City Hall — Proper polling protocol

City Hall

October 23, 2001

Proper polling protocol

Councilor Sandra Little, noting that a representative of the Justice Department had called to ask her opinion about “some of the things that went on” at polling places during the October 9 council election, asks if the Justice Department has given preclearance for the election. Mayor Bernard Kincaid replies that redistricting was controlled by the council, which hired Reapportionment Group 2000 to perform the work. Jerry Wilson of Reapportionment Group 2000, which was hired by the council at a cost of $250,000 to draw new council district lines, sent a fax dated August 11, 2001, to the city attorney telling the city to proceed with the October 9 election as if clearance had been received from the Justice Department. Wilson in turn would work to facilitate preclearance, says Kincaid, who says that he has not heard from the Justice Department.

An unhappy Council President William Bell says with disgust, “Somebody’s lying,” alluding that it might be Wilson. Bell insists that Wilson’s contract did not include polling place designations. However, Kincaid tells Bell to read the “quarter of a million dollar contract you [the council] signed with Jerry Wilson.” Kincaid notes that Wilson has drawn $249,976 of the $250,000 contract, suggesting that Wilson might feel absolved of further action since he’s gotten most of his money. The Mayor says that Wilson’s contract calls for him to work through completion of the redistricting process, including Justice Department clearance of polling locations. Noting that identification of polling places is the province of the Election Commission, Kincaid reminds the council that the Election Commission asked councilors for polling place recommendations. Former Aldrich Gunn council aid Hezekiah Jackson chaired an Election Commission committee that also spoke with the Justice Department representative. According to Kincaid, Jackson stated on a local talk radio show that he told the representative that each councilor was allowed to recommend polling place choices. Labeling suggestions of impropriety in election proceedings as nothing more than “electioneering,” Kincaid notes that public reaction has reported the October 9 election as “one of the fairest elections in decades.”

After Kincaid explains that some poll workers were removed for not participating in the February Water Works referendum, Councilor Sandra Little disagrees with Kincaid’s assessment of fairness. Little complains that long-time poll workers were replaced, noting that one displaced worker in her district did participate in the February referendum. The councilor calls Kincaid’s explanation “a set-up.” As Kincaid responds to Little, Bell interjects, “Mr, Mayor, let’s move on.” A flabbergasted Kincaid replies, “Oh, I wish we could! But I’m gonna correct the statement that she made.” Irritated, Bell replies, “Just go ahead and take over the meeting, Mr. Mayor!” Kincaid wins the battle of wills and says that one poll worker that did participate in the February referendum was replaced at Brown School polling place by the Election Commission. The Mayor says he hopes that the worker’s termination will be corrected.

Little and Blake cross swords

“This has been a fascinating chat we’ve had,” observes Councilor Jimmy Blake as he points out that Jerry Wilson’s contract had been negotiated down from $500,000 to $250,000. Blake asks, “What is [Ms. Little's] goal, aside from throwing grenades and pretending that things were unfair?” He asks Little if it is her intent to nullify the decision of the voters in the council election. “Clearly, the council nullified the voters in the Water Works referendum,” Blake notes. “The Grand Imperial Wizard [presumably former mayor Richard Arrington] of the [Jefferson County Citizens] Coalition told people not to show up for the [Water Works referendum] election. How outrageous is that in violation of the law and proper procedure?”

Little responds that Blake’s admitted purpose in joining the council eight years ago “was to crush a particular organization [Jefferson County Citizens Coalition]” instead of working for his district. Blake replies, “Yes ma’am, and you know what, Ms. Little? My purpose eight years ago was to bring some honesty and some integrity to city government in Birmingham. And last Tuesday was a huge step forward, and we’ll finish the job on the 30th [runoff election], I expect.”

Blake questions Gunn’s sincerity

Councilor Lee Loder salutes the Mayor and his staff for moving swiftly on an initiative to expand the enterprise community (including tax incentives attracting business to economically deprived areas). Upset that housing development is not included with the economic improvement in his district, Councilor Gunn complains, “I get tired of us tearing up black communities!” Mayor Kincaid explains that previous enterprise community plans encompassed smaller areas, including only five neighborhoods that did not involve Kingston and other portions of Gunn’s district in the past. Councilor Blake interjects. “Mr. Gunn, I hear you start talking about protecting neighborhoods and protecting them from encroachment by economic development and stuff. And I sit over here and I say, ‘Right on, Mr. Gunn, you seem like you’re really speaking from the heart.’ But yet when it comes time to vote, you voted with the airport in a plan that was devastating to your district.” Blake admonishes, “And then you turn around and back up and support the scoundrels on the Airport Authority who are destroying their property values, who are ripping those communities in your district apart!”

Gunn responds, thanking God for not allowing him to become “distressed,” as was the case in the past when Blake made such comments. Noting that he supports airport expansion only if it does not destroy East Lake and surrounding homes, Gunn says that Blake’s district is “well done,” noting that alleys there are better than streets in Gunn’s area of town.

October 30, 2001

Eminent domain: The American way?

Discussion concerning redevelopment of land in Roebuck to accommodate a new WalMart store takes up the bulk of today’s council meeting. The Roebuck Parkway East Urban Renewal and Urban Redevelopment Plan targets land on Parkway East that includes buildings once occupied by K-Mart and the Old American Store, which have been vacant for about 18 months. Eminent domain and condemnation are tools available for the renewal plan should the city need them. The property is an example of the decline that some say has crept over the Roebuck area. Implementation of the urban renewal project is designed to eliminate blight and “serve as a catalyst to further revitalize the district,” according to representatives of the Planning and Engineering Department. The Mayor’s office is in support of the plan.

Sam Frazier, an attorney representing the city’s interest, defends the use of urban renewal projects to accomplish public purposes such as economic development and infrastructure improvements, all in the name of eliminating blight. There are 39 parcels of land affected by the proposed WalMart construction. Twenty of the 25 property owners have reached agreement with the developer, Concordia Southeast, while the five holdouts argue that they are not receiving fair compensation. The five in resistance own the larger buildings and prime locations in the area. Mary Hooker and her husband, who have owned a medical clinic there for 35 years, explain that their buildings cannot be replaced with what she and her husband are being offered, because the costs of re-location are possibly higher than what their building is worth. Fear of eminent domain has also forced some that rent office space from Hooker in the same area not to renew leases. She reminds councilors that WalMart is located in Arkansas, and is not a homegrown business. “We all go to WalMart, which is good. It’s an American thing, it’s the American way, except for their acquisition policies.” She quotes excerpts from the Pledge of Allegiance as she explains that the American way is “not to sacrifice a few for the good of many.” Hooker also contests attorney Sam Frazier’s reference to the area as blighted.

Christopher Jones, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church, which owns three acres sought after by Concordia for the WalMart construction, defends the developer for “negotiating in good faith.” Jones says the area is indeed blighted, and emphasizes that another tax base will help pay for schools. “Don’t mess this up,” the reverend implores as he defends the development as a boost for the Roebuck area.

Councilor Jimmy Blake is appalled that city government would help a financially powerful corporation against Birmingham citizens. Calling the city’s actions “contrary to everything that government ought to be about,” Blake refuses to go along with the condemnation process sought by the city. He notes that the “American way” is to negotiate so that citizens can get fair deals. Accusing the city of “acting like gangsters,” Blake asks what the public purpose is in the recent closing of a WalMart in Huffman to open another in Roebuck. “Moving a WalMart four blocks is not my idea of overwhelming public purpose,” says Blake.

Council President William Bell offers a compromise. Bell is disturbed that WalMart closed the Huffman store to move out of Birmingham but now wants to move to Roebuck. But he admits that it is a golden opportunity to change the perception that Birmingham has let Roebuck “go to hell.” Stressing that eminent domain is a viable option in the future only if a property owner attempts to “jack up the price” after proper appraisals have been made, Bell suggests deletion of language in the resolution pertaining to “eminent domain and condemnation” for the time being. The council approves the resolution with Bell’s amendments to adopt the urban renewal plan. Blake votes against it. &

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