Filling in the Blanks: Birmingham Council Fine-Tuning Process to Find Replacements for Three Councilors

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The Birmingham City Council.

Source: Cody Owens, City of Birmingham

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By Sam Prickett

With this week’s resignation of President Pro Tem Jay Roberson, the Birmingham City Council faces the unusual task of appointing three new members by the end of the year.

Roberson’s resignation takes effect Sept. 10, while Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson will resign from the council Nov. 14 to take office as the Jefferson County Commission’s newest members, having been elected earlier this year.

The council’s seven remaining members will have to agree on three replacements for their outgoing colleagues. Historically, the appointment process has been a difficult one, and this year is unlikely to be an exception.

Among issues to be decided by the council are the precise process for selection and how much outgoing council members should have to say about who is selected as their replacements. Even how long the new councilors will serve is up in the air. Generally, appointees serve until the next city election, which in this case is 2021. But if  a special city referendum being considered is called early next year, the appointees who want to continue on the council will be running in just a few months.

“It’s going to be interesting,” said Council President Valerie Abbott. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been through this.”

Appointment History

In the past decade, the council has had to fill several vacant seats by appointment, but its attempts have rarely gone smoothly — and, in one case, was completely unsuccessful.

When William Bell left the council to join the County Commission in 2008, Johnathan Austin was appointed as his replacement,  though the council was criticized for not properly vetting him after a misdemeanor drug conviction and a domestic violence allegation came to light. Austin later was elected to the council outright, and he served as City Council president until losing his bid for re-election last year.

Then, in 2009, District 7 Councilor Miriam Witherspoon suddenly died, leaving her seat open. The council was unable to agree on a replacement, but an election held later that year resulted in Roberson’s taking the seat. He’s since become the longest-serving councilor from District 7, having secured re-election twice.

Tyson herself first joined the council via appointment after Carole Smitherman vacated the seat in January 2013 in favor of a judgeship on the Jefferson County Circuit Court. The council found itself deadlocked while attempting to select her replacement. The field had been narrowed to three candidates by April, but Tyson did not receive a majority of the votes until September, following months of contentious debate.

The appointment of current District 4 Councilor William Parker was the least contentious; he replaced his mother, Maxine Parker, who died shortly after beginning her third term on the council.

“Because Parker and his mother had worked hand in hand on things in that district, it was kind of a no-brainer to appoint him since he was her right-hand man anyhow,” Abbott said. Parker was re-elected to the council last year and is currently serving his first full term.

The Process

Legally, the council is able to fill vacant seats at the next regular meeting following the councilors’ departure, or at any subsequent meeting. That means that Roberson’s replacement technically could be appointed Sept. 11, though, with a controversial public hearing already scheduled for that day, that may be unlikely. Scales and Tyson’s replacements, meanwhile, can be appointed as early as Nov. 20’s council meeting.

Abbott has not yet established a schedule for finding Roberson’s replacement — she was “still processing” his decision during Thursday’s press conference — but she plans to begin the search for Scales’ and Tyson’s replacements three or four weeks before they leave office.

“We’ll ask for resumés and letters from citizens in district 1 and 6, and we’ll collect those up while we’re waiting for (Scales and Tyson) to leave,” she said in an interview last week. “As soon as they’re gone, we’ll start interviewing people.”

The interview process, Abbott said, will largely depend on the number of applicants.

“We may pick and choose who we’re going to interview because, clearly, if 47 people apply, council members are part-time workers and we won’t have time,” she said. “But if 10 people apply, we’ll probably talk to everybody. We just don’t know who’s going to apply under what circumstances.”

Abbott said she expects the interviews to be public, pending an objection from the city’s law department.

“Usually we just sit down in a conference room, invite (the applicants) in, ask them questions and give them a minute to talk about what they think is important, and then we go on to the next person,” she said. “I think the council is going to have to put together a list of questions to make sure that we ask everyone pretty much the same things.”

There will be no public input component to this process, Abbott said, beyond the initial submission of applications. “That’s what elections are for,” she said. “Certainly we’re going to hear from all (the candidates’) friends and relatives via email and texts and tweets and maybe even snail mail, but the fact of the matter is, the council will make a decision based on what they think is best, and the voters will make their decision later.”

After that, nominees will be put to a vote during a regular council meeting, and any candidate who receives a majority of the votes will become the new councilor. Scales and Tyson likely will participate in the process of finding Roberson’s replacement, and, provided that replacement is selected in a timely manner, he or she would take part in selecting Scales’ and Tyson’s replacement.

As it stands, those appointees would hold the office until the 2021 elections — though they may have to stand for election earlier. Abbott said that the mayor’s office is mulling a special election in March or April 2019 “for some taxes that have to be renewed.”

According to the Mayor-Council Act, which stipulates that appointees will hold their office until “the next election of any kind in which the voters of the city to which this Act applies are qualified electors,” that election legally would have to include the council seats.

Representatives from Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office refused to confirm or deny plans for such an election, saying it was “still under review.”

The Ideal Candidate

The legal criteria for who can serve as a city councilor are fairly loose. They must be at least 21 years of age and cannot hold another public office, except that of notary public or member of the national Guard or naval or military reserve. The rest is up to the council’s discretion.

Abbott said that, in her opinion, an ideal applicant would be someone “who (is) truly interested in service … who wants to serve the people of that district … people who are there to serve the citizens, and also people who are team players and who will work to get along with their fellow councilmen.”

“It’s not a high bar,” she added. “I’m not looking for Albert Einstein. I’m looking for someone who truly has a heart for the people in those districts and who will work cooperatively with the rest of the council and the mayor.”

At his press conference Thursday, Roberson did not offer recommendations for his replacement. “There will be some collaboration with the leadership, Madam President Abbott and my colleagues and Mayor Woodfin, on identifying those ‘five-star athletes’ that will now be future council members for the city of Birmingham,” he said.

Woodfin said he would defer to the council’s decision. “The council will have full discretion in their appointment, and I will support the council as a body,” he said. “That’s my input.”

Of course, some of the outgoing councilors have their own ideas for who should replace them. “(Scales and Tyson) both want to be involved, and of course Scales wants to select the person who’s going to replace her,” Abbott said. “(But) I don’t know any council members who have any interest in her being a part of anything regarding her replacement.”

Scales said she has not yet shared her choice for her replacement with her fellow councilors, though she said she has someone in mind.

“I haven’t told any of these folks who to vote for,” she said. Instead, she said, she’s more concerned with the process being fair, and she suggested that Abbott begin the search for candidates earlier, so that the council can make its appointment right away on Nov. 20.

Tyson did not respond to an email requesting comment for this article.

“I told both Tyson and Scales, ‘We’re happy to hear your opinions, we’re just not interested in you participating in the process because you’re history,’” Abbott said. “‘We’ve got to find somebody we can deal with. You’re not going to be here anymore.’”

In any case, Abbott said she doesn’t expect the process to be a contentious one. “We don’t seem to have all that consternation,” she says of the members of the council who will be able to vote on the replacements. “We just need to find people who are willing to work together and who have the best interests of their district at heart. And then when it comes time to run, the citizens will decide whether that person did a good job or not.”

“And that person might not even run after being on the council for a few months,” she added, laughing. “They may say, ‘Whoa, what was I thinking?”

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