More than 100 Fairhope residents gathered at the Fairhope Public Library last week to hear a presentation from the “Fresh Start Fairhope” group, who seeks to use a petition to try to change Fairhope’s form of government from mayor-council to council-city manager.
“Fairhope is one of several cities in Alabama using a type of governance known as the mayor-council form of government,” according to a release from Fresh Start Fairhope. “Cities in Alabama must closely adhere to the particular details of the Code of Alabama 1975, which defines the specific duties of the mayor and council members, and the manner in which those elected officials interact.”
Fresh Start Fairhope members said the potential change in government for the city has been a long time coming.
“Some residents of Fairhope and other cities using the mayor-council form of government have expressed concern that the Code of 1975 has certain rules which create unhealthy and unproductive political conflict among the elected officials that in turn may hamstring the operation of the city and the efficiency of its personnel,” the release said. “In fact, some residents of Fairhope have specifically suggested that for at least the last ten years the city has been beset with conflict among its elected officials that has not abated even though the people now serving in those positions are completely different than those from several years ago.”
Fresh Start Fairhope member Chuck Zunk said this idea has been in the pipeline for some time.
“This effort to convert our city to a council-manager format is not something that came up off the cuff and it isn’t about getting mad about what’s going on now with the mayor and the council,” Zunk said. “This has been in the offing for more than 10 years, and now the last piece has fallen into place when the Alabama legislature signed into law House Bill 147.”
Due to the passage of HB-147, cities such as Fairhope could be allowed to change their form of government by submitting a petition to the probate office and allowing for an election within the city.
Under the newly proposed council-manager system, the city’s mayor would preside over council meetings and have a vote as a member of the city council. The mayor would be the ceremonial head of the City, but executive functions and day-to-day operations would be overseen by a city manager. All city employees would report to the new city manager.
One of the new council members would be elected by the voters at-large, while the three other members would be elected by the voters from three districts that would have to be created within the city.
The mayor and four council members would vote to hire the city manager after being installed in office themselves.
The changes, if voted on and approved by a majority of residents in an election, would not take effect until 2020.
“Now, the power is in our hands and we should take advantage of it,” Zunk said.
In order for the petition to trigger an election, Fresh Start Fairhope would need roughly 700 valid signatures, or 10 percent of the registered voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election in 2014.
Zunk said the group is in the process of having its draft petitions reviewed by the Baldwin County Probate office and the Alabama Secretary of State’s office.
Not everyone in attendance was in favor of the idea.
Former Fairhope Councilwoman Diana Brewer spoke out against the plan.
“Our current form of government is designed to give checks and balances, and create divisions of power,” Brewer said. “Changing our form of government will not end politics. I can easily envision a scenario of a 3-2 vote for city manager, and that could create new alliances and an even worse scenario for city employees.”
Brewer said she feels having a city manager appointed diminishes the role of the voters in picking who they want to run the city.
“Would you be satisfied letting the state legislature elect the governor for us, because that’s essentially what this could be,” Brewer said.
She also raised the idea that dividing the city into districts could lead to sectionalism.
“Pitting districts against each other just further divides our town,” Brewer said. “The needs in your area of town should be just as much my concern as they are yours.”
Zunk said he and other organizers, which include former council members Lonnie Mixon, Bob Gentle and Dan Stankoski, expected there to be opposition to the proposal.
“I expect there to be opposition, that they’ll be organized and they’ll have some money behind them,” Zunk said.