Legislative session could mean changes with Jeffco government

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The Alabama state legislature is just hours away from starting what most lawmakers expect to be a tough session.

The state faces a major budget deficit and tough choices on hot issues like gambling and ethics reform. All of which are in an election year.

But one of the issues most likely to affect the Birmingham area is a pair of bills designed to overhaul the way the Jefferson County Commission works.

Rep. John Rogers of Birmingham has pre-filed a bill that would redraw the county commission districts from 5 to 4, with 2 being predominantly African-American and 2 predominantly white.

The commission president would then be elected by everyone in the county.

"That way you have a 5 member commission," said Rep. John Rogers (D)-Birmingham. "Right now you have a 3-member commission. Once the president gets 2 other votes, the other 2 are locked out. This would provide a 5-member commission."

Rep. Owen Drake of Leeds has his own bill that would create the position of a county CEO who would be elected by the whole county and act like a mayor, able to veto commission decisions and act as a balance to their legislative power.

Drake's bill would also force the county to hire a county manager to run day to day operations as soon as the new commission is elected in November, rather than by 2011 as current law demands.

"The county government is the only form of government that doesn't have separation of powers," Rep. Drake said. "You need someone to verify the results of the legislative branch, and that would be the chief executive."

But the commission is fighting both bills, with a vote scheduled Tuesday to hire a full-time lobbyist to try and defeat these bills and work on other county business.

"There's some legislation that's been pre-filed against demolishing this county and it's all because of a personality conflict with another commissioner," said Commissioner Shelia Smoot.

"And it's gotten ridiculous. So if they don't want to see us, we're still gonna have to have the taxpayers covered some kind of way."

"I don't think they need to hire a lobbyist to fight against the bill," Rep. Drake said. "The best lobbyist they could have are the commissioners themselves, and in the 3 years I've been down there, I've seen 2 commissioners at the statehouse doing anything."

Commission president Bettye Fine Collins says she thinks the Alabama Legislature will provide some relief for the county in its ongoing sewer debt crisis during this session.

But Rep. Drake says that's unlikely unless commissioners show some willingness to cooperate on changing the commission's structure.