“This is a great day for democracy! God bless America!”
If ever such a sentiment was expressed in the course of a meeting of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority board, there is no historical record of it that I am able to locate readily. I don’t feel that I am edging too far out on a limb, then, to state here that it probably happened for the first time on Monday afternoon, Jan. 5, 2015.
This small bit of history was made by John Wright, a retired public and community relations professional who, as he informed those assembled, turned 87 years old on Christmas Day. Wright became a regular MAX rider when he stopped driving his car in 2013, and to say that he is unabashedly passionate advocate for mass transit in the Birmingham region is an understatement on the order of observing that the sun is hot, or that Mayor Bell has a decent wardrobe.
It would be comparably difficult to overstate the atmosphere of joyousness in which Wright’s comments, and those of three other members of the public who spoke at the meeting, were made. There was a standing-room crowd of at least 75 people, spilling out the open double door and back into the reception area of the MAX offices. That estimate doesn’t count the eight board members or various executive staff and contractors present, but most definitely does include an impressive number of employees from MAX’s field operations — taking personal time, in the words of one, “to support our executive director.”
To be in that room was thrilling. It was as genuinely dramatic and deeply meaningful a moment of civic unity — spontaneous and heartfelt and uplifting — as I have experienced.
The stage for that beautiful moment was set by events and circumstances I wrote about in this space last week. Among other things, that column suggested that a self-inflicted “mess” — my word — was approaching the door of the BJCTA at collision speed. The upshot was that undue involvement in the day-to-day operations of MAX by board president Johnnye Lassiter and Deborah Walker, who is one of two attorneys under contract to provide legal counsel to the board, was compromising the transit system’s relationships with municipalities that use its services — and, more immediately concerning, putting highly regarded MAX executive director Ann August in an untenable position.
In my column, published on Dec. 30, BJCTA board member Adam Snyder said that Monday’s special called meeting was “probably a do-or-die” situation. At the time, Snyder feared that the Jan. 5 meeting would end with August being left with no option but to resign her position — an outcome he said would be “disastrous” for the bus system.
“There is no salvaging transit if we lose Ann,” Snyder said. If the meeting came down to a board vote on whether to terminate August’s contract, he added, “I don’t think we’d have the votes to [keep her].”
Even as Snyder made those comments, August was planning to tender her resignation to the board via email on Friday, Jan. 2. But I spoke to her that morning, and she told me that she now planned to wait until after the meeting on Monday to make a decision about her future. She had spoken with Snyder and other members of the board to tell them of her intentions, and they persuaded her to hold off. A hectic weekend followed.
Ultimately, the board did take a vote at the meeting on Monday. They voted, 6-2 — board member Frank Topping was absent — to remove Lassiter as chair and replace her with Patrick Sellers, the Jefferson County Commission appointee to the nine-member body. This move was greeted by the general euphoria I have described above.
Weld reporter Cody Owens’ account of the Jan. 5 meeting may be found here. In this column, I want to begin the process of turning attention to the question of what happens next.
On the one hand, this moment of euphoria — this undergirding of the legacy of Birmingham as a place where ordinary people can come together and make things happen — may pass into that region of memory reserved for high-minded aspirations that go unfulfilled. That certainly seems to be the intent of the deposed Lassiter, who minutes after the end of Monday’s meeting said that “a lot of lies” had been told regarding her usurping of August’s executive authority, but that she was not inclined to argue about it in the meeting.
“When people’s minds are made up, I don’t try to change them,” Lassiter said. “But there are consequences to every decision that is made, and there is going to be some consequences to this decision. Just watch it.”
Asked to elaborate, Lassiter would not. “Just know that there will be consequences,” she repeated.
What could that mean? There is reason to speculate that it might mean that Lassiter, who has represented Bessemer on the BJCTA board since 1999, will use her considerable political influence to hold MAX hostage over that city’s transit funding. Such a move would be in baleful keeping with the transit authority’s history as a political football, with the notion of actually serving the needs of its ridership so far down on the agenda as to be a perennial non-starter.
On the other hand, perhaps Lassiter was only caught up in the heat of the moment, reasserting herself in the aftermath of a sequence of events — i.e., a roomful of people fired up about public transportation — that she didn’t see coming until it was too late. Perhaps the continued improvement and enhancement of public transportation in Birmingham is not just another windmill to be tilted at.
I know this: For every citizen of the Birmingham region, public transportation is the most critical and all-encompassing issue of our time. It is the point of confluence — and potential resolution — of every deep-rooted issue that has held Birmingham back, and will keep it from ever being great.
And I know this: In two years under Ann August, the MAX system has made steady incremental improvements. On the boards are plans to further ramp up the quality and quantity of bus service, particularly to low-income neighborhoods whose residents would benefit most from the access public transportation offers to education and employment opportunities, commercial and recreational activities, and healthcare and social services.
Additional, more dramatic improvements will come only with the emergence of strong public and private leadership with a vision for transit as the foundation of a healthy and prosperous community. Perhaps Jan. 5, 2015, will go down in history as the day that started — and in the meantime, serve to remind us that the work has just begun.