced, “Ladies and gentlemen of Birmingham, the honorable Larry Langford.”

The room broke into cheers as Mayor Langford strutted into the room. “Let me apologize. I’ve had so many things going on today,” Langford told the gathering. “And I’ve got to be on a plane at 6 o’clock in the morning to Boston to meet with MIT, uhh, Nicholas Negroponte, the creator and the builder of the laptop computer that we’re going to get for our kids . . . I am sick and tired of hearing people who live outside of the city tell us what we ought not to do inside the city!” The room again broke into applause amid more cries of “amen!” and “all right!” Langford was on a roll: “I have heard some of the most ridiculous things in my life since we proposed the one-cent sales tax: ‘I will go to Tuscaloosa [to buy automobiles at a cheaper tax rate].’ Well, 59 South goes that way!” Langford shouted as he gestured west, the audience laughing and clapping its approval. “We’re either all going to swim together or we’re going to sink together!”

Presumably speaking on the broader topic of personal responsibility, the mayor scolded, “It’s time for this mess to stop! The worst thing that ever happened to us is that some of us got a little house we can’t afford, got car notes we can’t pay, drinking liquor that we can’t spell, and we’ve lost our minds . . . Everybody’s on Ritalin! There ain’t nothin’ wrong with these kids that a good ol’ fashioned butt-whippin’ wouldn’t straighten right out! And if you did that, I wouldn’t have to hire 10,000 cops!” Langford wrapped up with this gem: “I drive through these parking lots and I could pick up a hundred pennies in any of these parking lots! If a penny’s going to break you, you’re already broke anyway, so don’t worry about it.”

• • •
At the December 4 council meeting, Councilor Carol Duncan praised Langford’s tax initiative for providing more money for transit. “If you knew the number of calls received in my office on people losing their jobs because the buses don’t run at the time they need to be there, or the time they need to get off,” said Duncan. “If Mayor Langford wants rail, we’re going to give him rail.” Councilor Valerie Abbott said that she was not prepared to vote on the plan without more details. “We don’t really have much information or have even formulated plans how we’re going to spend the money except in broad categories,” said Abbott as she cited statistics indicating that Birmingham residents are becoming poorer yearly. The councilor quipped, “I do admire the mayor’s energy and enthusiasm. And I am well aware that he could sell ice to Eskimos. I’m sure of it. But I’m not an Eskimo.” Alluding to Langford’s “Let’s Do Something” campaign slogan, she added, “I truly want to do something right rather than just do something.”

Council President Carole Smitherman chose to remain true to Langford’s campaign slogan, however, acknowledging the four things that happen to an individual when taken hostage (as said by her pastor on the previous Sunday): Sit down, cry, remember, “and then the fourth thing you do [is] you get up and you try and do something. Birmingham has been held hostage by the suburbs because they say, ‘Birmingham, you can’t do this. You cannot do whatever it is that you want to do.’” Smitherman announced that she wants to form a review committee that would include the mayor’s and councilors’ input. “Every time one of these projects gets ready to come online, [the mayor] has to sit down with that review committee. And all the questions that weren’t answered now, if you will, we will answer them at that time.”

Langford shared his own observations regarding the suburbs. “The city of Birmingham is the reason you’ve got the surrounding suburban communities,” said the mayor. “So goes Birmingham, so goes this whole county. . . . If the heart dies, it’s just a matter of time before the limbs die.” He also praised councilors for standing up to automobile dealers that opposed his proposed tax increases.

Councilor Miriam Witherspoon said that auto dealers who are complaining about the boost in taxes have received plenty of financial incentives from the city. “They spoke about $80 million that they made in profits—that’s one dealer,” said Witherspoon. “Then they want to complain about us imposing a one-cent sales tax to help our communities.” The councilor said that at a meeting with car dealers the previous day, only one representative of the dealerships said he lived in the city. “So before you try to dictate what we do to help our people, you bring to us proof of what you’ve done to help our people,” said the councilor. “All you’ve done is make money off of selling your cars to our people. We’ve made you rich!”

After the meeting Langford said, “Dome done, scholarships done, transit done.” The mayor said he was surprised to learn that “things that I thought had been done years ago have not been done. We’ve got to get designs, we’ve got to get construction managers in place. . . . This is the fun part. We can do this standing on our heads.” &

City Hall — Larry’s Kingdom Come


Larry’s Kingdom Come

Mayor Langford starts his tenure with a bang.

November 29, 2007

On inauguration day, it soon became clear that the new mayor wasn’t kidding when he repeatedly opined during his campaign that what Birmingham needs a “crazy man” to run the city. After Alabama Congressman Artur Davis saluted Birmingham because “a city that lives on a hill can never be hidden,” Larry Langford took the microphone to address several hundred people gathered at Boutwell Auditorium on November 13 for his mayoral swearing-in ceremony.

Langford’s theatrics were on display for the constituency that voted him into office without a runoff in a field of nine candidates. (During the inaugural speech he boasted that he could have beaten 40 because “If God be for you, who can be against you?”) As he addressed the crowd, a Hispanic interpreter desperately tried to decipher Langford’s every sentence; the new mayor’s Baptist preacher oratory and the interpreter’s frantic Spanish frequently collided.

“We pay $120 for a pair of sneakers for a 12-year-old. They can’t jump any higher with a $20 pair than with a $100 pair. . . . When was the last time Tommy Hilfiger was at your house?” —Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford

Langford choked down sobs as he told the crowd about a woman dying of cancer in Calera whose final requests included meeting the new mayor—a wish Langford was more than happy to oblige. He warned the crowd, “If in the next few minutes I say something you do not like, I want you to know that in my heart I do not care! . . . I’m not coming out to patch your streets. We are coming out to rebuild your community.” He acknowledged that Birmingham is currently losing 5.6 percent of its population yearly. “If we [the city] were a patient in the hospital, they would put us in intensive care,” he said. Regarding crime, Langford urged parents to raise their children with more discipline: “I cannot hire enough police to keep us from killing each other . . . It’s nothing that a good ol’ fashion butt-whipping [won't solve].” A man in the crowd yelled approval: “Larry ain’t playin’!”

Langford derided city residents, asking, “When did we lose our mind? We pay $120 for a pair of sneakers for a 12-year-old. They can’t jump any higher with a $20 pair than with a $100 pair. . . . When was the last time Tommy Hilfiger was at your house?” The crowd responded enthusiastically, shouting, “Amen!” Langford was on a roll: “Our children are direct carbon copies of us . . . I don’t want to deal with no 50-year-old teenagers!” He added that he would “not tell the city or council how to set the table without bringing something to the table.” Another supporter loudly sighed, “Larry’s crazy!”

• • •

On November 19, the Birmingham City Council met with the new mayor to dissect his big spending plans for improving the city. Langford has asked for a 100 percent increase in business license fees and another 1 percent boost in sales tax (increasing it to 10 percent) to raise a projected $72 million to finance a domed stadium, the transit system, economic improvement, street and sidewalk refurbishment, police and fire department upgrades, and a student scholarship program. A separately proposed $7 million expenditure would be used for the scholarship program as well as purchasing laptop computers for city schools. It’s the additional $7 million request on which the council was taking an “in-concept, in-theory” advisory vote (as described by Council President Carole Smitherman) on this particular afternoon. The vote was not binding. Councilors Carol Duncan, Steven Hoyt, Miriam Witherspoon, and Maxine Parker spoke enthusiastically in favor of moving ahead with Langford’s ideas.

Langford was more subdued at the November 19 meeting than he was at his inaugural, but not by much. He addressed councilors (all but Joel Montgomery were present): “Just once in this community I want to see somebody say something positive about Birmingham without the ‘buts,’ the ‘ands,’ and the ‘conjunctions’ [added] to it. We keep buying into people who are painting this city with a broad brush. . . . Yes, we have a crime problem in this community and we will address it. Let me just be straight up about it. Black-on-black crime in this community: we have to speak out on it as you have been doing, only with a louder voice. We’ve got to get into our churches and get the faith-based communities involved in this deal. Because if we don’t do this quickly, we are going to run the risk of being the only race of people in the history of civilization to kill itself off.”

Langford believes that scholarships are a first step to avoiding the picture of impending doom he had just painted. “When you put scholarships in these children’s hands, now they’ve got something to say ‘yes’ to. We keep telling them to just say ‘no.’ Give them something to say ‘yes’ to. Now those Mommas and Daddies are gonna have to read and [be] with their children because the light at the end of the tunnel won’t be a train coming to run over them!”

As a sign of support for fighting crime, Langford had already ordered that mayoral staff cars be turned over to the police department. “I have pulled in every car that’s on the mayor’s staff,” Langford said. “I’ve never used a city car, I will never use a city car. I want my own car. I want to be able to go and come as I please without somebody following me and saying, ‘Oh, you stopped off at T’s.’ If I wanna stop at T’s, I’ll stop at T’s.”

Langford was appalled that police officers are riding one per vehicle. “Tell me why you would send a single police officer into a crime hot spot by himself,” he demanded. “We have narrowed these little beats down so small that it requires taking the officers and splitting them apart and buying twice as many cars as you need rather than giving them a defined beat area and put two officers in the car, for the officers’ protection as well as for the protection of the crook.” Langford said that he personally would not drive into some of the crime areas if he were a lone policeman. “That’s why it’s taken 35 or over 40 minutes for them to answer some of these calls,” he observed. “They’re scared!”

Councilor Valerie Abbott said that she needs more information about Langford’s proposals, whereas Councilor Roderick Royal expressed concern that small businesses will not be able to afford the proposed doubling of the business license fee. Councilor Duncan said that she had been talking to residents and independent business owners in her district and has found few objections to Langford’s notions. Duncan added, “Education? The laptops and funding the schools? I’ve been in here six years, I think we’ve given them what, about $40 million trying to keep them from going belly-up! $7 million sounds like a bargain to me.”

“You can’t be against laptops and you can’t be against giving school scholarships,” Councilor Royal said outside the council chambers. “[But] I was in the army and you don’t make major moves in the army, as an army officer, without an op order. It’s a five-paragraph kind of thing. And that’s what’s happening today. You have a mission that you’re going on, but there is no op order. There is no command and control, in my opinion. There is no objective. . . . Yeah, okay, you want to build a dome, those kind of things, yes, you have goals but how do you get there?”

#147;I couldn’t be happier. It made this whole campaign worthwhile,” Langford said of the council’s reaction to his proposals during a press gathering after the meeting. When asked to comment on the morning headlines that Birmingham is now the sixth most dangerous city in America, the mayor replied, “To deny the numbers, you can’t do it. It is what it is. . . . That’s why I was pushing today for scholarships and for improved street lighting and improve the police department and in talking about economic development. You’ve got to give people hope right now. That’s what’s lacking in this community.” Langford elaborated on the computers for schoolchildren. “These are exceptional computers! For those who say, ‘Well, it’s a computer, but . . .’ Where’s your 15,000 computers? If you don’t like this 15,000, give us 15,000. Let’s see if you’ve got something to say other than just lip service.” Langford added that he is sick of critics who offer no help. “We’re gonna go ahead, we’re gonna move forward, we’re gonna help our children, we’re gonna do the things we have to do. And this council is on board and I love it! It is what it is!”

At the next day’s weekly City Council meeting—Langford’s first—he was anointed by the pastor from Council President Smitherman’s church, More Than Conquerors Faith Church. The ceremony took nearly 10 minutes. The council later set up public hearings for the following week to hear citizens’ feedback on the mayor’s proposals. &

City Hall — Council Debates a Bright Future



Council Debates a Bright Future

The Council clashes on the merits of digital billboards.


May 17, 2007

At the May 1 City Council meeting, Councilor Valerie Abbott, chair of the planning and zoning committee, sought a temporary moratorium on LED digital billboards and other outdoor electric business signs. “Our city sign ordinance is very old,” explained Abbott, concerning the need for a moratorium until city codes can be updated to address digital sign technology. The councilor said that the ordinances regulating outdoor advertising in Birmingham were written before electronic billboards existed. Currently, two digital LED billboards operate in Birmingham’s city limits, according to the councilor.

Discussion of the resolution for the proposed moratorium included a public hearing, allowing local residents to address the issue. Surprisingly, few opponents of digital billboards spoke, whereas several advocates expressed approval of the technology. Local radio personality and one-time mayoral candidate Frank Matthews claimed that more advertising generates more revenue for businesses. “When you look at the digital billboards, it gives somewhat of a twenty-first-century perspective to Birmingham overall. . . . I am sick of seeing antiquated ugly signs. I like that newness,” said Matthews. He then accused Abbott of bringing up the issue because she is reportedly running for mayor.

Chris Dehaven of Pelham sign company Dixie LED was present to defend the LED signs. He pointed to the billboard’s efficient use of electricity. “It is the emerging sign art, there’s no doubt about it,” Dehaven told the council. “Almost half of all the signs that we do are for cities, parks, schools, and churches. Only about half of them are actually used by business owners. Unfortunately, a lot of business owners would like to have it, but they don’t have the funds [that are] available in the public sector.”

“There’s a giant TV screen on the side of the road and you’ve got to make sure that these aren’t going to hurt somebody.” —Lisa Harris, executive director of Scenic Alabama

LED billboards change messages every six to eight seconds, and their intense brightness (which can be controlled) and high resolution are transforming outdoor advertising. Instead of buying space, advertisers can buy time on LED billboards. The billboards also give advertisers the ability to frequently and easily modify their ads.

Reverend Wanda Radford of the organization Mothers Who Want the Violence to Stop (Radford’s son was killed in August 2006 in a random shooting) praised Lamar Advertising for donating billboards that feature images of slain children and the promotion of cash rewards for information leading to solving the crimes. “If we had the money to put up electronic billboards, we would do so,” said Radford, who challenged the city to use digital billboards to assist in searching for homicide suspects.

A DVD presentation by Tom Traylor of Lamar Advertising touted the efficiency and impact of LED digital billboards. “Unlike other elements a driver encounters, digital billboards do not flash nor do they feature animation, motion video, or intermittent light,” according to the video. The billboards’ ability to flash Amber Alert notifications were also praised as a benefit.

Councilor Steven Hoyt is opposed to any moratorium. “There’s not been a moratorium on all these junkyards that appear in the community. Neither has there been one on the beer and wine licenses that we hand out every week, and we’re still trying to rewrite those ordinances and zoning issues. And I’m just not inclined to impede a business that is thriving. Aesthetically, it looks good.” Hoyt continued, “I’m distracted by all this grass that the state department doesn’t cut, going down the freeway . . . I really want to commend Lamar for stepping up their game, and it sets a precedent for others who want to get into the business.”

City attorney Lawrence Cooper, however, warned that the law could be lagging behind technology, and that safety and brightness issues could be distracting to motorists. “If we allow these billboards to continue to go up right now, they may be grandfathered in with some type of technology that is not useful,” said Cooper. “So please be aware of the law trying to play catch-up with issues that we’re presented with.”

A current Federal Highway Administration study has not been completed, which is the reason the planning and zoning committee suggested a moratorium until potential LED sign distractions and subsequent dangers are determined, according to Abbott. The councilor explained that the committee wants to study whether LED digital signs should be allowed at certain intersections where there is a lot of dangerous traffic—such as Malfunction Junction—or if they should be allowed near residential areas. “We’re not saying, ‘Ban the signs.’ We’re saying, ‘Let’s stop and look at the issue and make sure we’re doing the intelligent thing in our city.’ Other cities have banned them completely, [or] they’ve put restrictions on them,” said Abbott. “So that is the reason for asking for the moratorium, so that we have time to look at the issue before we have a whole city full of signs and can’t do anything about them because we’ve already allowed them.”

Vestavia Hills revoked a permit for a digital billboard last year after it was determined that the sign failed to comply with the city’s sign ordinance. Lamar Advertising has filed an appeal to have the sign reinstated.

“It was in a pretty bad location on Rocky Ridge Road,” said Rebecca Leavings, acting city clerk for the city of Vestavia Hills. “It’s in litigation right now . . . Our sign ordinance says no changing images or animation or flashing—or something like that. So it comes down to what’s going to be an interpretation by the courts as to whether or not that’s what was [in violation]. But it was in a poor location. Also, it was right down on the road.”

Digital billboards are prohibited in Hoover, according to Stan Benton, assistant director of building inspections services for the city. Signs with electronically changeable messages, flashing lights, and reader boards (except for public service, time and temperature signs, and scoreboards at athletic facilities) are prohibited, as are any new locations of billboards of any type.

“The point is that the city council is responsible for the health, safety, and welfare of the general public,” said Lisa Harris, executive director of Scenic Alabama, in a telephone interview. “It is vital to the traveling public, to our residents and our citizens that nothing hazardous is going to happen [as a result of] those [LED billboards]. We have trucks [dropping] steel coils, we lost an overpass from a crash of a tanker, we have trucks coming through there. [The council] needs to at least know what the safety issues are and make a decision based on that, not just based on ‘aren’t these things wonderful and flashy!’ You need to make sure that no one is going to have a wreck looking at them before you allow them to go in. . . . There’s a giant TV screen on the side of the road and you’ve got to say, if you’re a responsible elected official, ‘Let’s make sure that these aren’t going to hurt somebody.’”

Lamar Advertising has requested permits for two more LED billboards. The Birmingham City Council approved a two-week delay. At press time, the moratorium was scheduled for a vote at the May 15 council meeting. &