Ethics board confronts commissioner Brad Host
By Lisa Brody
Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus requested an advisory opinion from the city's ethics board on Tuesday, March 7, regarding actions taken by city commissioner Brad Host for his activities spreading personal opinions on social media, flyers, and other means on the city's master plan, with the ethics board recognizing that Host had perpetuated misinformation and rogue comments outside the proper channels of communication.
Chairperson James Robb noted at the beginning of the meeting that Markus was seeking an advisory opinion from the board, which is separate from a formal complaint. “It's designed to be advisory and it's not punitive. It's educational,” he explained. He further said they will convene at another open meeting to present their final decision.
Before Markus could begin, Jordan Bolton of Clark Hill, attorney for Host, requested a dismissal of the request, “unless or until there are social media policies, this board will struggle with a decision. There is no allegation that Mr. Host held himself out as a commissioner. In what way does this diminish a commissioner?”
Robb, along with board member John Schrot, noted they did not see any similarities to a previous case against commissioner Clinton Baller, and the request was denied.
Markus began noting that he had known Brad Host for years, that they had sons who had been in the same Boy Scouts group, “I've known him as a developer in the '90s of properties at Brown and Bates. Today it would be considered 'seams.' I've known him as a landlord, as a business operator. Mr. Host is well-known has a city commissioner. Both before I returned and after I came back, he was advised not to attend planning board meetings due to case law… He, as a commissioner, certainly carries more weight than a regular citizen. He did, and turned to other forms of communications. An acting commissioner cannot act as a competing fiduciary. Public officials must be aware their words could be misread.”
Markus' primary complaint was that since at least September of 2022 through the present time in Host's public statements, mail activities and social media posts as it relates to the Birmingham 2040 comprehensive master plan (“2040 Plan”), Host has been actively “advocating that the 2040 Plan calls for rezoning which is inaccurate and untrue.”
Markus stated that besides posting YouTube videos with mistruths, which Host said he had taken down, Host has also sent letters to residents' homes as well as emails furthering misinformation.
“Once again, it is of note, Commissioner Host also does not ever state these are his personal opinions and not opinions of the commission or the city. Also, these mailings are not proper governmental channels. Once again, the proper channel is at the public commission meetings with the entire city commission. It is believed that as a result of Commissioner Host’s public agitation, that when the Planning Board was planning its agenda for its January meeting, members of the Planning Board were so concerned about people’s reactions that members requested police presence at their meeting. Also, Commissioner Host appears to be influencing and attempting to craft a product i.e. the 2040 Plan, which will ultimately be delivered to him and his colleagues on the city commission. Again, he is one of the final arbiters of the 2040 Plan, yet he is attempting to influence the plan itself before it even reaches the commission table. Can his vote now be unbiased, independent and impartial?”
Robb asked Host if he understood the reasoning why he could not attend planning board meetings or disseminate information, and he answered, “Not really.”
Robb responded, “You may be called up to make a vote on a matter before an advisory board, it could influence a board, it puts you at risk of conflict of interest as one of the final arbiters.”
“It extends to all boards and committees,” Schrot said.
Robb asked him if he understood there would have to be rezoning. Host responded that he did.
“The neighborhoods were here before the metropolis,” he claimed. “I pulled the first three videos, put two more, I held two more. What more could I have done?” Robb said there are statements in all the videos that, “are just not true. Strictly speaking, that's an inaccurate statement.”
He asked Host who took the videos, and Host said a friend who shares his viewpoint. Robb asked him why he wasn't on camera instead of him. “I want to report to the people, that's why I was elected,” Host said. “I want to be seen in the kitchens, unlike my fellow commissioners.”
As Host continued to disparage the city's downtown, stating he only represented the neighborhoods, Markus countered, noting that the downtown is also a neighborhood, with many choosing to reside downtown, including himself.
Schrot made a point that while not every citizen may have voted for him, he has a fiduciary responsibility to represent every citizen. “They want you to come to a meeting with an open mind. Your impartiality – that is what the city manager is trying to point out. It's important you understand the integrity of city government and the public trust… You're a politician. That's your third hat. You're not free to undermine the public trust. You can't say your property will be rezoned, because that may not come to pass.”
In preliminary discussion for their decision, the three member board determined that the code of ethics applies to Host, “no doubt about it,” as Robb said, who will write the opinion.
Robb stated areas of focus are his misstatements; advocacy; rogue comments; to a lesser extent, attendance of comments at other meetings, as he has stopped that behavior; and the misuse of proper city channels.
“You cannot intentionally misrepresent the facts,” Schrot noted. “This partisan strife we have in this situation, if it's not just an effort by Mr. Host to engender more information on the 2040 Plan, and that's really not part of our government ethics, then the question is, where do we draw the line?”
Board member Sophie Fierro-Share noted, “To circumvent the normal channels is dangerous. I don't believe his behavior was malicious.”