Leadership change at the Birmingham-JeffCo Transit Authority reflects seismic Woodfin Effect

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Forget the mysterious booms heard over Birmingham in recent weeks. New, seismic reverberations are now being felt throughout the city.

Unlike those booms, though, these rumbles can be easily explained: city hall.

Or, more appropriately, the changes at city hall, led by the arrival this week of new mayor Randall Woodfin and his leadership team.

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One day after Woodfin took office and informed his predecessor’s department heads and myriad “administrative assistants” of their job fate–the who’s-in-who’s-out is almost as intriguing as the College Football Playoff rankings– the rumblings hit a few blocks away at the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority.

In an election that was not previously on the agenda, long-time board chair Rev. Patrick Sellers, who has served on the BJCTA since 2006, was replaced by newcomer Tameka Wren, a Birmingham attorney who was appointed to the nine-member board by the Birmingham City Council in October.

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Wren had made a motion for the election after Sellers called for usually pro-forma approval for the agenda, which only called for the election of a new vice-chair–replacing Bacarra Sanderson Maudlin, whose term expired in August.

According to the group’s by-laws, elections are to be held in September, Sellers said. So, after some back-and-forth regarding whether the board could indeed elect an entire new slate at this juncture (it could), the motion was called for a vote.

Wren was nominated by board member Martin Weinberg; Sellers nominated himself.

The voting was 7-1 in Wren’s favor.

Later, Sellers, while hoping to remain as board chair, said he was “not really” surprised by the action.

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“With the new administration,” he told me, “I knew it was going to happen.”
Birmingham attorney Ruby Davis, another new board member, was elected board vice-chair, while veteran member Weinberg, another attorney, was elected secretary.

Woodfin, a lawyer himself, appeared to approve the moves. “Three attorneys,” he said excitedly, after addressing the media at City Hall.

“How can you talk about a vibrant city without talking about a vibrant transportation system?”, he added, before mentioning the recent announcement by Nashville mayor Megan Barry, the metro region’s first female mayor, outlining a $5.2 billion mass transit plan for the city.

Woodfin offered no further details; he just smiled.

Wren, the new BJCTA chair, said she’s “honored to have the opportunity to serve in this capacity.

“With the new administration”–get used to hearing that phrase–“it’s in the best interest of the community, and especially our riders, to embrace fresh ideas, perspectives and strategies in order to continue to support the economic growth of the city.”

“Transparency”–get used to hearing that word, too–“will be the key to our success.”

Indeed, transparency and clarity have been the bane of the BJCTA’s recent existence. In an effort to avoid dragging you down the rabbit hole that has threatened to swallow BJCTA executive director Barbara Murdock in recent weeks, let me just say this:

Birmingham, one of five municipalities that contribute to the entity’s budget, owes the BJCTA $8.8 million in payments, according to Murdock.

Moreover, there’s the teeny discrepancy regarding just how much Birmingham contributes to the BJCTA’s coffers.

According to Murdoch, in May of 2016, the BJCTA–in a meeting that included Council members Steven Hoyt, Sheila Tyson and William Parker–requested the city increase its annual contribution from $10.8 million, (which it has contributed since 2013) to $15.6 million, a hike reflecting the BJCTA’s increased pension responsibilities.

Now, here’s where things get a little wonky.

Murdoch says that request was also conveyed to the mayor’s office, along with the hope that Birmingham would catch up on its late payments. But the increase was not placed in the city’s 2017-2018 budget–which has yet to be approved, of course. And the city fell further behind on its payments.

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The BJCTA is probably just one of many entities caught in the swell of the transition at city hall.

Blame some of it on inefficiencies in operation Woodfin and his new team will inevitably find once they crack the matrix–if they have not already done so–but also on the long-accepted delays in budget approvals that have seen Birmingham’s 2017-2018 budget, which was supposed to have been signed, sealed and acted upon months ago, still in approval limbo.

Rather than fight for every dollar owed to the BJCTA, however, Murdoch says she is willing to “entertain other options” with the city on a solution that benefits all parties, including apportioning some of Birmingham’s financial arrears to “in kind” contributions.

Those may include a new maintenance facility (which both the BJCTA and city need) or what are called Transportation Oriented Development projects, which means potentially creating economic development properties near transit hubs.

“It could be a win-win for both of us,” she says.

Sellers, who was appointed by Jefferson County and remains chair of the Alabama Transit Association, has no regrets regarding his tenure as board chair.

“Transit has made a multitude of progress,” he said. “We’re like a quiet mouse making great progress in community.”

Like any transition, particularly at this time of significant transition for the city, he says there could be some “bumps in road because of [the board’s new officers] being novices.

“But I’m optimistic we will still do all we can to promote and move transit forward.”

Even amid the reverberations of change.

Roy S. Johnson’s column appears in The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Press-Register and AL.com. Hit me up at [email protected] and follow me at twitter.com/roysj.

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