New policy cuts red tape but leaves neighborhood leaders red-faced
In January the Birmingham mayor’s office enacted a new policy that cuts out neighborhood input before making zoning changes. However, many neighborhood association officers did not learn that the policy was already in place until a public hearing Thursday afternoon.
Under the previous policy, the city put zoning changes before affected neighborhood associations for an advisory vote. That step in the rezoning process often added weeks, or even months, to zoning changes.
In recent weeks, city hall has been awhirl in rumors that Mayor Larry Langford would diminish the neighborhoods’ role in city government, or even that Langford would abolish the neighborhood system, altogether. While the mayor’s staff have denied the rumors, neighborhood officers were incredulous Thursday afternoon, after learning of the change in zoning policy.
About 50 residents and neighborhood officers gathered in the City Council chambers to give their opinions about the policy change, not knowing the change was already made.
Near the end of the meeting, Jones Valley Neighborhood President Leona Payne asked whether the policy had already been enacted. Bill Gilchrist, director of Planning Engineering and Permits, told her that it had. Some councilors appeared as surprised as the audience.
“This is an administrative decision that the mayor gave to his staff, and the council had nothing to do with it,” Councilor Miriam Witherspoon said to the crowd.
Several city councilors disavowed Langford’s new policy and encouraged the neighborhood leaders to petition the mayor in person during the next city council meeting.
“This council can make a recommendation, but at the end of the day, the staff is run by the mayor,” Councilor Roderick Royal said. “All it requires is for you to show up on Tuesday and tell the mayor yourself, because he works for you just like we work for you.”
Councilor Abbott told the neighborhood leaders that, while the administrative decisions are made by the mayor, the council has the legal prerogative to dictate city policy under the Mayor-Council Act.
“We are the policy making body, so if you want us to make a policy to do with this, I believe we can do it,” Abbott said.
The mayor was present at the beginning of the meeting but left shortly after it began.