Mayor on the Defense

Mayor on the Defense

Mayor Langford and the City Council’s advisory attorney butt heads.

August 21, 2008

Birmingham City Council President Carole Smitherman was not particularly thrilled during the August 12 council meeting when Councilor Miriam Witherspoon initiated a discussion about the recent cancellation of the Women’s Empowerment Expo, a women’s conference scheduled for the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on August 2. Two weeks earlier, Smitherman had presented Mayor Larry Langford with a gold-painted olive branch at the July 29 council meeting as a symbol of their commitment to work together. Less than a week later, the council and mayor were again at odds because Langford refused to sign off on a council-approved expenditure of $8,967 for the event. The expo was subsequently canceled.

Though insisting that the council did not go through proper procedure to obtain city money for the event, Langford readily admitted that he would not go along with the expenditure because the conference’s organizer is Donna Dukes, who once worked for Patrick Cooper, Langford’s 2007 mayoral opponent. During the campaign, Dukes sought witnesses to determine whether Langford was still living at his Fairfield home, which would have placed him in violation of residency requirements for holding office. (Cooper challenged Langford’s election in court, but a judge dismissed the case. Cooper appealed the ruling but eventually withdrew the challenge.)

Councilor Witherspoon asked the council’s legal advisor, retired Judge J. Richmond Pearson, to explain why the mayor was wrong in refusing to sign a check for the funds. Pearson said that Langford was violating his administrative duties by not approving the expense based on “one of the oldest writs known to the law . . . To give you a simple example of this, if you walk out into the hall to the Coke machine and it says 25 cents, if you put 25 cents into the Coke machine, the Coke machine is due to deliver you a Coke. It doesn’t have the right to think about it.” Pearson said that Langford should have performed his mayoral duty “without thinking” regarding the approved expense, and added that the mayor had exercised “a second veto option, which he does not have under the law.”

Langford took issue with Pearson’s assessment: “First of all, there isn’t a judge on the planet can make me sign my name to nothin’ I don’t want to sign it to. . . . He can turn around and give you the authorization for someone else to sign it. If that’s what [a judge] wants to do, let him do it. But let’s tell the whole story, now. [The council] passed an ordinance setting out what people are to do to get public money. And let’s be clear, this is the taxpayers’ money, not ours. . . . This particular person [Dukes] did none of those things. . . . First of all, I wouldn’t have signed it anyway—I made that very clear—not for this particular individual. But the fact of the matter is, I couldn’t have signed it because not a single [requirement] of this council was followed by the person you gave that money to, pure and simple. But if you give money to someone, they have to file the appropriate papers to get that money. And if they don’t do it, I won’t sign it.”

Pearson: “First of all—and I know you can’t always believe what you read in the paper. But from my knowledge, the mayor [has said] that he had personal reasons for not executing this document, number one. And number two, the mayor does not have the right to block the decision of [the council] . . . [The mayor could] veto the bill when it’s up for a vote of this council. But once the council passes it and it becomes law, it’s not up to the mayor on something that is non-discretionary. It’s not up to him to decide, ‘Well, I’m going to make them jump through a tire backwards.’ You can’t do that. You were thwarting the will of the council, and I’ve said all I need to say on it.”

Langford: “Now, the contract was brought to me three days before this supposed event was to take place. I knew nothing about it until three days prior to it. . . . And the bottom line being, had the proper paperwork been filled out, I would have known about it before then. Now, [addressing the council] I’ve never tried to mince any words about it. If someone stalked you and your family and I know it’s true, I’m not going to sign it for them either.”

Pearson: “My opinions are purely advisory, and hopefully helpful. Now, I would say respectfully to the mayor, in the way this manner was handled, I believe you could be personally liable. And I don’t think you want that to happen, and I wouldn’t want that to happen to you. Not only would you be required to sign it—or not only could a judge authorize somebody else to sign it—I think any damage that emanated from your failure to sign it, that you would be personally liable and not the city.”

Langford: “What damage was done? They didn’t have the conference. How do you even know there were 300 people [scheduled] to be over there? You don’t know any of that. . . . When there’s any court in this country who can tell me to sign something I have a disagreement with, then we’ve really got a problem in this country.”

Pearson: “Well, your problem would be that you’d be in jail.”

Langford: “Well, I’m willing to do that, if that’s what it takes, judge. Suppose some judge told me I had to sign an order to kill somebody and I know it’s wrong?”

Councilor Steven Hoyt then admonished Langford for failing to carry out his mayoral duties. “I think we have a responsibility to empower all Birmingham citizens. . . . We don’t [vote against a request] because someone comes before this council [that we have] some issues with. . . . Mr. Mayor, in the spirit of cooperation, I think we have to put things in perspective. . . . We’ve got bigger issues in this city than to be dealing with who brought forth what and what they did. . . . At some point we’ve got to move on. We’re Christians. We forgive and we move on. And that’s how we do things in this city.”

Langford said he would have”no problem” with the council reviewing the expense to allow another party to okay the funds so that the women’s conference can be held at a future date. Smitherman, however, did not let the issue go away without scolding councilors for discussing it publicly. “I respect every councilor’s right to have a presentation and to talk about what they want to talk about. But this should have been talked about at another forum. This is not the place to talk about this. Now, if we’re going to start communicating with each other better, it’s certainly not to get on the internet or on the TV, before the newspapers or whoever is here writing.”

• • •
Reached for comment two days after the council meeting, Women’s Empowerment Expo organizer Donna Dukes said, “I followed the procedures I was told to follow.” In response to Langford’s use of the word “stalking” to describe her investigation into his residency, Dukes laughed. “I have never harassed or stalked anyone. And anyone who knows me and knows my family and my background and the work that I do in the community as well as the fact that I’m a born-again Christian—and have been one since I was eight years old—understands that I would never do anything like that.”

Dukes plans to hold the conference at a later date. “The expo is a free event for women, providing services that are direly needed by these women. We have over 300 women who are anxious to attend it and I believe that God is going to provide the rest of the funds that we need.” &

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