You wouldn’t expect to find much divergent opinion on the council of a close-knit bedroom community like Homewood. And you’d be right not to. Out of an estimated 550 separate votes cast in 2014, only 29 of them weren’t unanimous, and of those, eight were either inconsequential abstentions or procedural maneuvers to delay immediate passage of ordinances. Another 13 splits were the “lone dissents” of members, usually to lodge a personal protest rather than affect a vote’s outcome.
Which leaves only eight votes — 1%–that offer a glimpse into what issues are important enough for council members to break ranks with the majority.
Bonuses a bone of contention
Following the 6-3 March vote to close down a West Homewood hotel, the greatest split came in September when the council voted 6-5 over whether to award employees a one-time bonus or a more permanent form of pay raise. The vote exposed the council’s deepest divide of the year and followed a final budget meeting where members deliberated under the eye of employees wanting permanent raises and a mayor who argued forcefully against them.
Homewood, with a staggering 504 employees, already faces considerable personnel costs and pension liabilities. Ultimately, the majority heeded mayoral warnings and approved only the cost-saving bonus, dropping for the first time in memory a longevity increase that the state retirement system has used to calculate future pensions.
Voting in the minority, (favoring more permanent raises, despite costs), were council members Micheal Hallman, Fred Hawkins, Vance Moody, Peter Wright, and Bruce Limbaugh.
But not transit,
Public transportion did not receive the same scrutiny–at first.
The same night the council split over bonuses, it blithely cut the city’s $263,000 transit funding in half during a routine 10-1 vote (Fred Hawkins dissenting). The decision affecting regular and special needs service for some 450 people would eventually consume months of meeting time and high-handed exchanges with transit authorities.
By December, the committee was looking at bus service primarily as a gesture of its public charity, obtaining the names of Homewood paratransit users and calling on some to assess their need: (Hello, Mrs. Jones? Do you really need to take a bus to the doctor every week? I didn’t think so.)
Stop-gap funding was approved to continue uninterrupted service through through Jan. 31.
Three signs of controversy
In Homewood, it is the council–not the BZA–that decides zoning adjustments for commercial signage, driveways and fences. In its case-by-case deliberations, the council is sometimes led into a mix of politics and design, with inconsistent results:
On Oct. 27, the council split 5-4 to deny this extra building sign for an MRI tenant on U.S. 31. Voting no, i.e., to allow the sign, were Michael Hallman, Richard Laws, Peter Wright, and Bruce Limbaugh.
In November, the council heaped praise on representatives of Tire Engineers for producing this modified Green Springs Highway pole sign design to the council’s liking. Not so swept away was Ward 3 representative Walter Jones, who “implored” colleagues to vote no, which he did along with ward-mate Patrick McClusky.
In the same November meeting, the council voted 9-2 to deny a more visible sign in the West Homewood industrial corridor for the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. Voting in the minority were Wright and Hawkins, who said GBHS had complied with all committee requests and instructions. (The Humane Society facility is in Birmingham city limits, with an off-premise directional sign on Homewood’s West Oxmoor Road.)
CHARTS — vote by vote
The following charts summarize the year’s split votes worth noting, by ward and member (excluding a rash of abstentions for which Mr. Hallman has become famous). Each chart lists the council member and the issues for which he or she was voting against the tide. (Watch for double negatives. Voting against a denial is a vote in the affirmative.)
Absences are noted in cases where the final tally doesn’t add to the full 11 members of the council.
Michael Hallman takes the prize for most minority votes in 2014.
Ward 2 member Fred Hawkins comes in second for the number of dissenting votes cast.
Ward 4’s Jennifer Champ Wallis moved mid-year and was replaced by Barry Smith.
Peter Wright cast a few surprising no votes this year.
Council president Bruce Limbaugh cast two dissenting votes this year.