Diving into City Hall

Randall Woodfin was elected mayor of Birmingham on Oct. 3,   defeating incumbent William Bell in a runoff election by an 18 percent margin.

Woodfin, 36, was born in Birmingham, graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in political science, then completed a law degree at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law. He worked in the city’s legal department, ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Birmingham Board of Education in 2009, then ran again successfully in 2013.

We interviewed Woodfin in mid-November before he took office on November 28.

We have to address crime right away and neighborhood infrastructure, and we have to be more supportive of small business.

To reduce crime, we need to police differently, we need to have police on beats where the crime is. We need a higher presence than we now have. And that means having more police where the crime is. Maybe that means more police personnel, or maybe a reconfiguration in shifts. If we can’t find more dollars around for hiring more officers, then we’ll have to use the current number in a different way.

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To be more responsive to small business, we have to run through the whole process. We need to make how the people interact with city hall more open, more efficient — whether it’s people who come in to get a license for a new business or people renewing a business license online. The permitting process is outdated. Accounting has not been timely. Response time has been horrible. This is not just anecdotal information. We did a small business survey to determine how business friendly the city was. We found that the city has not been customer service friendly.

I learned about customer service when I worked for Western Supermarket at 16 years of age 20 years ago — learned the soft skills of managing people and understanding what customer service means, regardless of how they are treating you. I will have the same expectations as mayor, of the 400 city workers who engage the public. You have to be respectful of the customer, whether they are opening a business or calling to resolve a 311 issue or calling the police department.

The first thing I will do is listening to and engaging, in turn, each of the various departments. Listening to the employees on the ground, asking “How can the mayor’s office better help out?” — a deep dive into the intangible of employee morale. Another thing that we will do is personnel assessments to establish benchmarks. And the third thing we can do is simply to take the time to say thank you to our employees for the work that they do.

I would say that there are some leadership gaps and define that with an analogy of a school and a tenure system. The teacher is not bad or any way ineffective. It’s the principal or the school administration that do not do their part. If I am in a leadership position, the biggest thing I can give teachers is to make sure that department heads have the vision and direction and hold them accountable. It’s more of a leadership issue.

Soon after I am in office, we will do a performance audit and personnel assessment. It’s not something you ever want to stop doing. But I’m unaware of any performance audit that the city has done in the last 40 years.

The days of nepotism and cronies are dead. We are here to provide services by the most qualified people. The minimum way you achieve success is to not surround yourself with family. Surround yourself with qualified people.

The biggest strength of our Birmingham City School System is its career academies, and the biggest weakness is not being attached to more employment opportunities. We have seven high schools, and six of them have career academy programs. Teaching, culinary, construction, et cetera — opportunities for children to finish high school and receive a certificate showing they are prepared to go to work. As a city, we have to connect that certificate to an opportunity in the workplace. We have to commit more to making sure that those in the private sector know more about our guaranteed job opportunities programs for students after high school. I think they would be very receptive when we talk about workforce development and training and what corporate and community responsibility is about.

It becomes the job of the city to provide early childhood education because the resources that the state provides are limited. And public and private resources on the local level also have to be involved in workforce training, and the biggest support for that should come from the mayor’s office. The direction of a city relates to a vision and plan and priorities. And the mayor’s office needs to be championing and using its bully pulpit to increase our investment in the youngest generation first.

In regard to public education, we as adults are going to have to run up our commitment level a whole lot higher. Our children attend school only six months out of the year, because, as adults, we are not committed to our children. If your children are behind and the state is only giving them 180 days, at what point do you decide to catch up by giving them more time in school? As much as I disagree with the Accountability Act that passed seven years ago, it did give local schools an opt-out clause, a creative way local schools can act differently from what the state is suggesting in limiting the school year.

I just went and talked to voters and listened to them. Instead of coming in and telling them what I wanted to do, I took the time to listen to their issues and frustrations first, and when I came back I talked to them about how we can solve some of these issues together.

The use of social media by the campaign played a heavy roll in our fundraising ability, and it played a pivotal role in story telling. If the media did not tell our story, we told it on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Just the power of the incumbent allows him to engage the media differently from an upstart. And the incumbent has his own channel of communication with the voters.

In politics the work is in the human part: working with people and being in a space in which you can help people. Those who are in politics to manipulate people are the people who end up in jail or disgrace.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama, and Cary Norton is a freelance contributor, based in Birmingham.

Interview by Chris McFadyen // Photos by Cary Norton

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