Smoot’s Grandstanding Fools No One
County Commissioner Shelia Smoot turns a deaf ear to her constituency.
“You talk about poor people? I HAVE LIVED BELOW THE POVERTY LINE! Me! I went to a poor school! I didn’t have new books!” bellowed County Commissioner Shelia Smoot. Minutes earlier at the August 24 Jefferson County Commission meeting, Smoot joined Commissioners Larry Langford and Mary Buckelew to approve Commission President Langford’s one-cent tax increase to fund capital projects for the 11 school districts in the county. Langford’s $1 billion school bond proposal has been largely frowned upon due to his rush to get the plan passed. It was first brought to public attention on August 12.
The tax, which does not apply to automobiles and boats, goes into effect January 1, 2005. Fairfield (where Langford served as mayor), Midfield, Tarrant, and Lipscomb will each now have a sales tax of 10 percent. Birmingham will have a nine-percent rate. The tax is expected to be retired when the bonds are paid off around the year 2019. State law allows the commission to implement the tax without public approval.
Smoot was the so-called “undecided” swing vote, a dramatic role in which she obviously reveled. The night before the commission vote, Smoot held a public hearing in her district at More Than Conquerors Faith Church. Smoot purportedly wanted public input to help her make her decision, but the hearing was a ruse, as it was obvious that she had already decided how she would vote. Several large signs promoting the benefits of the tax increase were posted throughout the room, with one conspicuously mounted in front of the speaker’s podium. It read “A Penny for our Children.” From the outset, Smoot referred to the proposal as “a plan that is going to be historical, a plan that is going to be significant.” The preacher offering the invocation tried to enlist divine intervention. “I invite the Father to help us with the plans. . . . Thank you God for synchronizing our hearts.” He finished by asking God to give Smoot “a mouth of wisdom.” She nodded her head in accord.
Despite Smoot’s claim the next day that only 50 people showed up for the hearing, more than 75 people attended. The overwhelming majority were either opposed to the tax or requested that the County Commission delay their vote. Only four people spoke in favor, including, of all people, the hearing’s moderator, James Williams, from radio station 98.7 KISS FM. Though he insisted that he, like Smoot, had yet to make up his mind on the tax, his words indicated otherwise: “History shows that the lottery didn’t pass, MAPS didn’t pass. If a penny will change our schools, why not do it?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, bricks don’t teach,” said Ronald Jackson, executive director of Citizens for Better Schools and People United. Birmingham resident James King called the plan “a new tax for the new Jim Crow system.” Then he warned county residents that they “may as well bend over and grab their ankles.” A Fairfield resident complained, “This thing has been shoved down our throats!” John Harris of Concerned Citizens for Social Change said that he had not received enough information to make a decision, then asked Smoot to vote “no.” Retired teacher Beatrice Royster said the plan does not really address education, noting that people tend to wrongly think that education is a money problem. She eloquently explained that the purpose of an education is to “teach people how to live and make intelligent decisions.”
At meeting’s end, Smoot continued her diatribe. “Same people with the same rhetoric” was her take on the public hearing. Smoot wants new ideas. She griped that residents are leaving Birmingham, and that highway improvements are allowing potential shoppers to bypass the city. She left little doubt regarding which side she was on, observing, “All the people that are for it are at home, and all the people against it are here!” Stating that she and her family had received threats because of the plan, Smoot was almost in tears. “I will not be turned around. I will not be intimidated . . . This ain’t a black and white issue.” She urged residents to stop by her office anytime. “You don’t have to make no appointment,” she added.
The next day, at the weekly County Commission meeting, Commissioner Larry Langford wandered into the packed audience to berate an opponent of his tax plan. “When you come down here to get contracts, and begging for money, you don’t want a referendum then!” Langford thundered. Commissioner Mary Buckelew said that her 30 years of experience in education prompted her to “feel comfortable with this.” Buckelew added that 25 years of proration were being addressed, saying that those schools that don’t need the money “can give it to the systems that do.”
Back on the dais, Langford’s demeanor now as composed as the meticulously coiffed gray curls on his head, he claimed that he only received one phone call against his tax plan. The commission president then turned his venom on commissioner Bettye Fine Collins, who lost on a motion to take the tax increase to a public vote. “[Collins] didn’t ask for a vote when she got the previous commission to pay for her college education,” Langford said with a smirk. “If I had proposed a penny to build prisons, nobody would be outraged because we are scared to death of our own kids. But we say, ‘Let’s come back and take a penny and add more seats to Legion Field so Alabama will play football there.’” Recognizing the quality education offered by the Hoover, Homewood, Vestavia, and Mountain Brook school systems, Langford made a bizarre comment: “In order to have something good, you have to have something bad to compare it to. We’ve got plenty of bad. It’s time to fix it.”
Commissioner Gary White told the others on the commission that his district, which includes Mountain Brook, Vestavia, and Hoover, is financially stable. White said that yearly reevaluation of property values will adequately provide the money needed for schools. “The people of my district recognize the value of education and have addressed that. They have passed taxes to support education in their communities,” he explained, adding, “I have not heard the outcry for this in my district.” Smoot quickly responded. “Your schools are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. That community does the right thing,” she said. She praised the more affluent municipalities—Hoover, Homewood, Mountain Brook, and Vestavia—for “building playgrounds or moving dollars for schools.” Adopting the tone of a Baptist preacher, she continued: “Now let me tell you where some of the kids in my district come from. They come from a lot of different circumstances that they can’t control at home—environments that some of you wouldn’t put your dog or cat into. . . . You get in your Lexus! You get in your Cadillac! You get in your Mercedes! Go out over the mountain to spend your money! How many of you are gonna go to Midfield today and buy some lunch? How many of you are going to Lipscomb and buy some lunch? . . . People don’t even stop in Lipscomb to get gas!” Smoot was on a roll, and it got stranger as she ranted. “You go out to Tarrant. I had to go through there every day holding my nose from the ABC Coke plant,” she shouted. “You go out to the Food Fair. And you look in the grocery store. And the next time you go pick up something in those communities, they’re selling expired food! Expired meat, people!”
She complained that when her old high school closed, the surrounding school systems refused to take the students. “And when you do take ‘em, you put ‘em in Special Ed!” she scolded. Smoot then criticized those in the county who had not attended her public hearing. “I had 50 people at a public hearing, and 25 of them will come to anything and kill everything, and are paid off under the table to come and shoot at me! Well, guess what? You missed!” There was a slight pause as Smoot dropped her voice to a near whisper and hissed, “You missed.” &