I’ve agonized whether to publish this piece about our region’s propensity for humiliation.
One of my best friends warned me, “Why bring it up?…move on and forget it.”
I think we can be fairly certain, however, we are just around the corner from another embarrassment, and another, and another.
Our Birmingham region—not just the City of Birmingham—has a terrible record of public embarrassment.
We are all impacted
I’m amused when my friends in the suburbs gleefully tell me they are so glad they have nothing to do with the City of Birmingham. Whether we like it or not, we all have something to do with the City Birmingham.
Every action by Birmingham city government impacts our companies, our jobs, and our reputation.
Look at these Fox News and CNN headlines about Birmingham:
- Fox News: Brawl at City Hall: Birmingham Mayor, Councilman Come to Blows
- CNN: Mayor and City Council brawl at meeting
We are national news!
You may live in Irondale or Trussville, but the next time you’re in Chicago and someone asks you where you’re from—you’re going to say ‘Birmingham.’ No one in Chicago cares that Irondale is a separate city.
And the next time a company in Germany or Japan wants to open a new plant in the South or in Alabama—the site selection committee will have read about Birmingham’s follies.
Jefferson County is much worse
Birmingham’s political stumbles have been inconvenient–Jefferson County’s blunders have been tragic.
Jefferson County had a very public bankruptcy in 2011 that lead to a parade of county commissioners being convicted and marched off to jail.
Google ‘Jefferson County Alabama’ and you get this scathing piece from Bloomberg Business:
“The challenges facing (Jefferson) county’s finances and its sewer system won’t end with bankruptcy. Because the new bond issue pushes debt service payments into the future, rising 67 percent in 2024, the county is facing a projected $1.2 billion gap in money available to maintain the sewer system.”
“The citizens of the Birmingham, Alabama area years ago got themselves into trouble when corrupt local officials borrowed billions to pay for an elaborate new sewer system…The local pols then doubled down on their corruption and stupidity when they ran to Wall Street to refinance the County’s debt into the future, signing the citizens of JeffCo up for billions more in finance charges.”
Talk about humiliating?
It’s time to fix our local governments
Many people blame our misfortunes on our elected officials—however–the problem is not our elected officials–it’s the government structure we place around them.
If you live in the Birmingham metro-area, there’s more than an 80% chance you reside outside the Birmingham city limits–so you can’t vote and you have no leverage in Birmingham city politics. All you can do is criticize, complain, and endure the public shame.
We desperately need to create some form of regional governance so we can have control of our own destiny. Regional governance has certainly worked for many of our Southern peer cities like Nashville, Charlotte, and Louisville.
But how do we fix Jefferson County?
One of the first lessons we learned in government class in elementary school is the importance of three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial. Jefferson County does not have an executive branch of government.
Since Jefferson County has only a legislative and judicial branch, there is no balance of power—and no controls. Our county commissioners govern unchecked. That’s the obvious reason so many of our county commissioners were jailed. They could do anything they wanted and they did.
In 2009 our state legislature created a county manager for Jefferson County. This is a definite improvement—but the county manager is appointed and therefore can be fired by our county commission. So we still do not have an independent executive branch.
You wouldn’t want to have a city without a mayor, a state without a governor, or the U.S. without a president. We in Jefferson County should consider creating an executive branch with a mayor elected county-wide who could have the vision and resources to compete as a region.
We appear to have a competent county commission now–but what about the uncontrollable elected officials who may succeed them?
We can either make some changes in our governance or we can be a media laughingstock.
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David Sher is co-CEO of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).