No need for Birmingham to be a media laughingstock

Even Vulcan is embarrassed--drawing by Adam Stermer
Even Vulcan is embarrassed–drawing by Adam Stermer

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.

You probably think I’m going to write about fights at City Hall, pricey cell phone bills, or unexpected City Council pay increases, but Birmingham politics is only the tip of the iceberg.

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:

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.”

…or this piece in Rolling Stone:  The Continual Screwing of Jefferson County, Alabama

“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.

You decide.

Let’s turn Birmingham around.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter.  There’s power in numbers. (Opt out at any time)

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).

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4 thoughts on “No need for Birmingham to be a media laughingstock”

  1. David,

    Great article and I couldn’t agree more! So, what are your ideas for implementing a more balanced city government? How does one implement an “executive branch” if the city council would have to pass the legislature?  I have a feeling they wouldn’t be so quick to vote something that takes power away from themselves.  And regional representation…love the idea.  How does Nashville do it?  

    Thanks for your newsletter.  Always enjoyable to read and enlightening.

    -Greg 

    1. Greg, Nashville conducted a county-wide vote to combine all the cities in Davidson County into one city/county. Louisville did the same thing with Jefferson County, Kentucky. Combining our Jefferson County into a county/city is one option–but there are many others. Charlotte did a functional consolidation. The County and the city remained separate, but each took responsibility for the major functions of government–one did fire–the other the police, etc. Pittsburgh created an executive branch for it’s county which resulted in a much stronger county. There are other options. We need to evaluate options
      that might work for us in Birmingham. The status quo is not working. Thanks for your comments. I look forward to hearing from you again soon.

  2. *Good grief, you REALLY want us to become a laughingstock, don’t you?  “Oh, let’s have a County Mayor!!”  Why not a city President?  A north Alabama king?  And no, if I lived outside Birmingham in one of the neighboring CITIES, that is exactly what I would say… I live in fill-in-the-blank, just outside Birmingham.  As it happens, I don’t.  I live IN Birmingham, and I am sick and tired of the suburbanites playing a guessing game whenever I say that:  “Homewood?  Vestavia?  Hoover??”  NO.  IN BIRMINGHAM.  If you want to control my city, gather up your toys and move back into it.  If not, busy yourself ruling your own little bedroom community. Oh, and county commissioners, last time I checked, are “controlled” by the people:  they are ELECTED officials. If you don’t like them, boot ’em out next election.  If you want quicker results, then LET THEM KNOW you are gonna boot them out.  

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