Q&A | Meet the professor and community volunteer running for mayor

Serena Fortenberry wants to be mayor of Tuscaloosa.


CW / Brylane Hay

Jacob Powell | @JacobLPowell, Contributing Writer

If elected, you will lead a city that encompasses the state’s flagship university. How do you plan on balancing the interests of the more than 30,000 UA students in Tuscaloosa with those of city residents?

I have been part of The University of Alabama’s Neighborhood Partnership Committee for the past two years and I also served on the city’s Framework Steering Committee. A lot of our discussion about growth in Framework meetings centered on student housing, though no strong plan emerged from those discussions. I am dedicated to finding a stronger plan to bring more balance to student housing development, so that we protect our city’s neighborhoods that serve permanent residents. Through the Neighborhood Partnership Committee, I participated in a focus group that worked toward developing a Good Neighbors program—an outreach tool to help students who live in close proximity to permanent residents observe the expected conduct for neighborhood residents throughout our city (respecting laws concerning noise, parking, garbage, etc.). I would like to see such a program go forward in collaboration with our city and neighborhood organizations.

In the WVUA debate, knowledge-based industries were discussed as a potential job market resource for students. What kinds of knowledge-based companies do you plan on recruiting, and what specific plans will you implement to bring them to town?

Recruitment of industries that diversify our economy must be intentional and deliberate. As of yet, the city of Tuscaloosa has neglected to strongly market and promote the eight federal opportunity zones that sit within city limits. This is a missed opportunity. Now that it has a new director, the Tuscaloosa County Economic Development Authority (EDA) is well-positioned to recruit tech, telecommunications, corporate headquarters, and hard science industries to our area. In order to do that, however, the EDA must be properly funded, in order to hire nationally recognized talent to do this work for us. This year, the City of Tuscaloosa reduced its EDA funding. We should have increased it. We must also partner with other governments, especially our county government, to collaboratively move our economy forward. Under Maddox’s leadership, our relationships with other local governments have suffered. Finally, finding a path to commercial air service in Tuscaloosa will play a definitive role in making our city more marketable for industry relocations.

As mayor, you will have to address the proliferation of student housing developments. Please explain innovative strategies to address this issue.

Under Maddox, our approach to student housing has been politicized and piecemeal. Many of the policies enacted under his leadership have been damaging to our city. Many of the recent policies have implemented double standards–curbing large complexes but doing nothing to curb the “plexes” that have gutted multiple neighborhoods of what was once workforce housing. I favor mapping out a cohesive approach to student housing. But we must start with strong data, which the city has yet to present: supply and demand numbers. Gathering data, understanding what we need, looking to other cities that have managed student housing better, and crafting policies that work together is the way to plan better for our city.

Describe your specific policies to enhance safety measures for Tuscaloosa, specifically on campus. 

Campus is planned and policed by the University. However, the areas surrounding campus are high crime areas. I favor incorporating and implementing crime prevention through environmental design principles to protect our student population from being victims of crime. I would also like to create a policy whereby off-duty police officers can pick up work serving as added security at our local bars and nightspots.

In 2020, the City of Tuscaloosa reported a combined budget of over $230 million. Explain your fiscal approach and the specific short-term and long-term goals you intend to set for managing the budget.

My short-term goals are to eliminate wasteful spending and to protect the budgets, especially the water and sewer budget, from being raided for transfers to the general fund. My second goal is to restructure our payroll so that we are not overcompensating top tier employees and under-compensating lower tier employees, as is the case now. Another short-term goal is to address the police and fire pension plan in a meaningful and practical way to ensure stable retirement benefits for these employees. My long-term goals are to reduce our debt, to borrow extremely judiciously and to build city reserves.

During this election season, the issue of transparency has been raised. How do you plan on ensuring increased access to the mayor’s office for residents post-pandemic? In what ways will you work to connect with your constituents on a more personal level?

I will reopen City Hall to the public, first and foremost. It has been closed to the public since March. Some meetings have occurred without public access. And public participation has been hampered by technology problems and, in framework public hearings, by inconsistent and unfair meeting formats. Restoring public access to City Hall, which remains closed despite the fact that everything else in our city is open, is my highest priority. My office door will be open and the public will feel welcomed by the public servants that they employ.

Earlier this month, The CW reported that there was PAC and corporate influence on the mayoral election, which is a cause for concern for many city residents. Do you see why this could be an issue? And what do you say to the criticisms?

It is an issue. I have received a total of $2450 in PAC money as of right now. That is far less than what my opponents have received. I believe that several news outlets have worked on tracking the PAC money that my opponents have received from developers and contractors. Generally those people do expect a return on investment. No one has “invested” in my campaign in that way, so I feel very independent of being controlled by other people’s interests. My contributions have mostly come from average ordinary voters. That is who my campaign most represents.

This interview was conducted via email.