County attorneys scrambling over Bell vacancy

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) -  Replacing William Bell on the Jefferson County Commission may not be easy.

Attorneys for Jefferson County were scrambling Wednesday to figure out how the commission seat soon to be vacated by Birmingham mayor-elect William Bell will be filled. Bell plans to be sworn in next week as mayor of Birmingham after winning a special election Tuesday.

County attorneys were investigating Wednesday morning whether a law passed in 2009 by the Alabama legislature is valid. The law requires a special election be held to fill any vacancy on the county commission instead of allowing the governor to appoint.

However, attorneys said there are questions about whether the new law was pre-cleared by the U.S. Justice Department. If not, then the law could be ruled invalid and Gov. Bob Riley may be asked to appoint someone to fill Bell's seat on the county commission.

"There are issues of the validity of the act that has to be resolved," said Charlie Wagner, asst. Jefferson Co. Attorney. "If it's resolved in the positive then we will have to see when we set that special election if it's required."

A huge legal debate arose three years ago over this matter when Larry Langford left the county commission to become mayor of Birmingham. Gov. Riley, under authority he said was granted to him by the state constitution, appointed George Bowman to the county seat.  The appointment was challenged in court by people who said the seat could only be filled by a special election, which was held on Feb. 5, 2008 -- an election that Bell won over Bowman. However, the Alabama Supreme Court sided with Gov. Riley and allowed Bowman to remain in the seat until the general election in November 2008, when Bell won election.

Bell won election as mayor of Birmingham on Tuesday, defeating Patrick Cooper in a runoff to replace Larry Langford. Langford was ousted from office in October 2009 after a federal jury convicted him on felony conspiracy and bribery charges.

If the new law is declared legal, then a special election will be scheduled, possibly on June 1st, which is the date of this year's statewide primary elections.

"If that date falls on June 1st, which is already the scheduled primary date, the cost is already provided for, so there will be no extra cost for that," said Barry Stephenson, Deputy Jefferson Co.Registrar. "It will be another name on the ballot."

A new county commissioner could drastically impact the county's sewer debt crisis.

"I'd love that person to support bankruptcy," said Bobby Humphryes, Jefferson Co. Commissioner.

Humphryes says it will be costly for any candidate who is forced to run in a special election and a primary election at the same time. Humphryes did this when he was forced to run in a special election and then a regular election running for the statehouse.

Meanwhile, Bell's resignation next week will leave four members on the five-member county commission. Commission President Bettye Fine Collins said this could create major problems.

"The reason you have five rather than four, back when it was three that worked, but even numbers, you would have absolutely gridlock," Collins said.

Commissioner Jim Carns says four county commissioners should not be a problem.

"If you have three Republicans who act like Republicans, we will act quickly and move on," Carns said. "If we have two act like Republicans and one act like something else, I can't make prediction." Carns said.