August 22, 2000
The following interview with Councilwoman from Dictrict 6, Bess Rich, was conducted by email.
Harbinger: Some people in the Mobile community label you "anti-progress" because of your votes on the City Council, in which you cast the only dissenting vote on a number of issues. What is your definition of "progress"?
Rich: I have been and will continue to be an enthusiastic supporter of sustainable projects and programs that improve the social, physical, and economic well being of Mobile’s community.
Before being elected to office, in 1993 and again in 1997, I pledged to the electorate that I would not raise taxes or borrow money for non-basic city service projects without a vote of the people. It is my feeling that large capital non-basic city service community projects affirmed by a referendum are apt to be more successful and thus more sustainable. In other words, the public "buys into" or supports a project if they personally affirm it by a majority vote. Major projects formulated by a handful of politicians might not be the way the community wants to direct their resources. Many progressive cities in the U.S. decide large non-basic service capital projects by referendum. When Mike Dow ran for Mayor of Mobile in 1989 he advocated a public vote on the now Outlaw Mobile Convention Center. Despite this, Mayor Dow has not championed any referendum projects since he took office.
Progress can occur spontaneously without direct financial government support. Developers and businesses will invest in Mobile if their needs are met and they see a potential for growth and profit. Sound city infrastructure, good air/water quality, outstanding recreation facilities within our public parks, and an educated work force are basic to attract private investment into our city. Government needs to focus on basic city services, including paying civil servants a competitive salary, to attract this economic growth and improve our quality of life.
Am I "anti-progress" because I am the lone vote against non-basic city service capital projects which extends our city’s debt service? No. I have a different philosophy on how to approach large capital projects and how to stimulate progress. I believe the citizens of this community through referendum, not a handful of politicians, know what is best for our city. Progress and issues are sustained by a grass roots involvement of diverse community elements. Strong basic city services, stable and clean neighborhoods, and a solid education system are essential ingredients in stimulating growth and progress in our city.
Harbinger: Is there an agreed-upon set of criteria that the City Council members use in making deliberations about the projects that the City Council will fund? If there is one, what are some of the criteria? If not, does the City Council need one?
Rich: In theory, Mobile’s present strong council and weak mayor form of government is designed to identify community issues and funding needs. It is my feeling that strong council districts equate to a strong, progressive Mobile. The council representatives are in a unique position to reach out to their constituents in their districts and advocate for them. The council members communicate these capital needs to the mayor. It is the mayor who incorporates these district needs along with his administrative expenses into a proposed annual budget. Ultimately, it is the council who adopts the budget and directs city spending. It is the role of the mayor to administer the budget adopted by the council.
The present budget process is not reflective of this. The initial input to the budget by the council members seems not equal or at the best limited. The budget deliberations are reserved to a regular council meeting or two prior to its adoption. Over the last three budget cycles the mayor has not formally or informally invited me to participate in budget preparations. Meetings I have attended with the mayor were informational only. In addition, over the last three years, there have been no council budget committee meetings to deliberate and prioritize needs in the districts. The present process gives the impression that politics and backroom deliberations made by a few are more influential than public committee deliberations.
How should it be done? The mayor should meet with each individual council representative to access his or her district needs before formulating the budget. An effort should be made by the mayor to incorporate district needs on an equal basis. Once the mayor submits the budget, the council should deliberate on specifics in a finance committee meeting and then call a public hearing to solicit ideas from the community. Another finance committee meeting should be called to discuss suggestions from the community. Finally, a vote can be made by the council to adopt the annual budget.
This process allows the Mayor of Mobile to address administrative and capital needs, allows the council to advocate for their district needs, and allows for public debate on capital spending. There can never be too much dialogue or too many people involved in this process.
Harbinger: Envision Mobile-Baldwin has chosen "land urbanization per capita" as one Progress Indicator for the environment and said the strategy is to "recognize the importance of our natural environment to our quality of life and protect it" and to "develop and maintain green areas in our parks and throughout the community." According to the Progress Indicators report that Envision Mobile-Baldwin released earlier this year, "the total size of urbanized lands increased from 1975 to 1997...even after taking into account increases in the size of the population.... For every new person added to the population in Mobile County, 1.4 acres were urbanized." Does the City Council use "land urbanization per capita" as a criterion in making decisions about expansion projects in the city? Did the City Planning Commission of which you were a commission member last year, use "land urbanization per capita" as a criterion in recommending expansion projects in the city?
Rich: Just the opposite is happening in our city. It seems that city park/green space in our community is an open invitation for development. In District 6, Mayor Dow actively pursued placing a professional 10,000-seat soccer complex and later a 60,000 square foot west regional library building in Cottage Hill Park. There was an active effort by developers to place a major grocery store in Sage Park. Only 50% of our public parks are deeded as city parks. This means the other 50% can be developed commercially if cleared by the council. Presently, there is no active effort by the present city administration to acquire new green space in the city. There is no policy to require new residential developments to set aside green space. Only 12% of commercial development are required to be landscaped (using three-inch diameter trees).
In regard to "land urbanization per capita" and environmental concerns as a criterion for the City of Mobile or its planning commission to use in recommending or limiting expansion projects, the answer is no. Unfortunately, economics and the desire to accomplish projects are a more compelling motive for project approvals. The recent approval and directing of millions of public dollars and tax abatements to IPSCO, a "smoke stack" industry, is an example of economics over good planning. The city’s recent financial support and approval for the development of Wal-Mart had no limits placed on it. In fact the city agreed to pay for the realignment of a city street and covering of a drainage easement on private property so more parking spaces could be secured by Wal-Mart. None of these parking spaces were required to be environmentally friendly. It has been suggested this Wal-Mart development could cause financial harm to established business in the area. A very shortsighted approach to community planning.
Harbinger: Does the City Council use any of the recommendations from Envision Mobile-Baldwin in its deliberations? Did the City Planning Commission of which you were a commission member last year use any of the recommendations from Envision Mobile-Baldwin in its deliberations?
Rich: The City of Mobile had a golden opportunity to incorporate one of ENVISIONS Mobile-Baldwin’s recommendations (Quality of Life-Environment #6: Reuse vacant stores for providing childcare, education and library spaces). The west regional library is now a $12 million plus community project that will be a new building on a vacant lot adjacent to a residential neighborhood. After a large public outcry to take it out of Cottage Hill Park, a suggestion by others and me was to use an existing vacant structure in West Mobile. This is in accordance with the tenants proposed by ENVISION Mobile-Baldwin to renovate existing vacant community buildings to stabilize neighborhoods and reduce drainage problems from new development. A number of specific vacant buildings in west Mobile were suggested but rejected by the leaders of this project, Mayor Dow, and majority of Mobile City Council members. They ignored this "bottom-up" message and gave no credence to an ENVISION Mobile-Baldwin’s position.
ENVISION Mobile-Baldwin is a wonderful document to guide our community’s strategic plan. It is an attractive plan since it represents the vision of a diverse group of volunteers from our region. Our City Council has indirectly touched on some key components of ENVISION Mobile-Baldwin. It would be beneficial to our city if we took a more organized approach to the implementation of the visions outlined in this initiative.
Harbinger: Several years have passed since you were replaced as the Council’s representative on the Planning Commission: can you speak candidly about your experiences and your thoughts about the Planning Commission?
Rich: I had very strong feelings about urban sprawl, neighborhood integrity, and long range planning as a member of the Planning Commission (1993-97, my first term in office). Despite my sincere desire to serve another term, I was not afforded this opportunity. I have continued to attend Planning Commission meetings in an effort to represent District 6 neighborhoods and businesses.
It is my contention that the Planning Commission is not representative of the community. Instead, many of these mayoral appointees (no Council appointment or approval except their own position) have direct or indirect connections to the development community. In addition, the Commission is not racially, gender, socially or economically representative of the community. Many times I have addressed this conflict of interest and poor diversity to Mayor Dow. He has made little effort to change it. We continue to see community destabilization due to poor land use planning. Frankly, the deck seems stacked in favor of pure economic gain of special interest parties instead of solid planning principles.
In general, our City’s land use ordinances dealing with development (to name a few: landscaping/tree/signs/floods and silt control/road improvements/green space or lack of parks required in developments) are weak and/or ineffectively enforced. Remember, planning law is statewide. Fairhope and Mountain Brook are required to obey the same planning law as Mobile. My point is that good planning can be obtained if the political will is present.
It is time that we start to listen to professional city planners (the present administration has no professional long-range city planners involved in zoning application reviews). I was told by the administration that these long-range planners were unfavorable to the developers or slowed down "progress." Nationwide, the absence of long range planning is most unusual.
It is indeed time to "draw the line in the sand" and demand sound city planning. It will require all our city leaders to participate in this paradigm shift. It is demanded for the stability of our neighborhoods, businesses, and ultimate quality of life.
Harbinger: In the past, you have suggested using a voter referendum to decide on issues in which the taxpayers are ultimately asked to bear the burden. Critics of "governing by referendum" say this can lead to gridlock and sometimes even result in harm to the overall well-being of the community. Can you tell us some more about your thoughts on using a voter referendum?
Rich: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify my stand on referendum issues. Although I have been perfectly clear on my indications for referendums, it has been somewhat distorted.
No, I am NOT in favor of taking every issue to the ballot box! Capital projects dealing with basic city services such as drainage projects, city service equipment, police stations, and road improvements do NOT and should NOT require a vote of the people.
Capital projects not dealing with basic city services such as baseball stadiums, fishing piers, cruise ship facilities SHOULD be affirmed by a vote of the people. These non-basic city service capital projects involve increases to our city’s debt service and may not necessarily benefit the community as a whole. I can’t buy the argument that these non- basic city service capital projects result in a positive economic return. To date we are experiencing a negative cash flow into our city coffers despite borrowing millions of dollars in the last seven years. This has resulted in shifting money from capital improvement projects such as drainage to general city operations in order to meet city payroll obligations.
Finally, I pledged to my constituents that any fees or taxes SHOULD be affirmed by referendum. We should get creative with our city service projects, stimulate revenue-enhancing incentives, and cut the fat from the budget before we even consider asking the public for more taxes and or fees.
Harbinger: Some of your critics in the Mobile community have said your political ambition to be Mayor of the City is the reason why you take some of the stands on the City Council. Care to respond?
Rich: My critics should know by now that I have been very consistent in my representation since day one. I don’t form "political coalitions" as a means to an end. I do however, make every effort to be accessible to my constituents and make them aware of the facts and listen to their input at all times. I communicate with my constituents by sponsoring district meetings and forums. I strongly advocated for the televised weekly council meetings so citizens could be made aware of their government in action.
Communication is a two way process. Leadership must strive to engage citizens by taking the time to actively seek their involvement and by validating their input in the process. The attitude and position of "I know what is best for you" is non-progressive and frankly demeaning. An informed and educated populace creates an exciting vibrant community. Democracy should be inclusive. When it is not, we should worry.
I wish to take this opportunity to express my appreciation to be the council representative from District 6. It is indeed a privilege to have been entrusted with this public service. I am a firm believer of term limits and will not, as I pledged in 1993, seek more than two terms of service as representative of District 6.
Any positions I have or will take have been strictly based on my role as a council member. No motive exists other than basing my vote on what I felt was in the best interest for the city of Mobile and their citizens. I judge each issue on its merits and try my best to make the right decision.
The office of Mayor, as chief administrator of our great city, is not a motivating factor in any of my positions on issues or laws. Should I chose to seek the office of Mayor, I will bring to that election cycle my platform on how I would serve all the residents of Mobile in delivering their city services and promoting a progressive Mobile.