By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A state lawmaker wants to increase penalties for cities that violate the state’s law protecting Confederate monuments, but others are concerned about creating financial burdens for smaller cities and the lack of an appeal process.
Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, said he introduced the bill in order to preserve the state’s history.
“How can you tell the complete story by taking away, by whitewashing, by doing away with something, that really you can learn something from it,” Allen said.
Under current law, cities could be fined $25,000 total for violating the 2017 Alabama Memorial Preservation Act. Under Allen’s Senate Bill 127, cities could be fined $10,000 per day for violations with no limit on the number of fines.
Allen said during the committee meeting on Tuesday that the Alabama Supreme Court recommended that “we do something different” in regards to the fines. Allen did not explain the reason for the increase in fines.
Almost as soon it became law in 2017, Birmingham city officials challenged the law in court and obscured a Confederate monument in a downtown park. The Alabama Attorney General’s office sued the city in response and, last year, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that Birmingham had violated the law. In January, the city was ordered to pay $25,000.
During the public hearing on the bill in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Earl Hilliard Jr, the senior director of governmental affairs for the City of Birmingham, spoke out against the bill and said it doesn’t take into account the cultural concerns, like a Confederate monument, can bring to a city that is majority African-American.
“You’re telling them that ‘I know you find this offensive, I know this is an anachronism to all of the things you stand for, and it says that you shouldn’t be here that you shouldn’t have the right to do these things, but we have to keep it there,'” Hilliard said.
The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017, which was also sponsored by Allen, says “no architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street, or monument which is located on public property and has been so situated for 40 or more years may be relocated, removed, altered, renamed or otherwise disturbed.”
Hilliard also said the bill takes away municipalities’ rights of what they allow in their public spaces.
“The people of Birmingham want to be able to control what’s in their public park and what it represents,” Hilliard said.
The discussion went beyond Birmingham to other cities across the state that could be affected. Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, said the bill imposes too harsh of fines to smaller cities not like Birmingham who can’t take on that kind of financial burden.
“I’m opposed to this bill because it does put a penalty on cities, it is punitive, and it doesn’t require or really create any recourse for them to do anything even if they’re trying to do the right thing,” Coleman-Madison said.
Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, said he thinks there should be a process in place for cities who want to remove or relocate monuments.
“I do think that there should be a way for people that find their particular history offensive and it’s in a majority of a particular area, they should be able to move it and be able to have an option,” Gudger said.
Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, is worried that the bill would have unintended consequences by penalizing a city that simply wants to remove run-down historic buildings or memorial high schools.
“Do we have to go and petition somebody when a decision has been made that the building is functionally obsolete?” Givhan said . “It’s not like we’re talking about the Lincoln Memorial here on some of these things.”
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he understands the bill is trying to put more pressure on cities to obey the law but doesn’t want the fine amount to get out of hand.
“How do we apply enough pressure to make people do the right thing but not be unreasonable,” Marsh said.
A vote on the bill was postponed by the chairman of the committee, Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Elba, so lawmakers could further discuss their concerns over the bill.
Allen said after the meeting that he doesn’t want to change the $10,000 a-day fine in the bill but would talk to lawmakers about their concerns.
“I think certainly we’re going to have a little dialogue and make sure they understand the intent of the bill,” Allen said.