Tag Archives: Politics

CIty Hall — The Deep End


The Deep End

He can’t say why or how, but Mayor Langford believes that an equestrian center and an Olympic-size swimming arena will revitalize the crime-ridden and economically depressed Five Points West area.

April 17, 2008
Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford’s mastery at communication often seems to hypnotize many members of the City Council. At the April 8 council meeting, even Councilor Joel Montgomery—who often resists freewheeling spending—was drinking Langford’s Kool-Aid. Montgomery and five other councilors supported allotting $48 million for the mayor’s proposed upgrade to Fair Park and the surrounding Five Points West district—which Langford says will cost a total of $90 million.(Councilor Roderick Royal voted against the proposal, Councilor Abbott abstained, Councilor Bell was absent.)Predictably, Councilor Valerie Abbott remained suspicious of Langford’s economic notions. “I’m in favor of this concept. However, you know me. I’m always waiting for those little details,” admitted Abbott. “And in this case, I just want to get to the bottom line. I would like to approve money to develop a plan today, but not necessarily to allocate all the money, because at this point I do not know exactly what the money will go for.” Langford’s redevelopment plan for Five Points West includes an Olympic-size swimming arena [natatorium], equestrian facilities, and an indoor track at Fair Park. Several businesses, including hotels and retailers, are scheduled to open in the immediate vicinity as part of the area’s economic revitalization. The bulk of the funds for this project will come, at least initially, from funds raised by the increase in business license fees approved by the council three months ago. Though at the time those funds were earmarked for construction of a domed stadium. According to Langford, monies would not be due until 18 months after construction on a domed stadium had begun. Until then, according to Langford’s plan, funds generated by the license fee increase will be the primary funding source for the Fair Park plan. Other funding for the revitalization project will come from a one-cent sales tax previously approved by the council for economic redevelopment, as well as money previously approved for Fair Park but never spent.

Regarding the development’s commercial versus its sports/athletic components, Abbott favors the latter, fearful that current Five Points West businesses might not be able to compete with new businesses. “I would like to see a redevelopment plan and a legal agreement, something we can sink our teeth into,” the councilor said as she also inquired about an ongoing operational funding source for Fair Park. Abbott also wants to know what the economic impact would be. That kind of information is often available whenever city economic development is proposed, but in this instance no economic impact study has been undertaken.

When Councilor Carol Duncan simply asked about the cost of the natatorium (or “swimming pool,” as Council President Carole Smitherman refers to the facility), Langford said the pool would cost about $12 million. “I’m not going to get emotional about any of this anymore. This is too long coming in this city,” said the mayor with obvious disgust. “Without the retail component out there, all we’ve done is build another stadium. You’re going to have to have the retail component in order to be sure that it is maintained. This area has so longly needed something out there. Let’s don’t piecemeal it. If you’re going to vote it, vote it . . . If the Council decides today that you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. I will not bring it back.”

Councilor Roderick Royal wanted to delay the item until after the council receives the 2009 budget in two months. “Since we are contemplating using business license fees—the money that we said to our taxpayers that we were going to use for the dome—the question is: how do you replace this money? And will that affect our ability whenever we do decide, or can build a large facility?”

“We must have about 17 different projects going on in this city,” Royal continued. “Now, I’m not a very smart guy but I will say this: we may need to stop and look at and evaluate how far we’re come. And whether or not any of those projects have really moved. Rather than just continuing to promise out and promise out. I don’t think that’s good fiscal management.” Royal proposed that the council “wait until we get the budget in hand so we can assess our fiscal health for next year and perhaps the following year. And so that we can also look at the evaluation of the 15 or 16 other projects that have been proposed and the Council, either tacitly or formally, has approved.”

Langford denied that money for the domed stadium is going to be used for Fair Park improvements. “The minute they let bids on this stadium, payments will become due 12 to 18 months later,” said Langford. “This city has the fortunate benefit today to be able to use those funds now to do these projects.”

Councilor Montgomery supports Langford’s Fair Park proposal because the money is available. “Councilor Hoyt, this is in your district, and I support you on this. And I don‘t care who likes it,” said Montgomery. “The bottom line is we need economic development in this city. There’s no question about it. That area has been neglected for the longest time. Now you can spin it any way you want to and try to make this look like we’re overspending up here. I don’t vote to overspend taxpayers’ money in this city!”

Council President Smitherman agreed that the council should seize the opportunity to redevelop the Five Points West area. “If we don’t take this money and put it over to the side, then we will never see a new Fair Park,” she said. “It won’t happen. We’ll just take that money and say, ‘Oh, we can go and repair some streets with that.’ Sure. We need it anyhow. Or we can go and we can do some other kind of economic development. And you look up and that money will be squandered all over the place.”

Smitherman believes that the Fair Park development will “spread development over in my area just like it will in everybody else’s area. It may be in Five Points West, but it’s going to have a ripple effect throughout the whole city of Birmingham . . .” She said that Fair Park will show critics that the council can do more than “bring a Wal-Mart.”

Councilor Royal later objected to Smitherman’s lack of adherence to proper parliamentary procedure. “And that means you are out of order again. And you just need to chill out. And that’s what I think,” Royal told the council president. Smitherman replied, “I think I need to use a gavel on you.” Royal again called for “point of order” once more, asking, “Madame President, is that a threat or some kind of assault?” To which Smitherman said, “Nah, I don’t go there, like you.”

• • •
Holy Rollers

At the April 8 Birmingham City Council meeting, Mayor Larry Langford announced that he had ordered 2,000 burlap sacks for use at a citywide prayer meeting to combat crime. Langford displayed one of the burlap bags and said he will ask area ministers to participate in a “sackcloth and ashes” ritual as the Bible commands. “When cities—in the early part of the world’s history—when they had gotten so far from God, begun idol worship and all kinds of crazy stuff that we’re doing even today, that community came to its senses,” explained the mayor. “And the Bible tells us that they [wore] sackcloth and [put] ashes on their faces and they prayed. And God heard their prayer . . . To get this community back on the right track, we need to understand the power of prayer.”

Langford has worn his religion on his sleeve during his first four months as mayor and has led a Bible study group each Friday morning in the city council chambers. “I got a call from someone saying that I need to quit mentioning God’s name so much,” said Langford. “And so I politely asked them what in hell did they want? Because there must be something in hell we want because a lot of us are working real hard to get there . . . If you’ve got a problem with God, take it up with Him.” &


In the Land of Sin and Salvation

In the Land of Sin and Salvation

A local author explores the Prohibition movement.

April 03, 2008
Samford University religion professor Joe Coker’s new book, Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement, examines how the South took a Northern moral crusade and used it to advance its own morality. Here Coker shares a few thoughts on evangelicals, the South, and racism. B&W: What is the premise of your book?

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Joe Coker: It’s kind of a study of how religion influenced the Southern culture but also how Southern culture influenced religion, and how things like racial attitudes were adopted into the [temperance] movement. It’s about the roles Southern white evangelicals played in pushing for statewide Prohibition, basically beginning in 1880 and achieving victory by about 1915.

What led you to this topic?

It grew out of my doctoral dissertation. I’m working on a theological library cataloging temperance hymnals. There are hundreds and hundreds of hymnals written expressly for temperance rallies. A whole book of hymns was dedicated to eradicating liquor from culture. [Titles include "Rallying Songs for Young Teetotalers," "Temperance Songs for the Cold Water Army," and "An Hour with Mother Goose and Her Temperance Family."] Then I became fascinated with the movement, especially here. The temperance movement started in the North in the early 1800s and didn’t really take root here in the South before the Civil War. It was a Yankee reform movement tied in to anti-slavery and wasn’t very welcome. After the Civil War, it really took root among Southern white evangelicals.

Was it evangelically driven in the North?

It was driven by Northern white evangelicals. Canals built after the War of 1812 into upstate New York allowed liquor distilled from crops to be shipped into places like New York City or Boston, which led to a lot more drunkenness, which led to a lot of evangelicals being concerned about it.

Was the entire North dry?

Maine was the first state to pass statewide prohibition, but Maine and about a dozen Northern states went dry before the Civil War around 1840. Most of those prohibition laws were repealed by the 1850s through court challenges. Only one or two states remained dry. After the war, the Southern states went dry.

Why after the war?

Evangelicals in the South started flexing their political muscle. They wanted more reform. After the Civil War, Southerners really took on a sense of “Okay, we were wrong about slavery, but we’re still morally superior to the North.” The temperance movement demonstrated moral superiority to the North. Another motivation came from the tensions that developed from having a free black community in the South and concerns about African Americans exercising liberties, such as being able to go out and enjoy themselves. A lot of it was fear of having an African American community that was no longer under the control of a white majority. Some of these fears fueled arguments for Prohibition. There was a sense that black men would get drunk and sexually assault white women, which generally was the justification for a lot of the lynching taking place in that time period. So Southern white evangelicals tapped into this and said, “The solution to the lynching epidemic and the solution to perceived black lawlessness is to cut it off at the source, because if they didn’t have these saloons they wouldn’t get drunk, then they won’t attack white women, then they wouldn’t get lynched. And it was really that argument that was one of the most effective in persuading white voters to vote for Prohibition.

Was there ever any talk of allowing only whites to drink but not blacks?

Sometimes it was kind of couched as a paternalistic self-sacrifice: “We whites are willing to give up our right to drink in order to make society safer, because, unfortunately, [for] the black men in our society, [alcohol] leads them all to this behavior.” But there were few efforts to prohibit only blacks from drinking.

Do you see vestiges of the temperance movement today?

The state Baptist Convention in Florida passed a resolution saying that you couldn’t serve on the board unless you abstained from alcohol. And in a lot of churches and church-run schools, any alcohol is viewed as sinful. There’s one 19th-century author who said that if Jesus had known what we knew, he would have drunk tea instead of wine with his disciples. &

Coker will sign copies of his book at Jonathan Benton Bookseller in Mountain Brook Village on Saturday, April 12, from 2 to 4 p.m. Details: 870-8840.

Larry Langford’s wit and wisdom

Larry Langford’s wit and wisdom.


(click for larger version)


March 20, 2008

Visitors to the WERC 960 AM web site (www.960werc.com/pages/langford8Ball.html) 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.”

Who’s on First?

Who’s on First?

Your public official scorecard for the ongoing domed stadium debate.

April 19, 2007
As of April 13, Mayor Bernard Kincaid had no comment on the latest chapter in the ongoing soap opera involving Birmingham City Hall and the Jefferson County Commission about construction of a domed stadium, or “multipurpose facility” as Kincaid prefers to call it. Kincaid and Commission President Bettye Fine Collins had reached agreement a couple months earlier on a scaled-down version of the arena. Kincaid seemed confident that the facility would finally be constructed after more than a decade of debate. “When we met with the business leadership group, some of them wanted to see a business plan, which is being formulated as we speak,” Kincaid said at an April 10 press conference. “Upon its completion, I will then have them come back and present to the council, because it is a business decision, and hopefully at that point we can get the council to approve it.” The next day, the agreement between the Mayor and the commission president appeared to be crumbling when Collins announced that she would not support the arena unless the state legislature passes a bill that would keep in effect the county’s occupational tax. The tax is the county’s funding source for expansion of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.

In February, Kincaid and Collins agreed on a facility smaller than the originally proposed 65,000 seats. The planned increase in exhibition space would be the same regardless of seating capacity. The BJCC board, which includes Kincaid and Collins, approved the proposal at a February 24 board retreat in Salt Lake City, Utah. Neither the Birmingham City Council nor the County Commission has approved the building of the proposed 40,000-seat arena.

Collins has previously opposed a domed stadium concept. She has since relaxed her previous opposition to football being played indoors at a multipurpose arena. Oddly, she refused to endorse the arena concept if the facility’s design allows for a future increase in seating capacity. BJCC executive director Jack Fields has said that

it would be too costly to retroactively increase the seating capacity if the arena was not designed with that option. Collins continued to balk at plans by Fields to spend $33 million of BJCC funds to add a 300-room extension to the adjacent Sheraton Hotel (also owned by the BJCC). Collins prefers that increased hotel space be paid for by private developers.

The Birmingham City Council had previously committed $8.8 million per year (for 30 years) for BJCC expansion when the facility’s proposed capacity was 65,000 seats. In February, after Kincaid and Collins found common ground for a smaller venue, Councilors Roderick Royal and Carol Duncan publicly supported the 40,000-seat facility. Councilors Carole Smitherman, Miriam Witherspoon, Steven Hoyt, and William Bell opposed the scaled-down arena (Smitherman has recently suggested that a “roof” be put over Legion Field). Councilors Valerie Abbott, Maxine Parker, and Joel Montgomery were undecided (Abbott and Montgomery opposed expansion proposals a year ago).

On April 16, the day before the County Commission was to vote on arena funding, several councilors elaborated on their stances. Abbott admitted she was leaning in favor of the project “if the sun, moon, and stars line up right,” adding that private investment for an entertainment district made building an arena more practical. Parker remained undecided, though she believed that it is not very pragmatic to limit seating to 40,000 with no expansion. “I don’t see what we’re getting for our full money’s worth with 40,000 seats,” noted Parker. Council President Smitherman has changed her mind somewhat. She now supports the smaller arena if improvements are also made to Legion Field. Witherspoon said she has not altered her position. “You always build a house with the anticipation of expanding,” said Witherspoon. “I don’t see the significance to building a domed stadium with a limited amount of seating without having the capacity to expand.”

The County Commission has committed $10 million annually, through 2008, to BJCC expansion. The commission also must approve the project, which would include extending the current annual payment until 2038. The county’s portion comes from an occupational tax that the state

legislature is considering for elimination. Commission President Collins said in the April 12 Birmingham News that it would be “foolish” for the commission to commit the money unless the legislature passes a bill guaranteeing the tax will remain.

Commissioner Larry Langford, a one-time proponent of a domed stadium, has stated he will not support a 40,000-seat arena that has no capacity to expand later. Langford has been critical of Kincaid and Collins for their newly formed close working relationship, since Kincaid failed to meet with him when Langford was commission president. Langford told the News that Collins and Kincaid had done little get their proposed arena accomplished since agreeing on the project.

Commissioner Shelia Smoot, who, like Langford, has voted for a domed stadium in the past, was initially undecided on the smaller facility, as was Commissioner Jim Carns. But after Collins began to back out of the deal, Smoot expressed her support for a domed arena. Langford reportedly now favors a larger arena with capacity exceeding 65,000. Carns shares Collins’ fear that the county cannot afford even the smaller facility without an occupational tax. Commissioner Bobby Humphryes has consistently opposed any domed stadium concept.

The cost for the 40,000-seat facility and related expansion is $505 million, whereas a 65,000-seat domed stadium would cost approximately $623 million. Governor Bob Riley has refused to commit state funds until the city and county approve the plan. As the time of this writing, the County Commission was scheduled to vote on April 17 on funding commitments for the arena. Neither arena proposals appear to have enough votes to pass. &

Pot Stickers

Pot Stickers

Next time you’re buying drugs, make sure you’ve paid your taxes.

October 19, 2006
The last thing the average drug user expects to see is a group of tax agents crashing through the front door. That’s because few drug sellers or users realize that under Alabama law, they could be found guilty of tax evasion for not having the appropriate Alabama tax stamp affixed to their drug of choice. Marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and various pills are among the substances required to have tax stamps that indicate that the state is getting its fair share of tax revenue. However, that doesn’t mean banned narcotics are suddenly legal. “We have a lot of phone calls from people who think, ‘Okay, if I buy the stamp, then it’s legal to use marijuana?’ Well, no, that’s not what that means,” says Charles Crumbley, Director of Investigation for the Alabama Department of Revenue.In 1937, the federal government passed the Marihuana Tax Act. Initially, the act did not criminalize the possession of marijuana, but its penalties included a fine of up to $2,000 and five years’ imprisonment if no tax stamp had been purchased. In reality, the law was a roundabout way of criminalizing marijuana, since the government produced and sold only a token amount of stamps.

In 1969, drug guru Timothy Leary challenged the law, which the Supreme Court found to be unconstitutional because it violated the Fifth Amendment. According to Crumbley, “There was a constitutional issue which deemed the stamp a violation of the right to remain silent because the dealer had to fill out tax returns and report the drugs.” As a result, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was passed, which specifically outlawed marijuana at the federal level.




Many states were apparently attracted to the idea of the tax stamp as a way to further penalize drug dealers by fining them for tax evasion. Since 1970, more than two dozen states have enacted laws requiring a narcotics tax stamp, though some have been declared unconstitutional in state courts. States also enjoy the revenue generated by the fines. The Alabama Department of Revenue estimates that more than $1 million has been collected during the nearly two decades that Alabama has had the Marijuana and Controlled Substance Revenue Act on the books. (In chapter 40-17A of the Code of the State of Alabama, marijuana continues to be spelled as it was when it was legal: marihuana.)

All Alabama narcotics tax stamps are purchased anonymously. “I don’t know who they are. And I don’t want to know who they are,” laughs Crumbley. “The first stamps that I remember we ever sold were to a couple of farmers who came in at Christmas time, and they bought ’em for their wives as Christmas presents, ‘just to be cute.’ We sell a lot of stamps [as novelties]. I don’t recall that we’ve ever sold any large quantities of stamps . . . Most of the people we sell to are stamp collectors. But we haven’t sold any stamps in the past year.”

There are three categories of illegal controlled substances, and respective minimum quantities of each, to which tax stamps apply. An individual must have in his possession more than 42.5 grams (1.5 ounces) of marijuana; 7 or more grams of any controlled substance (cocaine or heroin, for example); or 10 or more dosage units (such as pills, that are not sold by weight). In Alabama, marijuana is taxed at $3.50 per gram (one stamp per gram). Each gram of a controlled substance (other than marijuana) is taxed at $200. Every 50 dosage units of a controlled substance that is not sold by weight are taxed at $2,000. According to state code, even counterfeit drugs are also subject to taxation. “We’ve even seen fake Quaaludes,” he says. “Even a fake Quaalude is subject to tax because it was held out to be a controlled substance.”

A few states have been very aggressive with enforcement. North Carolina collected $83 million in the 15 years its law was on the books, according to Laura Lansford, assistant director of that state’s Unauthorized Substances Tax Division, as reported in the Tennessean in December of 2005. The law was declared unconstitutional in 2004. State laws around the country have faced similar challenges based on due process and the right against self-incrimination. Courts have upheld some stamp laws while striking down or limiting others.

In 2005, Tennessee became the most recent state to enact a narcotics tax stamp law. “It’s patently ridiculous. Legal nitwittery,” Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told the Tennessean. “On the one hand, it says you can’t own a substance. And on the other hand, it creates a taxing scheme. . . . The law on its face makes no sense.” Tennessee took in $2.7 million during the first 18 months the law was in place.

According to the NORML web site, in 1937 U.S. government propaganda had convinced Americans that “crazed Mexicans, blacks, and fans of jazz clubs were pushing marijuana ‘reefers’ on school children and honest youths.” On the day the 1937 Marihuana Tax Stamp Act was enacted, Moses Baca bought two joints from Samuel Caldwell in Denver. Judge Foster Symes made the following pronouncement at Caldwell’s ensuing trial: “I consider marijuana the worst of all narcotics, far worse than the use of morphine or cocaine. Under its influence, men become beasts. Marijuana destroys life itself. I have no sympathy with those who sell this weed. The government is going to enforce this new law to the letter.” Caldwell was sentenced to four years’ of hard labor and paid a $1,000 fine. Baca served an 18-month sentence.

At least the marijuana tax stamp gives drug users who find themselves in handcuffs an option to keep the tax man at bay. “They may be going to jail, but they won’t be having any trouble with taxes,” laughs Crumbley. &

Rocket Man

Rocket Man

An eye-witness account of the space shuttle’s July 4 launch.

August 10, 2006 

Five minutes from liftoff, space shuttle Discovery stood with Jules Verne-mystique on the launch pad three miles away. Breezes blew through the meadow where the press congregated, the ticking down of seconds on the huge digital countdown-clock providing dramatic flair. The next few minutes were sheer agony. This wasn’t the first launch day that I’d spent staring across the lagoon at the launch pad, wondering if NASA’s seemingly endless contingencies for liftoff would finally come together. The repeated disappointments of scrubbed missions had worn me down. An eleven-hour ride back home with nothing to show or tell would be a long ride, indeed.

Six seconds from blastoff, Discovery fired its three orbiter engines, and a mass of vapor clouds obscured the launch pad. (It’s an engine test of sorts; NASA can call off a launch within one second of take-off.) At “zero,” the blinding white light from ignition of the two rockets attached to the shuttle’s orange fuel tank forced me to put my sunglasses back on. There’s no turning back once the solid-rocket boosters are lit. I stared in awe. Ten seconds into flight, Discovery soared like a toy missile, an 800-foot flame trailing the spacecraft and glowing as bright as a giant welding torch. Accustomed to the commentary that accompanied every launch I’d seen on television for four decades, I found the image of the spacecraft climbing in silence disconcerting; the spectacle didn’t seem real. Suddenly, the slow rumble of pops and crackles of rocket ignition that television never captures swept over the meadow. My legs and stomach reverberated to a staccato pounding for the next minute as the roar grew louder and scarier, like a million July 4 fireworks shot off at once.

Space shuttle Discovery roars away in NASA’s first-ever July 4 launch of a manned-spacecraft. (click for larger version)

• • •

I arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at sunrise on July 1 for the scheduled liftoff of STS-121 (Space Transportation System) Discovery. This was my second drive to KSC from Birmingham within a year. I’d yet to witness a launch. Forecasters predicted a 40 to 60 percent chance that thunderstorms in the vicinity would delay not only the Saturday launch, but also any rescheduled attempts during the next week. With a gnawing fear of imminent regret, I drove 11 hours straight to Cape Canaveral, prepared to spend a week awaiting liftoff.

Launch day is an unpredictable drama of lightning clouds, perpetual technical glitches on board the shuttle, and vultures gliding around the silent spaceship. Birds have become a threat to the shuttle at launch, so vulture traps are set around the launch pad. A five-pound vulture could severely damage the rapidly accelerating spaceship, just as foam falling off the fuel tank doomed space shuttle Columbia in 2003 by knocking a hole in the shuttle’s left wing within the first minute of blastoff.

The July 1 edition of the Orlando Sentinel revealed that e-mails circulated within NASA in recent weeks had warned that launching another space shuttle without guaranteeing the elimination of falling foam hazards was too risky. (NASA had removed the two primary foam structures on the external tank where the largest pieces had come loose.) NASA officials opposed to the launch did concede that improved camera and sensor capabilities now allow for closer inspection of the spaceship for debris damage. Should the shuttle be deemed too dangerous to fly back to earth, the crew could seek refuge onboard the International Space Station (ISS) until a rescue ship could arrive. (Columbia had been launched into an orbital plane different from that of the ISS and did not have enough fuel to change orbits.) Regardless, the launch of STS-121 Discovery was the first space shuttle mission where both NASA’s top safety official and the chief engineer’s objections to launch had been overruled by NASA’s top brass.

Weather is the one contingency completely beyond NASA’s control. Cloud updates are the most anticipated news on launch day. After blastoff, the space shuttle can become a lightning rod during a storm, actually capable of creating lightning when passing too close to storm clouds. Apollo 12 was struck by lightning 36 seconds after liftoff. The astronauts threw circuit-breakers to reactivate power to the Apollo spacecraft after the strike. Since then, lightning has commanded NASA’s attention. NASA will not launch if storm clouds are within five miles of the launch pad or within 20 miles of the landing strip at liftoff (should the space shuttle make an emergency return immediately after blastoff, the gliding aircraft becomes as vulnerable to high winds as it is to lightning).

Lightning too close to the emergency landing strip canceled the Saturday launch. NASA has only a five-minute launch window, the time available to launch Discovery so that it correctly lines up for docking with the International Space Station two days later. Fifteen minutes after the launch was scrubbed, the threatening clouds blew clear of the area in the typically unpredictable manner of Florida’s July weather.


Astronaut Piers Sellers inspects space shuttle Discovery for debris damage two days after the spaceship docked with the International Space Station. (click for larger version)


A rescheduled Sunday launch opportunity looked hopeless. Tuesday was more promising. A reporter asked First Lieutenant Kaleb Nordgren of the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron if he would recommend changing airline reservations to wait for a possible July 4 launch. “I can just tell you the weather. Take that however you want,” Nordgren laughed, slightly irritated. “Summertime in Florida is a very dynamic atmosphere, so that’s why we’re constantly monitoring.”

• • •

Sunday’s launch was scrubbed immediately after the astronauts had been loaded into Discovery. At the Sunday press gathering, Assistant Deputy Flight Director John Shannon said, “A lot of people light rockets on July 4, and I told the team before we left the scrub turn-around meeting what a great gift NASA could give to the nation to return the shuttle to operation on Independence Day.” When questioned if NASA was perhaps overly cautious about weather impediments, Shannon responded defensively: “Nobody is going to remember that we scrubbed a day or two. But if we go launch, and we get struck by lightning, that would be very hard to forget . . . If we’ve taken this much time, we’re going make sure that the weather conditions are right.”

Requesting a vulture-trap update, a reporter asked, “Are you freeing them now, or you’re going to let them sit tight (at liftoff)?” After the laughter had subsided, Launch Director Mike Leinbach replied, “The good news is bad weather keeps birds away. The bad news is it keeps the shuttle on the ground. We will go and inspect the traps today . . . and we will release every vulture in that trap.”

NASA post-launch press briefings are rarely dull. The satisfaction and sheer thrill of a successful launch was apparent at the briefing two hours after liftoff on July 4. Officials smiled and pumped their fists as the blastoff was replayed on the room’s large screen. Despite the display of emotions by his colleagues, Dr. Michael Griffin, NASA’s top administrator, remained unmoved, his ever-present smirk ready for reporters’ queries. When asked if NASA was being forthcoming about shedding foam during launch, Griffin replied: “What you are having is a nearly unique opportunity to see engineers at work, solving a problem in the midst of the problem, and having an opportunity to watch how it is that we work . . . what we do and how we go about solving our problems in the face of unknown unknowns.” When asked if he felt vindicated by another successful launch. “I certainly don’t feel a certain sense of vindication,” said Griffin. “We keep coming back to feelings. I’ll have time for feelings when I’m dead. Right now, we’re too busy”

• • •

Two seconds into flight, Discovery was traveling at 100 miles per hour. Less than a minute later, it was moving faster than the speed of sound at 750 mph, five miles above the earth. At one minute and 47 seconds, the space shuttle was 22 miles in the sky, clipping upward at 2,600 mph. The white plume of smoke from the flying shuttle lingered all the way to the ground, as if the fleeting spaceship were somehow still connected to earth. Twenty-one seconds later, the twin solid-rocket boosters, which had put on a dazzling fireworks display since liftoff, jettisoned from Discovery while flying more than 3,000 mph. An astronaut who had once ridden a shuttle into orbit smiled as she gazed skyward: “There is just nothing like that first time. It’s unbelievable to leave the planet that fast and to go that far . . . and they’re not even there yet.” &

City Hall — Dawn of The Living Dead


March 23, 2006

The blight that seeps through Birmingham like the Blob looking for Steve McQueen has found an odd nesting place: the police department’s forensic lab at the city jail on Sixth Avenue South. Last April, Birmingham Police Chief Annetta Nunn announced that the forensics unit would be relocated to the fourth floor of the 1700 Building, the city’s sparkling new police headquarters on First Avenue North. However, a “$400,000 surprise,” as Mayor Bernard Kincaid refers to the cost overrun, arrived in the guise of unexpectedly high bids that have delayed completion of the final phase of the new forensics lab. Oddly, the “$400,000 surprise” came to the Mayor’s attention only three weeks ago.

For more than a year, departmental memos have documented the deplorable conditions at the current forensics building on Sixth Avenue. “There have been tons of those,” Kincaid said in reference to internal documents circulated for “alleviating this situation.” Complaints range from standing water [potential electrocution] and mold, to birds roosting on the top floors. Some employees at the forensics building are currently under instruction from the police department to wear a breathing apparatus while working there. Kincaid insisted that local forensic science has not been compromised, as the most vital work is conducted on the first floor, two floors below the worst leaks. The Mayor reassured reporters at a March 7 press conference (after the City Council had approved $482,000 to finish the new forensics lab) that the city’s current forensics situation was acceptable for another three months until equipment and personnel could be moved to the 1700 Building. “We understood that because of the leaks, and what Public Works [city department] fixed, the [forensics] building was leaking. Public Works did fix that. Again, it’s not leaking on the first floor,” said Kincaid, fumbling for an explanation and sounding determined to convince even himself that there were indeed leaks, which no doubt had been repaired. “We’re hoping that, given the dire straits in which we find ourselves, that there will be some accommodation, somewhere.” Kincaid added in seeming desperation. “We have not been able to locate a portable forensic lab that we could bring in.”

It’s amazing that the city’s forensic unit would be exposed to potential contamination for a week, much less for more than a year. Regarding the health of employees at the forensics lab, Kincaid is aware that the Fraternal Order of Police (F.O.P.) is not happy. Sgt. Allen Treadaway, president of the Birmingham F.O.P, said that the building’s conditions had been known for some time. “What we haven’t known is what came to my attention recently . . . the health issues as far as they apply to our employees working in that building,” said Treadaway. “We’ve got a female officer that has worked in that building and has had two miscarriages, one recently.”

He added that another officer has an upper-respiratory infection. “When we start distributing breathing apparatuses to employees, with the big canisters on the side, to wear when they’re in that building, that’s an indicator something is seriously wrong,” said Treadaway. “When we start having upper-respiratory examinations for all employees working in that building, that’s an indicator that something is wrong.” Treadaway wants testing done on the current building to be sure it’s safe for employees to continue working there until the new lab is complete. He complained to the City Council that the fourth floor of the 1700 Building has been available for several months with no work going on. Treadaway warned that construction delays are inevitable. “We were supposed to be in these new precincts [Southside and east Birmingham] a year ago, and there’s construction still going on,” said the police sergeant.

Kincaid was less than pleased, and somewhat tongue-tied, at the implication that hazardous working conditions had led to police officer miscarriages. “Quite frankly, to stand before the Council and to lay miscarriages on this without medical evidence is . . . what just happened and should not have.” Kincaid added, “The F.O.P. will probably bring forth several issues. We’ll probably have a flurry of those . . . We just look forward to a revved up level of activity by the F.O.P.” The Mayor was dismissive of questions about police lawsuits. &

City Hall


March 09, 2006

William Bell Is Finally Back

Councilor William Bell’s District Five election win over incumbent Elias Hendricks four months ago raised more than a few eyebrows around the city. After having been chosen interim mayor when longtime Mayor Richard Arrington stepped down in 1999 several months prior to the end of his 20-year reign (the council president is next in line for the mayor’s position if the mayor steps down), Bell lost a mayoral runoff to present mayor Bernard Kincaid. Purportedly, the plan was for Bell to run against Kincaid as a pseudo-incumbent. Bell’s loss essentially drove a stake through the heart of Arrington’s powerful political machine, the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition. Most figured Bell’s political career in Birmingham was essentially over. Everyone, that is, except William Bell.

In his years as council president in the 1990s, Bell’s theatrics ran interference for Arrington in the former mayor’s weekly showdowns with former Councilor Jimmy Blake. Among Blake’s complaints were his objections to minority preference in a city that is predominantly black. Blake never backed down from his premise that whites were the real minority. So it was with great irony that minority hiring would initiate a showdown between Bell and Councilor Roderick Royal at the February 28, 2006 Council meeting.

Bell has been surprisingly quiet during his current tenure, maintaining a low profile that fulfilled his promise of humility upon return to the Council. His suggestions at committee meetings and his grasp of how city politics function have been mildly impressive. Fortunately for those who report on City Hall, William Bell appears to have eaten his last slice of humble pie, returning to his former high-profile, ready-for-a-fight persona.

At issue was the city’s hiring of All Seasons Travel to facilitate travel arrangements for the 198 neighborhood officers attending the 2006 NUSA (Neighborhoods USA) Conference in Kansas City in May. Birmingham’s representation at NUSA has been a source of controversy in years past, primarily because the city has, by far, the largest delegation, and many local citizens regard the trip as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Other past controversies stemmed from fish fries held by delegates on the balconies of their hotel rooms, which did little to erase perceptions that the city was being represented by a bunch of country yahoos.

Bell questioned why All Seasons Travel was the only company the city sought bids from. Jim Feinstermaker, chief of the Community Development Department, which oversees the neighborhood associations, replied, “We’ve worked with All Seasons in previous years, so we just went back to them.” Bell asked that the resolution earlier approved in the meeting be brought back before the Council for reconsideration, to allow bids from minority travel agencies that might also offer cheaper rates. Councilor Roderick Royal, who acknowledged that “it’s important to find minority participation where we can find it,” said the city had worked with All Seasons for more than 15 years. “Certainly, if there was concern, we should have been addressing it a long time ago. And I hope that falls on good soil,” added Royal, in what appeared to be a slap at Bell. Royal at one time was Bell’s administrative assistant before a rumored falling out occurred between the two.

“You know what, Madam President? That little twerp over there, he needs to get a life!” Bell exploded in anger. “I mean, I’ve sat here and let him shoot at me all these years. Now what happened here 15 years ago, I asked Mayor Richard Arrington the same thing [regarding minority hiring]. I’ve been consistent. When you look at all of the minority participation bills [in the past], you’ll see one name on there. None of the [current councilors’] names were on those bills passed in the past. You’ll see one name on there: William A. Bell!” At meeting’s end, Bell apologized for not attending a recent function at Lily Grove Baptist Church. He then added, “And I may want to apologize for something else, but let me think about it a little bit longer.” With her usual dry sense of humor, Councilor Valerie Abbott deadpanned, “I want a definition of twerp . . . I truly don’t know what it is.”
Council Approves Wal-Mart Corporate Welfare

Freshman Councilors Miriam Witherspoon and Steven Hoyt have made minority contract hiring a priority regarding tax incentives and cash payouts to those who wish to do business with the city. Hoyt demanded 20 percent minority representation for sub-contractors building the new Wal-Mart in the blighted Eastwood Mall location. Despite protests from Councilor Joel Montgomery and some city residents that there is no guarantee that Wal-Mart would stay in the location, many believe Wal-Mart will be an economic boon for Councilor Carol Reynolds’ District Two. The $11 million cash deal to purchase the Eastwood Mall property for Wal-Mart was approved unanimously by the council on February 28. District One Councilor Joel Montgomery, who was absent from the meeting due to his claims that he was sick, set a City Council precedent when he phoned from his sickbed to voice opposition to the Wal-Mart deal via the council chamber’s public address system. Reynolds walked out in protest when Montgomery began speaking. Council President Carole Smitherman properly refused to allow Montgomery to vote and went so far as to tell him he didn’t sound sick.

Montgomery remains angry that Wal-Mart left his district a few years ago to build a Wal-Mart Super Center in District Two, an arrangement that has caused a rift between Councilor Reynolds and himself. Reynolds has been a cheerleader for Wal-Mart, despite complaints from many nationwide that the mega-corporation fails to pay wages high enough to provide health insurance for many employees. Reynolds, who is employed by the Birmingham Water Works and recuses herself from Water Works issues that come to a vote by the Council, has been vocal in the past about encouraging Water Works employees into a union. But despite her rallying behind Wal-Mart, she’s savvy enough to hedge her bets with the odd statement: “I’m not a huge fan [of Wal-Mart] I’m a K-Mart girl.” &



December 29, 2005

Mayor Bernard Kincaid is insulted by a current butting of heads over a railroad park proposed for construction between 14th and 18th streets along First Avenue South. The city of Birmingham and Friends of the Railroad District [FORRD] are engaged in a power struggle over who will oversee development of the park which will include a two-acre lake, restaurant, small beach area, railroad museum, picnic areas, and a carousel. At press time, Giles Perkins, president of FORRD and a member of Birmingham City Council President Carole Smitherman’s recent re-election campaign, said the city and FORRD were not far from reaching an agreement.

“Perkins e-mailed my chief of staff [Al Herbert] . . . and said that we’re not very far apart,” said Kincaid. The Mayor has bristled at notions that FORRD should control the project. “But for Bernard Kincaid, we wouldn’t have the master plan that gave us this . . . We birthed this into creation. Not that I’m trying to take ownership, but I birthed this baby. And I’m not about to give it away. I’m willing to work with anyone to help me raise it. . . . I have invested an awful lot into its creation and guiding its creation.” At the December 13 City Council meeting, Councilor William Bell told Kincaid, “If we’re going to allow private developers—or a private group to come in and work on this, then they need to be given a free hand to the extent that they can go out and raise funds, to the extent that they can make decisions without—no offense—getting bogged down in the bureaucracy of city government.” Bell explained that there is no reason to work with the FORRD group if the city wants to control the project. “I’m a proponent of if we’re going to bring in private dollars, then we need to give them the kind of free hand that they need,” added Bell.

Kincaid responded that many investors will not fund the project if the money does not go to the city, especially the $2.5 million the Jefferson County Commission pledged on December 15. “What’s at issue, quite simply, is control. It is a city project, it’s city-owned property,” said Kincaid.

We didn’t start this project with someone else taking charge of it. In my opinion, that’s the tail wagging the dog. We welcome others helping us to raise funds to consummate the project, because it can not be done just out of city funds. We’re going to need private sources . . . So it then becomes incumbent upon us to strike an agreement such that those funds that can come to us, and they come to us because there is the perception that there is some oversight on our part and some guiding of this project by the city of Birmingham and its professionals.

The County Commission invited the entire Council to a December 15 presentation by the city to the County Commission, which in turn approved its $2.5 million match to that of the city. Only Councilors Joel Montgomery and Miriam Witherspoon attended the meeting, though the entire City Council is in support of the railroad park, with reservations. At the December 13 Council meeting, Councilor Roderick Royal complained that projects without the County Commission often do not work out. “I’m not at all against the project,” said Royal. “I think my biggest problem is that we’ve had so many arrangements that the city always gets caught holding the bag . . . We had the zoo. We had the regional thing that we were going to turn it over to the Friends of the Zoo. We’re still funding the zoo.” Royal added that the Friends of Avondale Park never wanted to take over Avondale Park. “Nobody wants to be a Friend of Legion Field. If you really want to do something, help Legion Field.” The comment brought a run of snickers from the Council chambers.

Giles Perkins, present of FORRD, told the Council that the project was modeled after a contract in Asheville, North Carolina, that he was alerted to by members of the Mayor’s steering committee, who planned the railroad park project. Perkins agreed with Councilor Bell that “to raise private sector money we have to have the appropriate authority to commit that the dollars are going to be spent the way that they have been pledged.” Negotiations have gone on for a year. Perkins, an original board member of the Birmingham Zoo when it went private, told councilors that his group is committed to the vision of consultants hired by the city to make preliminary designs of the park.

At the Finance and Administration committee meeting on December 12, Perkins told the Mayor and Council that FORRD would be happy to develop it and turn it over to the city. “That’s just the reciprocal [sic] of what should happen,” Kincaid said at the Council meeting the next day. “The city should develop it and then do as we did with Vulcan Park Foundation or with EBI—the zoo. We did it! We got it where it needed to be. We ushered it through all the processes, then we turned it over to an entity, not the reciprocal [sic]. And that’s what’s being asked for now.”

The Council voted to put $2.5 million into the project with stipulations that the Mayor update them on negotiations with FORRD by January 16, 2006, before presenting a final agreement by January 30, 2006. &

City Hall — Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard

By Ed Reynolds

Outgoing Birmingham City Councilor Elias Hendricks went down swinging November 15 as the Council delayed a resolution backed by Mayor Bernard Kincaid regarding the annual Fall Carnival and Spring Fling fairs held at the Fairgrounds. Hendricks lost a bitter runoff to former Council president and one-time interim mayor William Bell by less than 200 votes several weeks ago. With the possible exception of Joel Montgomery, Hendricks was the councilor most prone to butt heads with Mayor Kincaid. Touting the carnival issue as his “last official act as chairman of the Finance and Budget Committee,” the councilor seemed to relish one final staredown with the mayor’s office.

Mid America Shows, Inc., which manages the two carnivals held at the Fairgrounds each year, is seeking to merge with another midway provider, Mid America Shows Delaware, Inc. The resolution does not affect the terms of the contract with the city and only changes the name on the contract to that of the new vendor. Hendricks, who often complained about difficulties getting information on a timely basis from the Mayor’s office, claimed that requested information on the fairs’ financial status had not been delivered. The councilor said carnivals must be financially viable. “Doing things that you did in the past without any regard to what the financial burden of the subsidy puts on the general public is not the way to go,” said Hendricks.

“The Spring Fling comes closer to breaking even . . . It’s more costly to conduct the fall fair,” Terry Burney of the Mayor’s office told the Council. He agreed with councilors that the Fall Carnival was being subsidized, prompting Kincaid to grow agitated. “[The fair] wasn’t designed to be a big profit-making entity!” said Kincaid. “It provides services for our citizens.” The city’s current contract with Mid America runs through 2007. Carnivals at the state fairgrounds in Five Points West have been poorly attended for years, much to Councilor Carole Smitherman’s dismay. “There are always more police at the fair than people,” noted Smitherman. “So I want to make sure that we actually made some money before we go into another contract with an unknown principle.” Mayor Kincaid again got irritated, replying, “I think it’s a good thing having the police officers there. It allays the fears of people coming [to the fair].”


I went from Dreamland Barbecue to the dream job”The meeting ended with departing Council President Lee Loder lavishing praise upon each councilor. “It has been a wonder to serve with you,” Loder said to Councilor Montgomery. To Councilor Gwen Sykes: “You are to be commended for your work and your savvy style.” The pontification had only begun. For the next 45 minutes councilors saluted one another ad nauseam. Councilor Smitherman said she has been thrilled to sit next to Elias Hendricks on the council dais due to his gentlemanly manners, including pulling out her chair whenever she sat down. “If he had some mints, he’d offer me one,” Smitherman explained. “We just had a bond between us.” Departing Councilor Bert Miller, who has never wasted an opportunity to grandstand, embraced his last hurrah.

“I went from Dreamland [Barbecue, where he waited tables] to the dream job,” said Miller, who decided against seeking re-election after controversy arose regarding $25,000 he secured for a concert that never happened. Miller, who filed for bankruptcy approximately one year ago, readily admitted he was somewhat lazy on the job. “I can admit I didn’t read a lot of stuff,” said Miller.

“Didn’t care about all the meetings. But I did care about the people of Birmingham.” The councilor added that he will be writing a book called My Time at the Hall.The pre-inaugural party the night before the new City Council was sworn in was sparsely attended. Among the highlights were the ice sculpture molded after the official Birmingham city seal and the name of one of the evening’s scheduled performers: Epiphany Cherry. Birmingham-Southern Chancellor Dr. Neal Berte gave the featured speech, admonishing councilors to work in cooperation. Mayor Kincaid and his former nemesis, newly elected Councilor William Bell, embraced, eliciting a roar from those in attendance. The next morning, a woman snuck a cowbell into the Council chambers, which she rang with gusto as William Bell was sworn in. Half an hour later, the new City Council convened to elect a council president.

Carole Smitherman won unopposed [it was speculated that Bell would challenge her]. Freshman Councilor Miriam Witherspoon was elected president pro tem over Valerie Abbott, who voted for Witherspoon because she could “see the handwriting on the wall” as councilors’ votes sided with Witherspoon. Perhaps Abbott was atoning for her near-unpardonable sin four years ago when she and Joel Montgomery supported Gwen Sykes for Council president. Carole Smitherman immediately made a power grab: she combined the Finance and Budget, and Administration committees into one committee, then appointed herself to chair the new committee. Later that morning during the Council meeting, Smitherman pledged her loyalty to the Mayor, a pledge she’ll no doubt break in two years when she challenges Kincaid in the mayoral election as she did two years ago.