City Hall — More money for Vulcan

City Hall

December 18, 2001 

More money for Vulcan

A request for $431,000 in improvements to Vulcan Trail on Red Mountain near Vulcan Park is before the council this morning. The refurbishment has been on the books a long time, says Engineering and Planning departmental chief Bill Gilchrist. The funds are federal transportation dollars earmarked to encourage “alternate modes of movement,” including bicycle and pedestrian trails. Councilor Valerie Abbott, in whose district the trail lies, says her neighborhood is excited. “We’ve been walking on the old mineral railway for years and years, and it’s a big mud hole. So it’ll be refreshing to be able to walk up there without stepping in mud puddles,” beams Abbott, urging the council to support the trail. Councilor Elias Hendricks salutes Abbott for the work she’s done on the project, warning councilors about her intense passion for the project: “If you don’t vote for this, we’re gonna see a new Valerie.” Abbott laughs that she’s bigger than she looks. It passes unanimously.Roderick says council acting prematurely

Increased allocations for each councilor for committee assistants spark intense debate as Councilor Roderick Royal stands alone against the others. Councilor Joel Montgomery emphasizes that the increase is coming from the current council budget, with no petition for additional funds. According to Montgomery, the creation of council satellite offices in districts is a major reason for the increase. Citizens frequently complained in the past that phone calls were not returned by previous councilors, underscoring the need for more assistants, he adds. Montgomery notes that many believe council satellite offices will be the “greatest thing since the wheel.”

Councilor Royal is staunchly opposed to the increase, which will give each councilor four aides, pointing out that appropriations for assistants were raised to $50,000 per councilor in October 2000. “We’ve been here three weeks. I think we’ve had three meetings. Now, you’re telling me that in three weeks you somehow need four folks?” asks Royal in astonishment. The councilor says that when he was a committee assistant under the previous council [he worked for former Council President William Bell], he was able to get 90 percent of the work done by himself. Royal notes that the previous council didn’t need the extra personnel, and neither does the present council. “I don’t care if the money is already in the budget or not,” he says, as he points out that the remainder of the city staff will not get additional employees, thus making it unfair for the council to have additional help. “What we will do is end up having all these folks running around doing nothing,” surmises Royal.

Councilor Hendricks objects to Royal’s comments, noting that it’s “a bit unfair to characterize it as wasteful” before discussion takes place in an administrative committee meeting. Hendricks says the previous council did not return phone calls, and therefore obviously needed more personnel. He stresses that the council is a part-time job, and competent people are needed to “give full-time service.” Suggesting that Royal’s comments might make the public “prejudiced” against the idea, Hendricks reassures the public that they will see improved representation as a result.

“We do not want to put a negative spin on this,” objects Councilor Gwen Sykes as she praises the allocation increase for creating jobs. Sykes says that a satellite office has already been set up in her district. Councilor Royal interjects that he has an opinion and will not hesitate to state it. Urging the council to wait until March to examine the issue when mid-budget review takes place, Royal concludes, “I think it is overkill.”

Council President Lee Loder requests that the item be returned to committee discussion before being voted on, but Councilor Montgomery objects vehemently. Montgomery demands to know in advance if items previously discussed in committee are to be tabled before being voted on. He then takes issue with use of the word “overkill” by Royal. “If we’re really concerned about ‘overkill,’ as the councilor has stated, we need to start within the current council budget — which I’m going to do — looking at the $800,000 plus in consultant contracts that the previous council adopted here on this dais!” Loder withdraws his proposal that the item be sent back to committee, and notes that a $50,000 cap will be placed on any assistant’s salary so that no one can accuse the council of giving pay raises.

Councilor Carol Reynolds says that the city is a business that provides services, and she promises that a satellite office will be in operation soon in her district because “District Two is the size of a small country.” Reynolds explains: “We are raising the bar on what we require our personnel to do,” arguing that “good customer service” is to be conducted with dignity and “smiles.” Councilor Abbott agrees with Royal that increases in both central staff and council assistants are indeed “overkill.” However, Abbott supports the increase in council assistant money but urges the reduction of the council’s central office staff in the process. Loder smiles and asks, “Are we all still together?” as everyone but Royal approves the appropriation increase.

Déja Vu

Council President Loder invites Reverend Abraham Woods to address the upcoming Unity Breakfast held in conjunction with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. Woods explains that he received the wrong information concerning the reason for his appearance this morning, because he wants to speak about the recent shooting of citizen Carlos Williams. Woods’ appearance prompts memories of former Council President William Bell’s frequently allowing Woods a forum to voice complaints at council meetings. Reverend Woods admits he is “a little behind on how you get before the council,” explaining that in recent times he had simply called the council president [Bell]. Woods complains that Loder did not return his phone calls, and the Council President insists he has been too busy. Loder finally concedes, “At any council meeting, like they [previous council] did, let me know that you want to address the council, and I’ll always allow you to do that.” Loder’s invitation to Woods prompts Mayor Kincaid to shake his head in anger.Woods begins, “I am not a police basher. Some people consider me to be that.” The reverend suddenly notes that it will take more than three minutes to address the issue of the police shooting, so Loder grants him extra time. The Mayor still is not amused. Woods readily admits that police work is dangerous but complains that citizens are “abused and brutalized” when police officers act less than professional. Woods says he has been to the shooting scene, and no evidence can be found that Williams fired a gun, invoking the name of Bonita Carter [shot and killed by police during a robbery, prompting the election of Richard Arrington in 1980] as he cites “miscarriages of justice” by police. Noting that the council respects the time needed by Kincaid to fully investigate the shooting, Loder tells the Mayor that the council “looks forward” to being briefed on the shooting as soon as Kincaid is ready. Kincaid is obviously not pleased as he exits the council chambers.

After the meeting, Kincaid declines to comment on Loder’s open invitation to Woods to speak any time, saying that this is the council’s issue. But Kincaid does say that he hopes other councilors will address Loder’s standing invitation to Woods with the council president.

December 26, 2001

Protecting the area’s water source

A $40,000 contract with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham to provide technical information to study preservation of the Cahaba River watershed stimulates debate about the proper function of committee meetings. Councilor Hendricks, whose Finance Committee has examined the issue, says that Birmingham is the last municipality to commit to the watershed project. The city’s procrastination has reached “the point of embarrassment,” says Hendricks, quoting the city’s representative at watershed meetings. The purpose of the study is to develop a set of regulations that will balance land use and conservation within the watershed in an attempt to mitigate the harmful effects of development, according to Carol Clark of the mayor’s office. Councilor Montgomery asks if such a study has been undertaken before. Clark explains that this is the first opportunity for all surrounding municipalities to discuss the study in depth as a group. Montgomery says that he is not opposed to the watershed analysis but warns, “I think you can study anything to death.” Councilor Carol Reynolds interjects that watershed examinations have been conducted for years by the Cahaba River Coalition but that such studies must be acted upon. “This city is going to have to be very aggressive and very strong-armed in this policy of this watershed,” says Reynolds as she warns that other cities might try to circumvent watershed protection by exploring alternatives to conservation plans. The councilor suggests that the major participants not be limited to just developers, realtors, and bankers but include environmentalists as well.

The watershed analysis has been discussed at committee meetings, says Councilor Hendricks, and therefore the council is “doing double work” by hashing out issues in committee which are then argued in the council meetings. “I would like for all of us to be able to trust that what we’re doing in committee is in the best interest of the city,” requests Hendricks. “We’re being good stewards of the city’s resources.” The councilor says the $40,000 is justified based on the amount of land to be studied.

Councilor Royal says it’s important that issues be discussed on the dais for public consumption. But Councilor Montgomery defends committee discussions, adding that all committee meetings are open to the public. Montgomery argues that “to come up here and hash this out in this manner [at the council meeting] is not the appropriate place.” He adds that councilors should have attended the Finance Committee meeting, to which Royal replies that he did attend. Royal maintains that the watershed issue is important enough to be included in Tuesday’s council meeting. The council votes unanimously to pass the $40,000 contract. &

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