At a Sept. 25 forum hosted by the Common Sense Campaign Tea Party in Fairhope, one thing was clear - several Fairhope residents had questions and concerns about the looming Oct. 2 election that seeks a change in the city’s form of government.
The Oct. 2 referendum seeks to change the city’s form of government from a mayor-council form to a council-city manager system, but added confusion has come from whether a vote to change the city’s form of government would also mean a change from at-large council representation to district representation.
“There are some things in this bill I’m concerned about because it’s not really clear,” former Fairhope councilman Cecil Christenberry said. “I would hate for us to be a guinea pig.”
The Fairhope city council currently consists of five council members elected at-large across the city.
At question over the last few months of this process has been whether a change in the form of government would mandate a move to districts for the city, with three council members elected from districts, one at-large and the mayor being elected at-large and being made the de facto head of the council, complete with a vote and the ability to set council agenda.
Councilman Jay Robinson, who served as a panelist for the forum, said the city had received a final opinion from the Alabama Attorney General that said a vote to change the form of government would also mean a change to district representation.
The Baldwin Times obtained a copy of the attorney general’s opinion, which said a form of government change would lead to district representation for Fairhope.
“The petition process does not authorize the petitioners to select whether the future council will be composed of members who are elected at-large or by districts,” the opinion said. “On the contrary, section 11-43A-8(a) mandates the composition of the future council in a municipality that decides to adopt a council-manager form of government by using the petition process set forth in section 11-43A-2. … The petition process contained in the Council-Manager Act 1982, as amended, provides for the election of council members in single member districts.”
The attorney general’s opinion seems to go against the intentions of the petition moved forward by grassroots citizens group Fresh Start Fairhope, which had advocated for the change of government but wished to retain at-large council representation.
In an email to Fresh Start supporters back in June, Fresh Start spokesman Chuck Zunk said the group had changed its petition to support at-large council election rather than districts due to an vote of the group’s membership.
“We had 65 total votes with the majority of 39 (60%) for At-Large, so that’s how we will move forward,” Zunk wrote.
At the Sept. 25 forum, Fresh Start leader and former councilman Rick Kingrea said the only issue at question with the referendum is a possible change in government.
“Despite everything you’ve heard about confusion, there’s one issue up for a vote on Oct. 2 - remain with the current council-mayor system or do we want to move to a council-city manager type of system,” Kingrea said.
“District versus at-large matters for a lot of people,” Robinson said.
Christenberry also said the issue of how council members would run was an important one to voters.
“We better understand what we’re voting on,” Christenberry said. “It matters very much because there are people who have already turned in absentee ballots that they were voting for a change or not based on information that may not be correct.”
Christenberry added the issue of whether the change in government election would lead to districts had been a source of confusion.
“I’m not saying I’m for it or against it,” Christenberry said. “But I am perpetually confused about it.”
Common Sense Campaign leader Lou Campomenosi urged that the vote possibly be pushed back to allow people time to get more information and clarity, but if that was not possible, he said people should vote their conscience.
“To my way of thinking, having a change in the government without having a complete handle on what we’re looking at - I think it’s a real challenge,” Campomenosi said. “If you think you have enough information to move forward and vote yes, fine. If you’d like more information and can’t get it, just vote no and let the dust settle where it may.”
During the questions portion, Fairhope resident Billy Wise compared the alleged rush by Fresh Start Fairhope to have the vote on Oct. 2 to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, where then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously said “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”
“I get the same kind of feeling today about the vote on Oct. 2, and I don’t understand what the need is for the rush,” Wise said.
Robinson was questioned about whether the city’s attorneys had filed an injunction to possibly stay and delay the election, with Robinson replying that as of the forum, no injunction had yet been filed.
“I anticipated it happening last week,” Robinson said. “I think our lawyers are dealing with lawyers from the Alabama League of Municipalities and the probate court trying to seek information on this. But, it’s looking very likely that we are having an election Oct. 2.”
Fairhope resident Lee Shelton said he was in favor of the change, saying he would feel better having a trained professional in charge of the day-to day operations of the city and the city’s $60 million per year budget.
“A mayor is a popular political choice. Just looking back over the last two instances, if was running a $60 million public works company with hundreds of employees and thousands of vehicles, I would not hire a book store owner or a horticulturalist to do the job,” Shelton said, referring to the pre-mayoral jobs of current Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson and former Mayor Tim Kant.