Dueling petitions circulate to change Fairhope form of government

Fresh Start Fairhope, Mayor Wilson each issue own petition


A potential movement petitioning a change in Fairhope’s system of government from a council-mayor system to a council-manager system is divided, with the group Fresh Start Fairhope and Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson each issuing different kinds of petitions for the city’s residents to consider.

The key difference between the two petitions is in the language for how the potential new council members would be elected, with Fresh Start Fairhope’s petition continuing the current system of at-large citywide election seen in use now. Wilson’s version advocates for three council members on a potential new council to be elected from to-be established districts.

The Fresh Start Fairhope petition reads as follows:

The below listed registered voters residing in the City of Fairhope, Alabama hereby petition the Baldwin County (AL) Probate Judge to set an election in accordance with the Council-Manager Act of 1982 as amended to change the current Fairhope Mayor-Council form of government to the Council-Manager form of government, with a City Council composed of five members including a Mayor and four other Council Members.” 

Wilson’s form reads as follows:

“The below listed registered voters residing in the City of Fairhope, Alabama hereby petition the Baldwin County (AL) Probate Judge to set an election in accordance with Act #2018-569 (otherwise known as House Bill 147) to change the current Fairhope Mayor-Council form of municipal government to the Council-Manager form of government, with a City Council composed of five members including a Mayor and one Council Member each elected at large, and three Council Members elected respectively from three single-member districts.”

The version of the petition being circulated by Wilson is the original draft proposed by the Fresh Start Fairhope group, but that group changed its wording following feedback from group members on what they would like to see.

Mayoral comments

In a post on her blog June 21, Wilson laid out her support for the possible change to a council-manager form of government.

“The administrative role of mayor currently is a full-time job leaving little time for planning and vision which I believe is one of the most important roles of a mayor,” Wilson wrote. “We have had City Administrators in the past who have helped with this role with far less population, however the position was defunded years ago. By changing the form of government, the City Manager would be the consistent professional through terms managed by The New Council. Our future is too important to leave this position up for debate.”

Wilson also wrote she believed the potential move could help take some of the politics out of the management of the city.

“It takes the day-to-day administrative role out of the political limelight which has been very detrimental to not only our City but others also still operating under the Council-Mayor form of government,” Wilson wrote. “This is not about taking anyone’s side (mayor or council), it is about a more professional way of doing business for our City and our employees – a better way to represent our citizens and meet their needs. The New Council under the Council-Manager form of government provides for an at-large representation via the mayor and one councilperson and three council members elected specifically by the residents of three voting districts.”

Wilson said the deadline for having signatures is Sat., June 29 and said her version of the petition would be circulating around the community, adding that the version she was circulating was “approved by the Secretary of State’s office.”

“Your friends and neighbors will be circulating the petitions, and copies will also be available at the library, Quail Creek clubhouse and City Hall,” Wilson wrote.

Fresh Start Fairhope version

One of Fresh Start Fairhope leaders, Fairhope Financial Advisory Committee Chair Chuck Zunk, sent an email out to supporters later that day on June 21 warning Fresh Start supporters about alternate versions of the group’s petition.

“As a "heads-up" alert to all our members, I am aware of at least two sites that have posted documents claiming to be representing Fresh Start Fairhope, in particular they have posted petition forms, that are not authentic, Zunk wrote. “Please do not be fooled. The only official sites for documents and any other materials related to Fresh Start Fairhope are our website, our Facebook page, and emails directly from me. In fact, we have not yet posted the petition on any site.”

In an earlier email, Zunk said the group had changed its petition to support at-large council election rather than districts due to a 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.

Fresh Start Fairhope held a meeting on Thursday, June 21, which featured Mountain Brook City Manager Sam Gaston to talk about the pros and cons of council-manager government.

The following morning, Zunk sent out another email to Fresh Start supporters addressing Mayor Wilson’s proposed version of the petition, which read as follows:

“If you were at the meeting last night, or have been reading various social media sites associated with the Mayor, you are aware that the Mayor has come out with her own version of what we are doing, but her agenda and her methods are different than ours.  She is also claiming that the petition form she is distributing is the only legal version, which is simply not the case.” 

“As you know, Fresh Start Fairhope has done everything possible to be grass roots, and to keep current partisan politics out of our initiative.  We have one goal, which is to implement the Council/Manager system of government so that elected City Leadership has very possible tool too (sic) succeed.” 

“Now that the politicians are getting involved you can expect some distractions designed to put us off-task, but we must stay focused, stay on-message, be polite, and get our petitions signed as soon as possible.  Let’s work hard on what we can control through our own efforts, and not worry about what others may be saying or doing.” 

“What are the distractions you can expect?  You will see a good deal of name calling and personal attacks on social media; please ignore it. You will see claims that legal experts and even county/state officials have endorsed the Mayor’s methods and documents as the only “legal” way to do things; please ignore it.  And you will see various websites other than Freshstartfairhope.com claiming to have petition forms that you should use; please ignore it.”

On June 25, Fresh Start Fairhope sent out further clarification about the legality of its version on its Facebook page.

“There seems to be some confusion regarding the status of the two referendum petitions circulating Fairhope this week. The assertion that the petition being circulated by Fresh Start Fairhope lacks ‘legality,’ lacks approval by the Secretary of State's Office and lacks approval by the Judge of Probate is incorrect and misstated.

“The group promoting the other petition has stated, verbally and in print, that their petition is the only ‘legal’ petition. This simply is NOT TRUE. The petition being circulated by Fresh Start Fairhope, FOLLOWS the template set out by the Secretary of State and HAS been reviewed by the Judge of Probate for Baldwin County.

“The Fresh Start Fairhope petition is correct and proper and WILL be accepted by the Judge of Probate, once the necessary signatures have been compiled. Fresh Start Fairhope thanks the citizens of Fairhope for their consideration of it's petition.”

Council reaction

On June 22, Councilman Robert Brown took to his “Robert Brown For Our Hometown” Facebook page to ask residents for their reactions and opinions about the proposed changes, and also shared some of his own thoughts on the matter.

“A few people have asked my opinion on the petition,” Brown wrote. “My first thought is our current system broken? What do the citizens want? I certainly don’t have the answers to these questions but I’ll give you my opinion. Our current system is made up of people. Any governing body you elect is going to be made up of people. (Sorry no way around this). People are not always going to agree on everything. It’s about compromising.”

Brown said he also preferred the current at-large system of election for council members.

“I’m a proponent of at large for several reasons,” Brown wrote. “First do we need something else to be divided about?! ‘I want someone to call who represents my area.’ Guess what you have 5 people now. Speaking for myself only, I vote for what is best for Fairhope in general, not one population vs another. If you need something, get in touch with me. I’ll be glad to help where I can. Secondly, there might not be someone in your district willing to serve, or rather someone you would support. Either way you might not have a choice or one you like.”

In an interview with WABF 1480 AM’s Lori DuBose on June 25, Brown and Council President Jack Burrell spoke further about the petition effort.

“I’ve kind of stayed a little bit distant from this and wanted to let the citizens work it,” Burrell said. “I think we have to be really careful as elected officials not to push a political agenda, and not to use any city resources or city property to do so.”

Burrell said he had seen a blurb online about Mayor Wilson putting out what he called “the city’s position on this matter,” which he and Brown both took exception to.

“The governing body for the city hasn’t taken a position, so the city has not taken any position,” Burrell said. “We don’t have an official stance.”

Burrell said on WABF he was not in favor of the proposed government change.

“I’m not in favor of that,” Burrell said. “I don’t think we should change our form of government and I think our leaders should be elected directly by the citizens. We don’t want the state legislature picking our governor, we don’t want Congress electing the president - we want to directly pick the people who are going to be in charge of things.”

Burrell said while he didn’t believe the Fresh Start Fairhope campaign launched its effort due to recent political issues within the city, he believes the campaign likely benefitted from that turmoil.

“I don’t think that they’re putting this together because of the current situation in Fairhope politics,” Burrell said. “However, I would have to say they are capitalizing on this, though they’ve said it’s not their intent.”

Questions about possible election law violations

Burrell also questioned whether Wilson should be advocating for this matter and whether it was proper for her to post her petition at city hall and other city properties while in her position as mayor, which could violate state election law.

“I’m not certain you’re allowed to do that,” Burrell said. “When you’re pushing something to be elected on, it’s almost akin to putting out fliers from a candidate on city property. It also brings to question what, if any, involvement the mayor or any employees have had in working on her version of the petition. I don’t think you can use city resources to push an agenda.”

Brown said he had received notification through the city’s official notification system about Wilson’s blog post endorsing her version of the petition.

“I found it a little distasteful that I got an Everbridge notice to take me to the mayor’s blog,” Brown said. “I don’t think that’s what Everbridge was set up for.”

According to the city’s website, the Everbridge system “enables city officials to provide critical information quickly in situations such as severe weather, unexpected road closures, missing persons and area events. Residents who sign up can also select notifications  for trash, garbage and recycling changes; meeting notices; traffic conditions, crime alerts, utility outages and more.”

An informed source told The Courier that several sections of Alabama Code might apply to the use of government resources and use of political office.

According to the Alabama Code Title 17, which helps govern elections law, according to 17-17-4, “Any person who attempts to use his or her official authority or position for the purpose of influencing the vote or political action of any person shall be guilty, upon conviction, of a Class C felony.” Class C felonies in Alabama carry a sentence of up to 10 years in state prison.

Section 17-17-5 goes further:

“No person in the employment of the State of Alabama, a county, a city, a local school board, or any other governmental agency, whether classified or unclassified, shall use any state, county, city, local school board, or other governmental agency funds, property, or time, for any political activities.”

According to the subsection, political activities include:

“a. Making contributions to or contracting with any entity which engages in any form of political communication, including communications which mention the name of a political candidate.

“b. Engaging in or paying for public opinion polling.

“c. Engaging in or paying for any form of political communication, including communications which mention the name of a political candidate.

“d. Engaging in or paying for any type of political advertising in any medium.

“e. Phone calling for any political purpose.

“f. Distributing political literature of any type.

“g. Providing any type of in-kind help or support to or for a political candidate.”

17-17-5 goes on to state that “It shall also be unlawful for any officer or employee to coerce or attempt to coerce any subordinate employee to work in any capacity in any political campaign or cause.”