City builds mayor deck at taxpayers' expense
Things are changing at Birmingham City Hall, and not just the politics. The building itself has changed, although you might not have noticed if you didn't know where to look.
I've been going there weekly for almost seven years now, and I didn't notice the difference until someone told me where to look - up.
The city has expanded the building ever so slightly, and it did so unnoticed, the addition hidden in plain sight.
For those not familiar with City Hall's design, the third floor is recessed, with a slightly smaller footprint than the second floor. The third floor sits on top of the second floor kind of like a hat. A tar and gravel rooftop circumvents the third floor like the brim of the hat.
For years on that rooftop there had been one small, open patio with access from the mayoral offices, near the Public Information Office. On breaks, city employees could take in a few minutes of sunlight, eat lunch or smoke a cigarette there.
That patio is still there, but now there are two patios.
Unlike the old patio, the new one is covered by a small boxlike structure with two open ends. It has what appears to be an aluminum frame with a top and two sides made of translucent fiberglass.
There's a new door to the new patio, too. On the eastern side of the third floor, the city has cut a door where a window had been before. That window and that door open from the office of Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford.
If you look up, you might see him there on his new personal patio, and if you have an exceptional sense of smell, you might even nose the cigarette smoke wafting over the third-floor perch.
The city has built the mayor a personal deck with at least $12,000 in taxpayer money, and it did so with the approval of the Birmingham City Council - all so that Langford would have a nice place to smoke in the rain, and not have to walk all 80 feet down the hall to the old deck where the plebes take their breaks.
The Dec. 18, 2007, council meeting was the last before Christmas, and the councilors were giving the mayor a nice gift, whether they realized it or not.
The big issue on the agenda that day was the demolition of Boutwell Auditorium. The mayor's office had proposed razing the venue and giving the property to the Birmingham Museum of Art. The council debated the demolition for nearly an hour before delaying it and moving to the next item on the agenda.
The next resolution was to accept a $29,900 bid by Allen Contracting Company of Alpine, Ala., "for construction of City Hall Mayor's Office Deck and Third Floor Patio ADA Access."
The mayor was already angry that the media were poking around his office renovations. At the Administration Committee meeting the day before, Langford had ranted about employees leaking to the media. He had a couple of troublemakers talking to the press, he said.
"As soon as I find out who they are, they won't work here anymore," he told the councilors.
If that tirade piqued the councilors' curiosity, they hid it well. At the meeting the next day, only Councilor Roderick Royal cared enough to ask what this item was about.
"It says for construction of a City Hall Mayor's office deck," Royal said. "Does that deck already exist?"
Chief of Staff Deborah Vance deferred the question to Andre Bittas, the deputy director of Planning Engineering and Permits.
"This is the outside patio that currently exists in the mayor's office that accesses from the mayor's office areas," Bittas said. "We are trying to make some renovations to it and make it ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] accessible as well."
Royal continued with his questions: "So it is an open area on the building currently?"
Bittas said that it was.
Several councilors quibbled among themselves and at Royal, giving him grief for holding up the meeting any longer.
"That's all I wanted answered," Royal said, defensively. "I guess I've never been on the deck."
The councilors, tired and bored from the long meeting, murmured. Some sighed and some smirked at Royal's inquisitiveness.
"That's because Mayor Kincaid said we couldn't come over there," Council President Carole Smitherman joked.
Smitherman made a motion to approve the item and Councilor Maxine Parker seconded the motion. At first, none of the councilors voted, as their attention had wondered to other things, perhaps where they would eat lunch or when they could escape the building for the Christmas break. Smitherman admonished her colleagues.
"Y'all are not paying attention," she said.
Indeed they weren't. If they had read the supporting documentation, they might have realized that the answers Royal received were, at best, incomplete. Royal was asking an either/or question, which should have had a both/and answer. The agenda item should have been two separate items, as it was two separate projects.
Records obtained by Birmingham Weekly indicate that there were two components to the request for proposals. The first was to make the existing deck ADA compliant. In that respect, the mayor's office was telling the truth.
The second component was to build an entirely new deck directly adjacent to Langford's office.
The mayor's office has responded to Birmingham Weekly's public records request in part but not in full. The records indicate that Allen Contracting offered to build the mayor's private smoking deck for $12,175, the rest was for the ADA compliance. It is unclear whether that number includes the cost of cutting a new door for the new patio, or if the city did that work in-house.
Regardless, Langford's office slipped one by the council, and just like the new deck itself, this little luxury was hidden on the council agenda in plain sight. To see it, the council only had to know where to look, or care to look.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org