City Hall — Car Wash Controversies

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By Ed Reynolds

April 21, 2005

It was the most exciting City Hall drama since former councilor Sandra Little told Mayor Bernard Kincaid that he was “a little man.” In an appallingly self-righteous sermon to the Council, Reverend Steve Green of More Than Conquerors Faith Church alluded to some members of the Council as “wicked rulers.” To hear Green tell it, apparently Satan had arrived at the April 5 Birmingham City Council meeting in the guise of a car wash; the business owner was seeking a permanent address in a commercial area of town where it would purportedly be a threat to services at Reverend Green’s church. Although the majority of the City Council recently approved a $600,000 study to determine if there is a disparity regarding minorities and city contracts, when Jimmie Johnson, a young black entrepreneur, secured a million dollar line of credit to open a Splash-N-Go car wash on Dennison Avenue, the council sided with Reverend Green.

“We believe that a car wash next to a church . . . is as incompatible as gasoline and fuel,” said the obviously confused pastor. Green urged the Council not to revert to the past. “We won’t repeat the things that we have seen in time past in Birmingham, that you won’t take out the hoses, as it were, and begin to put out the fire of the inspiration of this community, as we’re on fire for making West End a better place.” The pastor made a bold prediction: “West End will one day look like Shelby County and (Highway) 280.”

Former County Commissioner Reverend Steve Small spoke out against the car wash as he commended the Council’s record of protecting communities. “(The car wash) will bring an element of criminal activity to our community,” said Small. “We will have all kinds of loud noise and profanity.” Noting that neighborhood residents need to be able to sleep at night, Small added, “They don’t need to hear ‘your mother this’ and ‘F’ that’ all night long! They don’t need to hear it on Sunday mornings either!”

—City Councilor Bert Miller Councilor Valerie Abbott was not so much focused on the church’s congregation as she was on residents in a “very nice residential subdivision” behind the prospective car wash property. “The problem with car washes is they cause a lot of noise pollution,” said Abbott. “People turn their stereos up while they’re working on their cars.” Councilor Montgomery questioned why drive-thru restaurants, where people play boom boxes, are permitted but car washes are not. “I don’t understand how you can create more crime with a car wash than you could with a drive-thru restaurant, a laundromat, (or) a dental office, especially since it probably stores pharmaceutical drugs,” said Montgomery. The car wash would be unmanned but will have 16 cameras operating around the clock. Critics contend that another car wash is not needed since there is presently one on 6th Avenue and another on Green Springs Highway, both within a few miles of the church.Councilor Roderick Royal noted the irony of the Council’s usual insistence on acting business-friendly, but now refusing “a minority who has secured a million dollar loan.” Council President Lee Loder, a reverend himself, is torn. “This is hard because a brother wants to start a business, and that’s good,” said Loder.

“But this is not the best area to try to start in because if we’re gonna try to preserve good neighborhoods, we’re gonna have to be more restrictive.”Councilor Bert Miller was similarly perplexed. “This is a tough decision. Pastor Green is a friend of mine,” admitted Miller. “As a black man in this city, I know the history of our city . . . We’ve been denied the opportunity for so long to enhance ourselves and our city.” Regarding threats of increased criminal activity when car washes are present, Miller, who noted that there are pollen-covered cars all over town, added, “There’s crime in the White House, there’s crime everywhere . . . How can we as a race of people who have been hosed, who have been the victim of churches blown up because of the color of our skin, turn this down?” Miller said that black men die everyday because of lack of opportunity, urging, “Let’s give the brother a chance.” In search of common ground between the embattled factions, Miller asked, “Can we name this More Than Conquerors Splash-N-Go Car Wash?” Pastor Steve Green replied yes, as long as the church gets “40 percent of the proceeds.”Telling the Council that he has been in prayer over the car wash, Pastor Green launched into his sermon. “Pilate had some tough decisions one time, too. And sometimes we can do things that can cause blood to be upon our hands . . . I don’t come before this Council much. I do not abuse spiritual authority, but I’m speaking from a whole other platform. That’s why I say wisdom builds a house. Wisdom builds real insight,” Green preached. “We all know what goes on at car washes. We’ve made movies about car washes. Sometimes it can be an ethnic thing, it can be a racial thing. Let’s not put our heads in the sand. Let’s be for real. We know what the real deal in the community [is] and I’m saying we selected you guys [councilors] to stand in the gap. We appreciate business, we appreciate revenues. But the Bible says when the righteous are in authority—and I believe that we’ve got the right ones in authority—the people rejoice. But when wicked rulers bear rule, then the people mourn. It sounds like to me that the people are mourning. It might be an indication that we’ve got the wrong leaders.” Councilor Roderick Royal was furious. “I don’t think there’s a soul in this world that can claim anything better than any other soul,” said the councilor. “I am a born-again Christian and I resent the remark you just made.” Tossing a final barb, Royal added, “Jesus called the pharisees snakes and vipers.” Councilors Loder, Reynolds, Abbott, Sykes, and Smitherman (a More Than Conquerors member) all voted on the side of the viper. The debate took 90 minutes.

Smoking Ban Approved

The City Council voted unanimously April 5 to enact a smoking ban beginning June 1 in most public places, including restaurants. Exceptions include bars, hotel and motel rooms designated as “smoking,” professional offices, private clubs, retail tobacco shops, and workplaces that are outdoors.Councilor Elias Hendricks agreed with earlier comments by Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid that as the major city in this area, Birmingham should lead the effort. But Hendricks is unhappy that the ban will not be implemented all over Jefferson and Shelby counties, and Councilor Valerie Abbott agreed. Abbott pointed out that war veterans clubs have been deeply concerned. “Since our armed forces have encouraged people to smoke and now they’re addicted, [veterans clubs] have called and said that they want their members to be able to continue to smoke,” Abbott said. She also questioned the unfairness of restaurants not allowing smoking in their bars while bars without restaurants can continue to permit smoking.

Councilor Carol Reynolds remained worried about more government intrusion. “Some things that really disturb me are another layer of government bureaucracy in our lives,” said the councilor. Reynolds complained that Birmingham police have more important things to do than patrol restaurants for smokers. She warned that government bans on fatty foods to combat obesity night be next.”There’s a flip side to everything,” said Councilor Bert Miller, who supports the ban. “We talk about the economic impact. Can we stop for one minute and think about our health? I don’t want my chicken tasting like smoke. I don’t want my fish tasting like smoke.” Miller added that he “just got through with a serious heart condition. I don’t want to smell smoke, no way. I don’t want to look at steam! I’m just that cautious.”Councilor Joel Montgomery balked at the smoking ban because he does not want to place the city at an economic disadvantage. Montgomery said, “Alcohol and tobacco are both tied at the hip. There’s no question about that. I’ve done my own research over the weekend. Alcohol sales in restaurants make up as much as 20, 30, and 40 percent of the gross receipts of restaurants in this city.” He also expressed concerned that Waffle Houses will move out of the city because 80 percent of their clientele smoke, according to the councilor. A remark the previous week by Mayor Kincaid (that a smoker’s freedom ends where Kincaid’s nose begins) continued to bother the councilor. “That’s why we have freedom of choice in this country, folks, so you can check your nose at the front door of that restaurant if you don’t want to walk in there,” said Montgomery.

“I will not be a party to the economic devastation of the retail restaurants in this city. This needs to be a statewide ban.” He finally agreed to the ordinance after an amendment was added to lobby the Jefferson County Commission and to ask Kincaid to lobby the county Mayors Association to get onboard with the ban. Though Montgomery wanted the ordinance to be contingent on the county being included, Council President Lee Loder refused, but did allow Montgomery’s amendment to be included as a “formal request.” At Montgomery’s insistence, Loder also allowed an amendment requesting that the American Cancer Society lobby the County Commission as strongly as the organization lobbied the City Council.

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