For a top-tier city, Birmingham has a problem that is beginning to prove costly – for businesses and residents – and has the potential to spin out of control. We’re hopeful that brakes will be put on before there are significant issues.
For years, residents, businesses, staff and lay leaders got spoiled under the iron hand of former city manager Tom Markus. For 22 years, there was little, if anything, in the city that did not bear his imprint or his attention to details. Plans and proposals did not come before city commissioners until they were thoroughly vetted; planning held to ordained standards; and the flow of information between staff and boards passed through him first. But the city, from its government to its departments, appears to not be firing on all cylinders, and that’s not in anyone’s best interest.
There are a few examples we can cite, one of which occurred at the latest city commission meeting, when city engineer Paul O’Meara presented two agenda items to commissioners – one a request for proposal for a traffic engineer, the other for a multi-modal plan to redo the intersection at Maple and Eton. Commissioners chastised him for failing to include significant details, and refused to consider them without more information. There have been incidents of planning director Jana Ecker presenting bistro proposals to commissioners of applicants that do not fit the criteria of the ordinance, which should have been washed out prior to presentation, only for the commission to point that out after sitting through lengthy presentations. In the last year, city commissioners repeatedly redesigned the Old Woodward road construction project, delaying it until next year, because commissioners said the designs were not presented to them in a form or manner they were repeatedly requesting. What appeared as micromanaging, several commissioners asserted, was ensuring the project was appropriately designed. Either way, the ultimate design and delays not only cost the city significantly, but businesses as well, who had made contingency plans.
Parking, the perennial problem, is an issue that is discussed and discussed, but seemingly not resolved, also costing businesses and residents dearly. A subject that has reared its head, and is likely to come to a roar, is the debate over first floor retail space. Commissioners and the city manager asked the planning board for a solid definition, and the planning board, disagreeing, punted it back. Vacancies cost everyone money.
Is there a lack of intuitive oversight at city hall? Commissioners require information to make educated and fully-informed decisions as they spend taxpayer dollars. It is incumbent upon every commissioner to be prepared and knowledgeable of issues, but they also rely upon city staff for necessary data.
If there are weaknesses in personnel or the system, assessments need to be determined and heart-to-heart discussions had to remedy the flaws.