By Jim Byard, Jr.
Stay safe and stay smart. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is how I’ve ended most of my email correspondence. However, it now strikes me that “stay smart” might also be good advice for my beloved Alabama.
It is unwise and unproductive to expend our energy wishing for a return to normal. Rather, we must work progressively, stay smart and make something new. As a former mayor and former Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) director, I know firsthand that top down approaches to governing are rarely successful. While our State House galleries are often occupied by lobbyists, most City Council Chambers are filled with ordinary citizens, looking to participate at the most basic level of government. Local leaders must focus on the business of governing. Ensuring that potholes are filled, garbage is collected, parks are clean and accessible, and police and fire departments are fully funded and well-staffed are just a small portion of the many day-to-day local government operations necessary for achieving community quality of life.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The government closest to the people serves the people best.” Local government depends on active citizens and local governments are better positioned to tackle particular issues with local solutions. Broad across-the-board laws don’t account for a messy world; and that is precisely where we find ourselves today: in a messy world. Which is why we must stay smart.
I believe we can do better. Ray Mabus, former Governor of our neighboring state of Mississippi, and past Secretary of the Navy once said that people become victims of the “tyranny of low expectations” meaning oftentimes people settle for the status quo and accept that we are already at our best. Folks, our challenge today is to make tough decisions, raise expectations and take on the messy world – all while staying smart.
Right now, in Alabama, cities large and small are grappling with their citizens demanding conversation and, in most cases, action on the fate of Confederate monuments. In 2017 the Alabama Legislature passed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act requiring local governments to obtain state permission before moving historically significant buildings or monuments that are 40 years old or older. The law created the 11-member Committee on Alabama Monument Protection. Crucial conversations and oftentimes difficult discussions regarding these monuments must be had; and the place for these conversations are in local city halls across our State — between the citizens most affected and those chosen locally to lead. As with most issues, one size, top-down solutions are not the answer.
Local leaders have a mandate to be fair. They also live with those they represent. Their constituents interact with them at church, through service organizations, at local stores, community events and sporting activities. Local leaders are not like the appointed 11-member committee that doesn’t live next door and isn’t directly affected by decisions they make. Local citizens expect, and should demand, that their local leaders have these conversations, weigh the merits of the debate and then make thoughtful decisions as they decide on the proper display of controversial monuments.
Now is the time to stay smart, to do better, to be better and for Alabama to lead. In 1955, then Alabama League of Municipalities’ Executive Director Ed Reid wrote: “Municipal Government is a training ground in democracy and statesmanship. Municipal government is also the level at which the citizen can most directly participate in the democratic process.” Sixty-five years later, this sentence still rings true. The proper setting for public discourse and discussion is in city halls and county court houses across Alabama. Local debate, local leadership, and local decision making will result in solutions that make sense for the citizens most affected.
Stay safe and stay smart, Alabama.
Jim Byard, Jr. spent almost 20 years at Prattville City Hall – first as a City Councilor, then as City Council President followed by 12 years as Mayor along with a term as President of the Alabama League of Municipalities. He served as Director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), a cabinet level position, from 2011 until 2017. He is now an economic and community development consultant working with municipalities, counties, chambers of commerce and industry throughout Alabama and the Southeast region. He can be reached by email at [email protected].