Tag Archives: Birmingahm Alabama

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 — Prohibition: Birmingham City Council-Style


Prohibition: Birmingham City Council-Style

May 19, 2005

When convenience stores apply for licenses to sell alcoholic beverages, the fear of expensive court battles often forces the Birmingham City Council to begrudgingly grant permits. On May 10, the Council found criteria that it believes will stand up in court, should they reject a request and face a challenge by the proprietor. The Council voted unanimously to deny a liquor permit to the 6th Avenue North Package Store due to its proximity to the Hope VI Housing Project, which is currently under construction.

The Hope VI Project is designed to create affordable, desirable housing in downtown Birmingham, targeting low-, middle-, and upper-income residents. According to Jim Stanley, an attorney with the city law department, the approval of the package store “might have a negative impact on the next phase of the Hope VI Project.” Stanley explained that the developer “is applying to the Alabama Housing Finance Authority [AHFA] for low-income housing tax credits, and that the location of a liquor store within a certain radius [a half-mile] of the project would have a negative impact on their ability to attain those tax credits.”


A scoring system is used to award such tax credits, and five points can be deducted if liquor stores or other “incompatible uses” are in the vicinity. The five-point deduction “would be fatal to most applications,” Stanley explained, as the tax credit process is highly competitive. The attorney did add that a provision exists that allows the AHFA to exempt a Hope VI Project from the scoring application. He warned, however, that low-income tax credits make up 55 percent of the funding for Phase III of the Hope VI Project, so granting the alcohol license might put the final phase in jeopardy. When pressed by Councilor Roderick Royal, Stanley added that current businesses that sell alcohol could also cause the Hope VI Project to lose points.

The three reasons for denial of an alcohol license include: if the business is causing a nuisance, if it violates zoning regulations, or if the establishment is a detriment to an adjacent neighborhood. Councilor Valerie Abbott summed up the City Council’s hearty embrace of the federal standard presented by attorney Stanley. “We rarely ever get to use [one of the three reasons to deny an alcohol license],” said Abbott. “We finally have a project here that truly meets the criteria. It has circumstances that are clearly detrimental to the adjacent residential neighborhood.”

Councilor Elias Hendricks noted that problems arise when alcohol is sold in the area. “Look at any other place around downtown, or on the fringes of downtown, that sells beer and wine, and see the problems and the traffic that it generates,” urged Hendricks in disgust. The councilor, who is a downtown resident, complained that people congregate to drink outside as they harass people in the neighborhood. “We are trying to help downtown, and we are trying to live in our neighborhood. We deserve to live in our neighborhood and have a decent quality of life. Why go back to what we had before?” he asked.

Two weeks ago Hendricks berated his colleagues and downtown businesses for trying to keep The Furnace, an upscale strip club that is within a half mile of the Hope VI Project, out of the area. The councilor expounded on the importance of opening up downtown Birmingham as a future “entertainment district” in conjunction with the city’s desire for a domed stadium in the area. He expressed no concern about The Furnace’s alcohol sales affecting the area’s quality of life.

Ironically, the attorney for the owner of the 6th Avenue North Package Store is Ferris Ritchey. Ritchey represents The Furnace in its battle with Birmingham city government and recently won a round in court that would allow it to open, despite the Council’s and Mayor Bernard Kincaid’s rejections of the gentleman’s club. “A lot of these concerns that you hear from the people are always speculative concerns,” Ritchey explained to the Council. “And you can’t speculate about what might happen.” &

City Hall — Funding Travel to George W. Bush’s 2nd Inauguration


February 24, 2005

On February 15, at the request of Councilor Bert Miller, the Birmingham City Council voted to pay the travel expenses of local businessman Richard Finley to attend President George W. Bush’s second inauguration in Washington, D.C. The council initially declined to act on the expenditure when Councilor Elias Hendricks demanded to know what the benefit was to the city. After he was located near the conclusion of the city council meeting, Finley addressed the council himself.

“I was invited by the President [Bush],” said Finley, who is chairman of the Alabama Republican Council, the oldest active black GOP organization in the state. “After talking with Councilor Miller about the opportunities to network while we were there, and to meet on some things that we are talking about, he decided that he wanted to participate in covering the expenses. My expenses were well over $3,000. He said he wanted to pick up part of it. So I said, ‘Well, OK, you take care of the travel [$742.50],’ and he did that.” Finley said he also had the opportunity to meet with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and offered to huddle individually with councilors to share the conversation. Finley added that he also spoke with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “So, I think there were a lot of benefits for the city that came out of a lot of contacts,” he surmised.


During a Tuesday press conference, Mayor Bernard Kincaid expressed misgivings about the city covering the expense. Kincaid added that the city council had already signed off on the payment from the council’s travel fund. The Mayor said that since the council had approved the expenditure, it didn’t make any sense to say no. “I had serious concerns about signing it,” said Kincaid, adding that he and Chief of Staff Al Herbert argued over whether the administrative side of City Hall should comply. “In my view, [the trip] had marginal utility [to the city],” said the Mayor. He did concede that there perhaps was a benefit to Finley’s attending. “It’s no secret that Richard Finley is a Republican,” said the Mayor. “It might be that his being there or his rubbing elbows with colleagues and things could benefit the city . . . In tight times you have to make choices. That would not have been a spending choice that I would have made.” Kincaid added that he would not approve someone from his staff attending a presidential inauguration at the city’s expense.

Councilor Carol Reynolds voted to approve the inaugural trip, but only because she had travel expenses to Savannah for the National League of Cities Leadership Training Institute on the same item. Had the two expenses been on separate items, she said she would not have voted to approve Finley’s trip. “I’ve got some questions to ask the Law Department about some of this stuff,” the concerned councilor added. Council President Lee Loder and Councilor Joel Montgomery both abstained.

Councilor Elias Hendricks voted against the presidential inauguration expense. In an interview two days after the council meeting, Hendricks said that he was not swayed to support the item after Finley’s explanation to the city council. “It’s not an effective use of public funds,” said the councilor. “But that’s [Bert Miller's] discretionary funds. It’s his call.” Hendricks added that the fact that Finley met with Clarence Thomas “didn’t help any.”

City Hall — Council Seeks Travel Expense Report




November 18, 2004 

On November 9, the Birmingham City Council approved the hiring of Henry Sciortino as the city’s financial advisor. Sciortino, the former president and CEO of Fairmount Capital Advisors, Inc., which had advised the city for the past three years, left Fairmount this past summer after a falling out with company chairman Rodney Johnson. According to a November 7 Birmingham News article, Pennsylvania court records indicate that Sciortino filed a civil lawsuit against Fairmount and Johnson on August 3, 2004. The article stated that “Johnson filed a memorandum in opposition to the complaint,” including accusations that Sciortino was involved in “mishandling more than $500,000.” In a press conference after the council meeting, Mayor Bernard Kincaid, who believed Sciortino was not fairly represented in the story, decried the article as “the yellowest form of journalism that I can ever imagine.”

At the November 9 meeting, the council voted to rescind a resolution it had approved on August 3, which contracted with Fairmount for $240,000 as financial advisors. Councilor Joel Montgomery voted “no” each time. Then the council voted on a resolution to contract with Sciortino’s present company, Triad Capital Advisors, Inc. (for $146,666), but the resolution failed due to only three “yes” votes from the seven councilors present. [Councilors Lee Loder, Valerie Abbott, and Elias Hendricks voted "yes." Councilors Carol Reynolds and Joel Montgomery voted "no," while Councilors Carole Smitherman and Gwen Sykes abstained. It takes four votes to approve an item when only seven councilors are present.]


Councilor Abbott first questioned the Birmingham News piece during the meeting. “We certainly all saw the newspaper article, and it did raise a number of questions in all of our minds,” she said. “But we do have a contract that allows us to terminate if anything is discovered that causes us greater concerns.” She continued: “Until the lawsuit is resolved, we don’t know who’s right. And if we turn this down today we will be making a judgement on who is correct, and to me that would not be fair.” Abbott added that, in her opinion, “although interesting, [the article] did not include the entire story.”

“The most compelling argument for this is that there is a time constraint on this,” said Councilor Hendricks. “And at this point we do not need to be without a financial advisor. The financial advisor and the recommendation for a financial advisor is wholly in the purview of the financial department and the mayor. They’re the ones who use them; they’re the ones who have to be responsible for what they do.”

After the initial vote, Council President Loder appeared confused and refused to declare that the vote had failed until he could receive clarification that three votes were not a majority in this situation. He said he also wanted to give councilors the opportunity to reconsider their vote. Half an hour later, Loder called for the vote again, explaining that he now understood that a majority of four was needed when only seven councilors are present. By this time, Councilor Sykes had convened with Mayor Kincaid and Councilor Hendricks and switched her “abstain” vote to a “yes” vote.

Councilor Montgomery became livid. He told Loder that the first vote should have stood, but Loder replied that a councilor could change his or her vote at any time prior to declaration of the vote. [Loder has the option of declaring the vote, but the council can put up a motion demanding that he declare the vote.] Montgomery argued that reconsideration of a vote is the only way to ask for a vote again once a roll call vote has been taken. [Reconsideration can only be requested by the prevailing side, but there was no prevailing side on the first vote due to no clear majority.] Loder overruled Montgomery and let the second vote stand. Loder explained, that according to Roberts Rules of Order, the parliamentary procedure used by the council, Loder is authorized to retake a vote if he feels that the vote is “not clear or unrepresentative.” Loder added, “My job is to accurately reflect the will of this body. . . . I am satisfied at this time that the vote taken accurately reflects the will of this body.” Storming through the hall outside the council chambers after the meeting, Montgomery vowed to contact the district attorney that afternoon.

In an interview, Montgomery took issue with Loder’s explanation of his job as council president. “His job is not to reflect the will of the body. His job is to preside over that meeting,” said the councilor. “What he did was immoral. He stole $146,000 from the taxpayers of this city and nullified the representation of various districts up there by manipulating not only the Roberts Rules of Order, but also the process by which we deliberate up there!” Montgomery said Loder’s goal was to make sure he had the four votes needed to pass the item to hire Sciortino’s company. He expressed amazement that Loder didn’t know that four votes are needed when only seven councilors are present. “This man has been sitting on the council for four and a half years, and he doesn’t know that when you’ve got seven people up there that you need four votes for a majority?”

Montgomery continued his tirade: “He manipulated that vote; he kept going until he got the achieved outcome that the mayor of this city wanted. . . . What he [Loder] did was immoral and corrupt!” The councilor vented further: “You are circumventing the will of the majority of the councilors up there on that council if you continue to vote after you’ve already voted it down twice and you refuse to declare it. You have then taken over as dictator . . . He made a complete mockery of this system in order to achieve his desired outcome!” Montgomery contacted the state attorney general’s office, but was referred to the county’s district attorney’s office, which said the controversy was a civil matter.

At the November 9 press conference, Mayor Kincaid praised Sciortino. “Henry Sciortino is a very capable man. We have great chemistry, he has great skills, and I think he will do a great job for the city of Birmingham . . . What tainted this man is the yellowest form of journalism that I can ever imagine. [The story] reported what was in an answer to a lawsuit. He was the plaintiff. Seems to me that fair and balanced reporting would have [included] what he had in his rendering to the court as a plaintiff, and that would have balanced what had happened. And so the yellow journalism that you saw tainted this picture!” Kincaid continued in anger. “You also must realize that someone has a vested interest in this not going forward. There seem to be forces that have come together using our local media to try to derail this. Fortunately, the council saw through that.” &

Cash Flow

Cash Flow

A selective list of major and minor requests for funding approved by the Birmingham City Council.


(Dollar amounts and the name of the organization or firm that received the city funds are followed by a description of how the money is to be used. These descriptions are taken, verbatim, from the Council’s meeting agenda.)

April 6, 2004

Item 11

$90,000 to Jefferson County Board of Health

“To provide services to Birmingham City middle and high schools, which include health classes, summer workshop participation, mentoring program for girls 9th through 12th grade, and providing consultation and mini health programs for students in selected schools related to pregnancy prevention, obesity, tobacco, diabetes, nutrition, and physical fitness.”

Item 12

$17,500 to Literacy Council of

Central Alabama

“To provide literacy information and services for children, adults, and families within the city limits of Birmingham.”

Item 13

$63,000 to YWCA—Homeless Program

“For consultant service, which includes providing emergency, transitional, and permanent supportive housing for victims of domestic violence and their children, providing case management and supportive services for homeless and near-homeless women and providing housing information and assistance for city residency program through YW Homes.”

Total expenditure during the last two weeks: $170,500
Total expenditure since October 7, 2003: $135,818,606.67

Metropolitan Opera Auditions Return for 50th Year

Metropolitan Opera Auditions Return for 50th Year

By Ed Reynolds

The 50th Annual Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions will be held at the Virginia Samford Theatre this month. Close to a dozen participants are expected to compete, with three chosen to attend the regional competition in Memphis. The three winners from the regionals will be invited to New York for the finals at the Metropolitan Opera, where they will sing with the Met orchestra. Cash prizes and the opportunity to join the Met’s Young Artists Program, as well as a guaranteed operatic career, await the victors. According to Stan Nelson, organizer of the North Alabama District competition, which is sponsored by Alabama Opera Works, all participants must be between 20- and 30-years-old and be able to sing a specified number of arias in designated languages. Once the criteria are met, “The auditions are open to anybody who has the guts,” says Nelson, who has competed in the past.

More than 100 past winners of the national competition, including Elizabeth Futral, one of the leading sopranos on the international opera stage, will sing at the finals. Futral studied at Samford University and was one of the winners at the 1991 national finals. “The concert itself was like a dream for me . . . singing on the Met stage with the Met orchestra,” she says.”Participating in the competition was definitely an important milestone early in my career and a crucial turning point as well.” The auditions begin promptly at 1 p.m., Saturday, January 24. The public is urged to attend as an audience is always a motivating factor for competitors, according to Stan Nelson, and admission for spectators is free. For more information, call 322-6222. &

Hatfields and McCoys Redux

The series of duels that have characterized the gradual split between the city council and Mayor Bernard Kincaid continued to dominate headlines the past several weeks. On July 16, the Council voted 6 to 3 [Council President Lee Loder and Councilors Bert Miller and Gwen Sykes sided with Kincaid] to keep the mayor’s limit on spending without council approval at $10,000. Kincaid had requested a $50,000 limit. The former council shackled Kincaid with the spending restriction 12 days after he took office, a move that was seen by many as revenge for then-Council President William Bell’s loss to Kincaid in the mayoral election. Former Mayor Richard Arrington had no such restraints during his tenure.Ironically, giving Kincaid more financial leeway to award city contracts was a campaign mantra for many of the present councilors. The virtual clean sweep of the council eight months ago signaled a new spirit of cooperation at City Hall, which had been plagued by councilors who refused to work with Kincaid during his first two years. But over the past two months the political honeymoon has slowly ended. And with Council Pro Tem Carole Smitherman’s announcement (within months of being elected councilor) that she was interested in Kincaid’s job, there may be some on the Council only too happy to see the political marriage end in a bitter divorce.

Controversy over the mayor’s spending ceiling first came to a head in May when Kincaid played a voice-mail recording for a reporter in which Councilor Carol Reynolds offered to vote for his spending increase in exchange for an appointment to the Airport Authority Board. Councilors condemned Kincaid for playing the telephone message. In June, approval of the 2002-2003 budget was threatened when Kincaid said the council would be in violation of the law by passing an unbalanced budget that Kincaid called “zany.” The council argued that the budget was indeed balanced. The threat of a third straight budget veto prodded the Council to compromise with the mayor, but councilors were outraged two weeks later when Kincaid gave raises totaling $100,000 to 19 members of his administrative staff. The raises were retroactive, prompting Councilor Smitherman to label them “government waste.” Other councilors expressed surprise at discovering how difficult it is to work with the mayor. Councilor Reynolds was especially disappointed, noting that she at one time considered Kincaid “my mentor.” Councilor Roderick Royal criticized Kincaid’s request for a $50,000 spending limit as “making someone emperor,” emphasizing that the raise would “damage what little communication we have” between the mayor and council. Councilor Valerie Abbott said that decisions made by “nine independent [councilors]” are better than those made by a single person. “If two heads are better than one, then nine heads are four and one-half times better than that,” Abbott surmised.

Now one of the old battles between the former council and Kincaid threatens to become a divisive element in 2002: the Roosevelt City fire station. It’s been more than a decade since residents of Roosevelt City were promised a fire station by former Mayor Richard Arrington. Two years ago, action was finally taken to fulfill that pledge. Led by former Councilor Sandra Little, who was defeated by Bert Miller in District Seven in October 2001, residents demanded that the fire station be built on Wintergreen Avenue in Roosevelt City. Kincaid refused, explaining that the poor quality of the building site would require as much as $850,000 in additional construction costs. The mayor’s choice of locations is the Bessemer Super Highway, which he supports because it reduces emergency response time to four minutes in Roosevelt City and Dolomite. There are also concerns that students at A.G. Gaston elementary school will be distracted by the constant sound of sirens responding to emergencies. The former council overrode Kincaid’s veto of the Wintergreen site, prompting an ongoing feud between Kincaid and Little.

Property for the Bessemer Super Highway site must still be acquired by the city, which owns all of the Wintergreen property. Two million dollars has been budgeted for the fire station, though land preparation costs could drive total spending for the Wintergreen locale to $2.2 million.

Wintergreen proponents staunchly remain committed to their site despite the land preparation hurdles, maintaining that its central location in the Roosevelt community is a plus. Kincaid argues that not having to make similar land preparation on Bessemer Super Highway means there is enough money left over to attach a police substation to the fire station, with another $300,000 remaining for a possible Roosevelt City library.

Meanwhile, angry residents continue to appear almost weekly to protest that construction has not begun anywhere in Roosevelt City. “We have been humiliated, ignored, and jerked around long enough about building our fire station,” said Calvin Elder, president of the Roosevelt City neighborhood. “The 6,000 residents of Roosevelt City are living daily unprotected with inadequate fire protection and medical rescue because of petty politics and selfish reasons.” Roosevelt City resident Brenda Jennings told the council at the July 23 meeting that residents have died while waiting for city paramedics to arrive. Jennings noted that money and land have already been secured [at the Wintergreen location], “so what is the problem with the fire station?” Angrily chastising city hall officials, she admonished: “If you have a personal favor you need to deliver to someone, you need to promise them something else besides our lives!”

Led by Bert Miller, the city council has finally begun to respond to residents’ concerns. Miller supports Kincaid’s choice of sites on the Bessemer Super Highway, and is urging Wintergreen proponents to forget their egos. “We’re not talking politics, we’re talking about saving people’s lives,” said Miller. Councilor Roderick Royal, however, isn’t buying Kincaid’s police substation caveat, which he defines as “a carrot.” Royal, who has said he “has no dog in the fight” [even though the Dolomite community that would be serviced by the fire station is in his district], doubts that a substation would do much to raise police presence in the area.

If the Birmingham City Council decides to build a fire station on the Wintergreen site, it will be one more move closer to the days when Kincaid and the former city council staged a weekly duel. That Sandra Little’s Wintergreen fire station is poised to once again become a wedge between Kincaid and the council must remind the Mayor how stifling a city council can be. &