BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — It's hard to blame residents of Alabama's most populous city if they've got the Birmingham blues.
Carole Smitherman, an African-American woman, is the city's new interim mayor. She took over Thursday after her predecessor, Larry Langford, was convicted on 60 felony counts for bribery and kicked out of office.
Smitherman insists the city doesn't share the financial ills of the county. "We don't have a problem in city government," she said. All of Langford's crimes were committed while he was president of the county commission.
Still, Smitherman admitted, there's "public distrust of all things governmental." Meeting with council members and reporters a day after Langford's conviction and ouster, Smitherman said government must be transparent to heal a wide breach of public trust.
"Certainly the citizens are hurting right now, and it's up to the government to reassure them," Smitherman said. She became mayor after Langford's automatic removal because she is City Council president.
Langford, 63, faces what could amount to a life sentence for accepting about $236,000 in bribes to steer county bond deals to the firm of an old friend and political ally, Montgomery investment banker Bill Blount.
The fallout from some of those deals left Jefferson County with $3.9 billion in bond debt it can't afford. Commissioners have been trying for more than a year to avoid a bankruptcy filing that would eclipse the old record of $1.6 billion set by Orange County, Calif., in 1994.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley has urged officials to seek a solution other than bankruptcy, which he says may tarnish the whole state.
Evidence in Langford's trial showed he was taking tens of thousands in checks, fancy suits and jewelry from Blount while his firm was among those advising the county to enter complicated bond deals for financing a huge project to renovate Jefferson County's sewers. In a widespread corruption probe, about two dozen other county officials and business people previously were convicted or pleaded guilty to charges linked to the sewer work.
Across a park from City Hall, officials at the Jefferson County Courthouse are trying to avoid filing the largest municipal bankruptcy ever, a mark the governor says would stain the entire state.
Citizens are moving out of Birmingham by the thousands, and few are replacing them. The population has dropped to an estimated 209,639, down more than 13 percent since 2000. The state high school football championships even left town this year, abandoning decrepit Legion Field for the state's two major universities.
Ronnie Coats, 42, has been living in Birmingham and volunteering in local politics for almost three decades, and says he's disgusted.
"There's a problem with government here. It's called greed," he said
Meanwhile, Coats says can barely afford his water and sewer bills of about $100 a month total, and he's fed up.
"If people who are elected abuse the public interest, people lose trust," said Coats, a dialysis patient who gets by on monthly disability payments.
Langford, who once was mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate, was elected mayor in 2007 and has loyal fans because he cleaned up neighborhoods, provided laptop computers to schoolchildren and began projects including a $530 million domed stadium.
Steve Green, a prominent city pastor, opened Smitherman's post-conviction news conference in the City Council chamber by asking God to "be a shield" around Langford and his family in a time of trouble.
"'Yes, Lord,'" a woman said in the audience.
But talk radio shows and Internet chat rooms went into overdrive after the conviction with critics celebrating his ouster. Many are tired and frustrated and hope the discussion soon returns to more important issues like getting more police into neighborhoods.
"This corruption didn't begin with Larry Langford," resident Marcus Lipsey said.
Smitherman said an audit of city finances is being conducted to determine the city's financial standing during Langford's tenure, but she said she had no reason to believe anything is amiss.
Still, residents could soon face more uncertainty at City Hall, according to city attorney Thomas Bentley.
An election commission will schedule a mayoral election for early December, at least one week after new council members take office, Bentley said. Smitherman will remain interim mayor if she is re-elected council president, but Birmingham could get a second acting mayor if someone defeats her for the presidency, and then a fourth mayor in the special election.
In a bit of understatement, council member Valerie Abbott said the city is in "unsettling times."
"Certainly we're in uncharted waters right now," she said.
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