The Decision

"If you do not have the courage to make tough decisions, you will never be a true leader."
                                                                                                        -Sri Amit Ray

 

PART I: THE DECISION

My journey to become the first African American Deputy City Clerk and later the first African American male City Clerk for the City of Birmingham began in 1993. After completing my bachelor's degree at Samford University, I faced a choice between continuing full-time work at a moving company, earning a whopping $13.00 per hour, that’s right, you heard it right, $13.00 per hour, or accepting an administrative assistant position at the City of Brighton, AL in the Clerk's Office for $10.00 per hour. Interestingly, this entire journey was set in motion by my college roommate, who introduced me to his relative, who at the time was the Mayor of Brighton, AL. The Mayor was seeking an administrative assistant, and this connection ultimately paved the way for my career path. I would be remiss, if I didn't express my gratitude to my late roommate, Eric Skipwith, who was not only a great teammate but also a dear friend at Samford. He is certainly missed.

Believe it or not, despite the lower pay, upon graduation, I opted for the administrative assistant job due to its alignment with my degree in Public Administration and potential for career growth. As you can image, this decision also led to some scarce options as it relates to finding a suitable place to stay. However, somehow I managed to make it work.

With humor and some seriousness, I truly believe my ability to type without looking at the keyboard, combined with the Mayor of Brighton's Secretary's lack of typing skills, and my determination to overcome challenges, such as retrieving the Mayor's grandson's paper airplane from the roof of his home during the interview process, may have played a role in securing the administrative assistant job. However, let us not lose focus.

During my time as an administrative assistant and later as the City Clerk/Treasurer in Brighton, I had the privilege of working under Mayor Hugh Colston. From him, I learned invaluable lessons in leadership, integrity, hard work, and always doing what is right. I recall him mentioning to my father that even though he wasn't my actual father, as long as I worked for the City of Brighton, he would assume that role in his absence. And boy, did he mean that. From frequent scoldings to trying to play match maker at conferences and various events, we had some wonderful times together at work and beyond. He was an awesome ambassador for the city and made sure that the City of Brighton wouldn't take a back seat to any other municipality. After he took the stage or opened any event, you would think the City of Brighton had a population well beyond 4,500. He would never ever pay the actual billable hours for our city attorney, and for that matter, too much of anything else. I recall him going line by line on our attorney's invoice, outlining to him that we are not paying for that. You called the clerk; he didn't call you, lol. Boy, I'm telling you, I sure miss that man. Although Mayor Colston has passed away, he continues to hold a special place in my heart as a cherished mentor and father figure. Even to this day, I keep a photo of him in my wallet as a reminder of his influence on my life.

Shortly after beginning my role as an administrative assistant, the City Clerk/Treasurer of Brighton retired, and I was offered the position of City Clerk/Treasurer in 1993.  Although I was initially terrified, I gladly accepted the opportunity.  However, my journey towards becoming City Clerk didn't end with the acceptance. In order to officially assume the role, I needed confirmation from the Mayor and Council. This confirmation process felt akin to waiting for the verdict in a jury trial as it took place during an actual City Council Meeting and not everyone voted to confirm me.  Thankfully, the Mayor, who also served as the Chair of the meeting, strongly supported my appointment and rallied votes in my favor. Unfortunately, two out of the five Councilors voted against me.

One Councilor expressed concerns regarding my starting salary ($25,000.00), as he believed that Public Works employees should always be the highest paid. I took the opportunity to speak with this Councilor after the vote, explaining the importance of fair compensation for Public Works employees while highlighting the unique technical skills required for the Clerk's office. I emphasized that, at my age and after recently playing college football, I was confident in my abilities to step in and perform the duties of a Public Works employee, whereas it would be challenging to find someone from that department who could seamlessly fulfill the responsibilities of the Clerk's office. This conversation helped address the Councilor's concerns, and from that day forward, we were able to establish a positive working relationship.

However, the other Councilor continued to pose challenges. He consistently questioned everything and demanded access to extensive information. Despite his demeanor, I remained committed to providing explanations and finding common ground.

 

“The most effective leaders are not those who are handpicked, but those who gracefully embrace the opportunity and rise to the occasion.”

                                                                                                                                    -Unknown

 

Those early days in Brighton presented both challenges and rewards. I introduced new technologies, such as computers and the life-changing QuickBooks software, to replace the previous manual systems that relied on McBee ledgers, carbon paper, and typewriters. The automation of payroll and other city processes significantly enhanced efficiency and timeliness in collections and service administration. Furthermore, it had a remarkable impact on the morale of city employees, who now had the ability to instantly receive their paychecks, W-2's, and other important information.

Despite benefiting from the new technology, the employees and administration failed to fully comprehend the sacrifice and determination required to implement these changes. Unbeknownst to them, I devoted numerous nights and weekends to manually input data into the system, understanding that it would not only improve my own situation but also benefit future clerks and greatly serve the citizens and employees for years to come.

The transition process from manual bookkeeping took several months to complete. This was primarily because the Mayor's Secretary/ City Magistrate and I were the only ones running the daily operations of the city. As a result, even at the young age of 23, serving as the City Clerk, I took on significant responsibility and emerged as a major leader in the City of Brighton. During this period, I worked closely with the Mayor and Council to steer the city out of financial turmoil and establish operational stability. We encountered various challenges, particularly concerning creditors and IRS issues, specifically related to the previous administration's failure to process withholding taxes. 

It is worth mentioning some lighthearted moments, such as the times I had to drive the police car during funeral processions due to the city only having one police officer on duty.  Though not humorous at the time, there was also a shocking incident when the Chief of Police accidentally discharged a confiscated firearm in the office, just moments after assuring the Mayor it was not loaded. Not to mention, it was not uncommon to catch a glimpse of the backside of an occasional inmate sprinting past my open office door after finishing their daily meal of pot pies and banquet meals, as the city jail was located just 10-15 feet away from the entrance to my office.

 

Leadership is doing what is right when no one is watching.”

George Van Valkenburg.

 

Please revisit for frequent updates to my journey to Birmingham.

 


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