Regional Civics

This page is a work-in-progress.

If you care about civics and how well municipalities run, this region can be somewhat frustrating.  It’s not due to malice; rather, it’s due to process complexity, differences between the individual municipalities and lack of well-written documentation. The inbound newcomer rate is low and the various cities have not created easy orientation pathways to welcome foreigners and others not from the state. If you can get such information from your realtor or relocation specialist, do so! If setting up a business, work with another local business person or consultant to ensure you don’t miss any steps. If you are arriving by more informal means, you’re going to need a good friend who knows how things work locally.

Reporting from the various city halls is practically non-existent due to staff cuts at the local newspapers – and the sheer number of city halls.

Enough whining. Here are a few things that I’ve found useful.

State of Alabama 211 Call Center. For help finding social services and agencies delivering them within your municipality or region. Unlike similar services elsewhere, this serves the entire state, but has listings specific to each region.

Aunt Bertha. Aunt Bertha, launched in 2010, is a national U.S. social services search site. You type in your zip code, and it returns a list of social services available near your location. It started as a Code for America project and is possible because of the implementation of Open Data standards. It gathers its information from national, state and regional social service listings and websites.

 

City of Birmingham:

City 311 Call Center. 7 am – 5 pm, Monday – Friday. Central directory to, and request for, city services.

The City of Birmingham website has gone through two design iterations in the past six years that have improved usefulness and ease of navigation. That being said, once you start to deal with individual department services, instructions can be confusing. You are going to have to pick up the phone and make that call when you are using a process or service for the first time. (learning to navigate city fire inspection and business license services was… interesting). All the city staff have been very helpful – they just aren’t used to dealing with complete noobs. Make a point of asking for explanations when you don’t understand something.

Rumour control has it that much of the city’s reluctance to adopt automation of city services and payment systems has to do with city leadership, lead staff and department heads who don’t understand (and who are reluctant to learn) how it can be used effectively. I don’t know accurate that assessment is – but I do know that the effective use of web tools lags what I know and experience in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal (in Canada), Bristol, (UK), Atlanta, Nashville and Cincinnati (US). If you are living in the city – rattle that chain regularly with your city councilor – please. It’s really affecting the speed, efficiency and effectiveness of city services – and the city can really, really use the savings elsewhere (that small issue of derelict property clean-up).

There is a city comprehensive plan – and further development work is underway to revitalize older neighborhoods to the west and north of downtown. .

If you are living in the city, attend your local neighborhood association meetings. Really. Just.Do.It. 

 

The Google map linked to above does not include the amoeba arms that extend northwest and down to the southeast (if you are in the southeast arm, you are in the Overton neighborhood).

Long time resident Scotty Colson told me via the I Believe in Birmingham Facebook group that “Neighborhood association boundaries were created in the 70’s when citizen participation was part of Federal Revenue sharing program. Boundaries have been very stable even though population shifts and demographic/land use changes have been significant. Unlike most cities who dropped citizen participation with the end of Federal funding Birmingham kept it. The neighborhood associations became integral to politics, planning and culture. In the 70’s race was a major deciding factor, not segregation. At that time, neighborhood associations often were used to reflect known existing neighborhoods, but also to create white and black neighborhoods.” The Bhamwiki has a detailed history.

The neighborhood associations are like Canadian or British ratepayer associations (except they don’t back local political candidates directly), but with more decision-making power. This is where you’ll hear (and can help make decisions!) about what is happening in your part of the city. Lighting, garbage collection, local improvements. Park clean-ups. This is action central. The City of Birmingham maintains a list of association presidents and vice-presidents with contact information on their website.

Currently, the neighborhood association system isn’t working as well as it could. Fifteen years ago, residents would receive mailed postcard notification of upcoming meetings. This was phased out ten years ago, with the expectation that communications would move to email. However, many neighborhood association executives are elderly, and don’t use email for most of their communications. In many neighborhoods, community attendance at meetings has dwindled. I haven’t been to a meeting for my area, although I intend to get to one next month. Some of the neighborhood associations have set up websites and are building email lists. The City Center Neighborhood Association has an excellent site.

Bessemer:

Bessemer has been through some rough times with the closure of various mines and smelting facilities over the past thirty years.

Brighton:

Former Woodward Iron company town. When Woodward Iron closed in the mid-1970s, the town’s fortunes declined.

Fairfield:

Fairfield  was hammered in 2015 and 2016 with the closure of the U.S. Steel works (1,000 workers laid off) and then the closure of the community’s Walmart. The city has lost a major part of it’s tax base. Merger talks are starting with Birmingham.

Homewood:

  • City of Homewood website
  • The Homewood at Large blog. maintained by Liz Ellaby, does it’s best, with the help of volunteers, to report on Homewood municipal affairs. If you want to know about how the city’s money is being spent and decisions made, this the blog to read.
  • The neighborhood^^city^^ weekly, the Homewood Star.

Homewood is split into two distinct clusters, Homewood proper, and West Homewood. Homewood proper is where most of the “nice” people (with money, 87% caucasian) live. West Homewood is newer (1970s) and the real estate is somewhat cheaper — and doesn’t have quite as nice a reputation. However, it’s where you’ll find the good Mexican and Chinese restaurants and where the Chinatown Bus leaves every day at 3 pm.

Hoover:

Irondale:

Mountain Brook:

Vestavia Hills:

 

North Jefferson County:

Brookside:

Corner:

Corner is an unincorporated community located in Jefferson County at the intersection of Jefferson, Walker, and Blount Counties.

Fultondale:

Pinson:

 

Morris:

Town of approximately 2,000, located north of Gardendale. Doesn’t have an easily found website. Phone – (205) 647-0597

Trafford:

Trafford is a dot of a community just east of Warrior. About 700 people live there.

  • Community doesn’t have a website. Mayor’s Office – (205) 647-0520
  • Local news coverage provided by the North Jefferson News.

Warrior:

The City of Warrior was founded in 1872 on a spur of the L&N Railroad as a coal-mining community associated with the Warrior coal fields.

 

In the US, all cities and public boards and agencies are required to make official meeting minutes available. You can find them at the various city websites. Some are machine readable, others are not. (That’s what happens when you post a scanned document with signatures directly). Some, but not all regional city halls are using an RSS feed or email alert system to alert interested residents as to when new minutes are available.

If you know of other resources and blogs which provide information regarding “how things are done”, please comment on this page or drop me a via the contact form.

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