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Commissioners address campaign misinformation

By Kevin Elliott


Exasperated city commissioners in Birmingham on Monday, October 25 addressed a mounting disinformation campaign being undertaken in the city commission election that they claim is spreading fear and mistrust among residents.


The discussion revolved around the city’s 2040 Master Plan project that is currently being drafted. The plan is a guideline for long-term development in the city and provides a roadmap for future land use. The plan is currently in its second draft form, with a revision and third draft to be created before being considered for final approval by the city commission. Each draft includes extensive public input.


Commissioners on Monday took time during their closing comments to address a series of campaign videos being released on social media that discuss the 2040 plan.


City commissioner Clinton Baller launched the discussion by saying, “It’s still not perfect and only in the second draft, but even so, it shouldn’t be the subject of deceptions that engender the spread of misinformation, misunderstanding, anger, fear and divisiveness, which brings me to the false and misleading information being spread online.”


Without naming specific candidates, Baller said there are several videos discussing the edges of neighborhood districts that overlap with each other, referred to in the master plan as “seams.” Baller said the videos are misleading in that they suggest or, in some instances, outright state that the master plan draft calls for dramatically increasing density of apartments and multifamily developments in seams.


“That’s false and misleading,” Baller said. “The only area where apartments and multifamily housing are suggested are where they already exist.”


Baller said the concept of “seams” refers to the basic structure of the city. Rather, he said, it’s more important to consider what the city plans to do at specific seams, which may be high, medium or low intensity housing areas.


“The real concern should be how they are zoned and what changes, if any, are proposed, and how they could result in changes in zoning,” Baller said. “With exception to those already zoned for multifamily, all are designated as low intensity, and that’s designated as single family.”


Baller noted that the initial draft of the master plan recommended increasing density in some areas, which was met by overwhelming opposition by the public and elected officials. A revised draft of the plan scaled back intensity in those areas and noted the importance of retaining unique neighborhood characteristics. Those changes were noted by the city’s planning board and consultants who drafted the plan.


Despite the revisions to the plan, at least two city council candidates have posted campaign videos suggesting the plan calls for forcing multifamily development along some of the areas. Birmingham City Commission candidates David Bloom and Andrew Haig have posted videos in which they claim the city will be rezoning seams against the overwhelming concerns of residents. Other videos beg the question of whether high-intensity zoning is appropriate, presupposing the plan and zoning areas.


Another post by the political action committee Birmingham Citizens for Responsible Government, which supports Bloom and Haig, claims the second draft “doubles down on development” calling for rezoning across the city that encroaches on adjacent homes. Political ads by the committee in a local newspaper also were criticized.


Bloom, who reposted a portion of Baller’s comments on his “Birmingham for Bloom” Facebook page the day after the meeting, didn’t address specific comments at Monday’s meeting, rather posting a brief response referring to his definition of respect as it relates to residents.


Commissioner Mark Nickita on Monday echoed Baller’s frustration.


“As an architect and urban designer and a person who designs master plans, I do find the fear mongering inappropriate disinformation, and disingenuous explanations of how our master plan is evolving to be very, very concerning,” Nickita said. “It’s directly misinforming the public —I think it’s unfortunate goals and not for the betterment of the city.”


Nickita referred to the city’s master plan as a “20,000-foot look” at the city and future land use.


“It’s not intended to tear down the city and rebuild it a different way,” he said. “If you look at the discussion of guidelines of this master plan, you can see all of the basis for what we did, which was essentially to create a master plan focused on neighborhoods. … Once you have that plan, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. They are goals and ideas that move us in a direction.”


Commissioner Stuart Sherman noted the positive qualities of elected officials he served with on commission over the past 16 years, which he said have been largely honest, open and collaborative.


“By the same token, there are characteristics that make for a bad city commissioner, such as being incapable of comprehending the responsibilities or duties of a commissioner,” Sherman said. “For example, a bad commissioner would disseminate bad information and mistruths in an attempt to scare the community into adopting their position. A bad commissioner would believe that they only represent the people who voted for them and have no interest in meeting the needs of the entire community. A bad commissioner would continually allege that commissioners who don’t agree with them have biases or are corrupt.


“A disturbing example of a bad commissioner would be one who would go door-to-door with the contents and status of the master plan, or any other official city business. Such would be an unconscionable act because it would damage the trust in this commission and actually create fear and concern among residents.”


Commissioner Therese Longe, who is serving her first term on the commission, took issue with inaccurate information and general attacks on commissioners based solely on their positions.


“I find it extraordinarily concerning and sad that somehow with the virtue of being elected, you go from being a trustworthy person who has standing in the community as a resident to someone who is not to be trusted and could be considered to work at cross purposes of the residents, merely by holding a seat,” she said. “I think that is profoundly unfair and damaging to the community.”


Birmingham Mayor Pierre Boutros said he nobody should mislead the public, particularly an elected official.


“That’s not the character of a person we want,” he said. “We hope that people come forward with who they are and be honest and humble.


“I have nothing prepared, but this is a civic duty. I want to give my children an example. I came to this country as an immigrant and I’m sitting here in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I’m well traveled, and it’s one of the best communities I’ve ever lived in. I’m raising my children here. I am humbled. This chair should humble a person more than anything else.”


Bloom and Haig are two of seven candidates seeking three open spots on the commission. The field of candidates includes Stephen Konja, Anthony Long, Elaine McLain, Katie Schafer and Lynda Schrenk.

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