On Thursday, Birmingham City Councilman Hunter Williams spoke to 1819 News about how legislation from a disgraced former lawmaker led to a power imbalance in the city government, hindering the council from serving its constituents today. 

Williams pointed to the Mayor-Council Act, which became law in the 1960s. The law defines and establishes the framework for Birmingham's municipal government as it currently stands. However, the Alabama Legislature made significant changes to the law in 2016.

Former State Rep. Oliver Robinson (D-Birmingham) introduced HB 515 in the 2016 regular session. After both houses of the legislature passed it, then-Gov. Robert Bently signed it into law.

The law amended the Mayor-Council Act to give Birmingham's mayor more appointment authority and expand his budgeting powers. 

"While three branches of government exist, the powers aren't balanced, so that you have a singular individual-slash-administration that has complete control of not only the executive, but also the legislative branch, and then, in theory, that gives them some control over the judicial branch," Williams said. "With that imbalance of power, with that state legislation making a little king in Birmingham, there are no checks."

Robinson pleaded guilty in 2017 to federal bribery, conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges. He was accused of receiving payments from the Birmingham-based Drummond Company to persuade the residents of North Birmingham not to test their soil, permitting Drummond to avoid the cost of cleanup. He was released early from a Texas federal prison in June 2020 due to risk related to COVID-19.

At the time of the amendment, Birmingham's mayor was William Bell. According to reports, Bell conflicted with the city council during his tenure. Current Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin assumed office after defeating Bell in the November 2017 mayoral election. 

"One thing was the mayor ran on in his first term was changing the Mayor-Council Act to its [orinigal] form, then when he got in office, he said he changed his mind on that," Williams said.

Williams said Woodfin typically attempts to maintain good relations with the council. However, when he does conflict with the council, council members do not have enough leverage to challenge him.

"He wants to make the council happy," Williams said. "And he does that of his own free will or attempts to, but the problem is, he's not always going to be the mayor, and there are times when [the council doesn't] see eye-to-eye with this mayor." 

"It's usually about mundane issues that the public hears about," he continued. "Public works, infrastructure, recycling pickup, trash pickup - the most day-to-day issues - police service, fire service … the council doesn't always agree with the mayor, and so we're left not having the authority to change that. And the only person who loses at the end of the day is every single person who lives and works and drives through the city of Birmingham."

Williams said the mayor's authority from the 2016 law is why Woodfin's budgets nearly always pass unchallenged.

"All we have is the mayor's budget," Williams explained. "We can vote it up and down. But for us to propose a change under the revised Mayor-Council Act, the mayor has to agree to it in writing before we propose it. It's whatever he wants, and the budget is whatever he gets. If the mayor [doesn't] want it, he ain't going to agree to it in writing, right?"

Williams insisted this keeps the council from addressing the city's violent crime problem. 

Though several Birmigham-area suburbs have extremely low crime, Birmingham has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country. Last year, Birmingham experienced 144 homicides. As of the end of May this year, Birmingham has experienced at least 46.

On top of this, Birmingham Police Department (BPD) is stationed in the center of over 30 municipalities in the Birmingham area. It must compete not only with other police departments and sheriff's offices but also with other professions. Law enforcement faces an unprecedented national staffing shortage, with fewer people seeking to become police officers.

As the Birmingham City Council approaches a vote on Woodfin's $545 million city budget for fiscal year (FY) 2024, Williams said he and his fellow council members have concerns about budget details that impact the BPD's ability to become competitive employers.

"When you have a departmental budget, the majority of any departmental budget is always going to be staffing," he explained. "... With the police department, you have a certain number of slotted positions. Well, we know that because of the interest, or lack thereof, of becoming a law enforcement officer right now, we will never fill the number of slots that we have open for BPD officers."

Williams said these unfilled positions contribute to budget surplus alongside increasing revenue from taxes. But this surplus goes back to the city's General Fund, which can be used for other purposes.  

"However, it's my opinion that because of the crime problem we have in the City of Birmingham, we need to be very smart about how we allocate budgeting [for the BPD]. So just having a flat budget for [BPD] and knowing that a large percentage of that will not be filled [and end up] back in the General Fund is not genuine budgeting for the [BPD] to solve the issue that we have of being understaffed."

Williams suggested the city should have a take-home car program for police officers like other law enforcement agencies competing for employees. 

"Because of the Mayor-Council Act, I can't change that," Williams said.

Williams suggested the law also prevents council members from addressing other issues like code enforcement and road maintenance. 

"People expect to be able to touch their local elected leaders, whether it's a county commissioner or city counselor. People expect to reach out and say, 'X, Y, Z is broken. Will you work to change it?' And that happens, with me, over 100 emails a week … I'm not allowed to direct anybody, so I can't send that to public works to go fix … It has to go to the mayor, and he has sole control over it." 

1819 News contacted Woodfin's office for comment but did not receive a response.

To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email will.blakely@1819news.com or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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