Baldwin County elections officials can say one thing about the recent petition drives to change Fairhope’s form of government with clarity - it’s complicated.
Two different petitions have been circulated within the city to change Fairhope’s system of government from a council-mayor system to a council-manager system, though the key difference between the two is in the language for how the potential new council members would be elected.
Fresh Start Fairhope’s petition, which is spearheaded by former Fairhope council members Lonnie Mixon and Bob Gentle and Financial Advisory Chair Chuck Zunk, is in favor of continuing the current system of at-large citywide election seen in use now.
The other version, advocated for by Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson, calls for three council members on a potential new council to be elected from to-be established districts.
According to Baldwin County Probate Judge Tim Russell in an interview on WABF AM radio on July 2, the petition version Wilson advocated for turned in their signatures on June 30, but failed to meet the necessary amount of signatures to be considered at this time.
“There were 210 signatures turned in to us,” Russell said.
Russell added that the state attorney general’s office said you had to have 10 percent of the city’s voters in the last election cycle sign in order to qualify, which was 685 voters.
“Had there been over 685 signatures clearly by Saturday, I would be setting the election now, but we did not receive them,” Russell said.
Fresh Start Fairhope’s petition, which is being filed under the new rules governed by 2018’s House Bill 147, could be submitted July 5, which Fresh Start Fairhope said previously was the date it would like to turn it in by.
According to Fresh Start Fairhope, the group has already reached the amount of signatures necessary to call for an election on the council-manager government change.
“Thanks to all of you for your hard work in getting petition signatures, we are about 15 percent over the minimum with 789 signers and climbing,” Zunk wrote on the group’s Facebook page. “We will continue to accept signatures so don't turn anyone away.”
Zunk said the group’s next step was still up in the air.
“Depending on events next week we may have more than one path forward when considering when to present our Fresh Start Fairhope petition for processing,” Zunk said to group members. “Once the situation has clarified I will report back to you, and if we have options I will ask for your guidance.”
Russell said there are several variables in consideration about the potential election that he has sought legal guidance on from several sources.
“The grey area is this - if they as citizens have the right to ask the probate judge to set a date and conduct an election as to whether they move to the council-manager form,” Russell said. “Under the new law, the judge of probate wouldn’t be involved at all. It could possibly be up to the council.”
Russell said he had never encountered a situation like this during his tenure as probate judge.
“It’s been the most unusual thing I’ve been through since I’ve been handling elections as probate judge,” Russell said.
Russell said his office has sought an Alabama attorney general’s opinion on several issues about this process but is unaware of the timeline for receiving a reply.
“You never know how long it will take,” Russell said. “I have a feeling we won’t be able to get it in before the general election in November.”
During the June 25 Fairhope City Council meeting, more comments were made about state election law, as Councilman Jay Robinson, an attorney, warned the other elected officials about advocating for or against the petitions.
“My response had been that I didn’t feel it was appropriate to use my position as an elected official to push one side or the other,” Robinson said. “It turns out there’s law to back that up.”
Robinson cited the Code of Alabama, Section 17-17-4 and urged his fellow elected officials to think carefully about what they said publicly. 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.
“Using city resources to disperse that information would violate that in some way,” Robinson said. “I’d ask you to be conscious of that when you decide on taking a position one way or another. I look at this as my job as a city councilman to be a voice of what the people want me to do on their behalf. I just want everyone to be careful in what you say and how you say it.”
Prior to Robinson’s warning, Wilson had already advocated for the petition she helped circulate, which would create council districts, on her Facebook page and her official blog.
In a radio interview on WABF on June 25, Fairhope Council President Jack 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.”
Councilman Robert 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.”