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Citizens Debate a Transition in Madison's Government

On Thursday, May, 26th 2022, I Vote Madison co-hosted a community debate alongside the League of Women Voters of the Tennessee Valley and Braver Angels. The debated topic was whether Madison should switch from a mayor-council form of government to a council-manager form of government.

Back in January of this year, the Governance Transition Committee presented their unanimous recommendation to council in favor of changing our government to a council-manager system. Since then we have encountered residents who have shown lots of support for the transition and some who are strongly opposed. Many we've heard from are not fully opposed but express some apprehension and have questions.

We thought this topic would be an excellent one for a community debate that is designed to provide education around an issue and launch a dialogue.

Read our previous blog post to learn more about the possible transition
Skip to questions and concerns from residents
Watch a recording of the debate
Attend the community meeting on Wednesday, June 22, 2022 from 6-7:30 pm to learn more about a possible transition and to ask questions
Visit the city's Governance Transition page
View the Transition Committee's final report

I Vote Madison was excited to partner with the nonprofit Braver Angels for this debate. Braver Angels is a national citizens’ movement launched in 2016 to bring liberals, conservatives and others together at the grassroots level — not to find centrist compromise, but to find one another as citizens. Through workshops, debates, campus engagement, and more, Braver Angels helps Americans understand each other beyond stereotypes, form community alliances, and reduce the vitriol that poisons our civic culture.

One reason I Vote Madison decided to focus our work at the local level is because municipal elections are nonpartisan. In today's very polarized political environment, we hope to be able to bring more citizens into the civic sphere to vote on and express their opinions on issues that affect the daily lives of Madison residents. It's easier to make a difference at the local level because we have much more access to our local representatives.

We offer a big thank you to Theo Brown, our Braver Angels state coordinator, who helped us make this debate possible. Thank you also to our other co-host, Kathleen Leonard, president of the League of Women Voters of the Tennessee Valley.

The chair of our debate was Paul Norris. Paul is an Associate Director in the Braver Angels’ Debate Program. He has chaired numerous debates at both the national and local level. He is also a state coordinator and a trained moderator. He has been active in various leadership roles since May 2018. Madeline McCarren was the debate whip from Braver Angels. We thank both Madeline and Paul for their help putting on this successful debate.

During the online community debate, we heard from area residents as they made their case either in support of or against Madison changing to a council-manager form of government. Braver Angels' debates follow basic rules of parliamentary procedure so that all participants who want to speak have a chance to do so, time is shared equally, and civility is maintained throughout. Those who volunteered ahead of time to debate had three minutes to speak. The debate alternated between those who were for or against the transition. After each debate speaker, others who were tuned in to the debate could ask questions.

Residents will receive more information about the possible transition and be able to ask questions at the city's upcoming community meeting on Wednesday, June 22, 2022 from

6-7:30 pm. At this public information session, residents will learn more and also be able to ask questions. You may also submit questions online. We hope our blog posts on this topic, including the questions and concerns below that have already been expressed by some residents, are useful to residents ahead of the city's first community meeting.


Questions and Concerns

Here are some questions and concerns that we've heard from residents. These have come from the work session when the committee's findings were delivered, from social media, and from the debate we co-hosted.

We are also providing responses to these questions and concerns. Note that these responses have come from the information we have gathered from the transition committee and discussions that took place among the committee, city council, mayor, and the city lawyer during the work session in January. If we include something another citizen may have answered in response to a question during our debate, we will make that clear.

[Disclaimer: We have paraphrased the listed concerns and questions. We make no claim that our informative responses are accurate or that the information will not change. We want people to be informed and become engaged around this issue. The information we provide can help residents have a starting point for asking questions of city leaders. I Vote Madison is also not taking sides on the issue of transitioning to a council-manager form of governance. The input we will have as an organization will be to advocate for accessibility, transparency, and an effort on the city's part to include as many residents as possible in their outreach and education efforts.]

1. Will of the people

Q. What recourse do citizens have if they are not happy with the person in that role or the work they are doing? This has been an overarching concern among residents who are opposed or have apprehensions. With a mayor-council type of government, citizens validate their choice every 4 years via the ballot box. A city manager, however, would be appointed by the city council and could serve for decades. The Transition Committee has cited continuity as a main reason they recommended a council-manager form of government. Whether this continuity would further the status quo is one concern citizens have.

A. The city council would have the power to remove a city manager by a majority vote. Citizens would not be directly able to remove a city manager, but their elected representatives could. The Transition Committee emphasized that the a city manager would not take away the will of the people.

Q. Would reducing City Council by 1 district [Moving from the 7 current district down to 6 districts and 1 council member at large (the mayor)] mean less and/or unfair representation?

A. If the city decides to transition to a council-manager form of government, redistricting would occur to divide the 6 districts equally. Naturally, this means that each city council member would have more people in their district to represent.

2. Hiring a city manager

Q. How would a city manager be selected? Will it be a nationwide search? Could a current council member or the current city administrator be chosen for the role? One thing the residents of Madison have told us they want is transparency. This relates to city government generally but also as it relates to various appointed positions such as school board members, the police chief, and now possibly a city manager. Residents worry about nepotism and politics playing a role in hiring practices, especially since the person in this role would be responsible for carrying out the administration and operations of the whole city. Some are apprehensive that a city manager would be chosen not necessarily by qualifications but could be someone who is favored by the mayor/council based on politics or personal friendship. Those residents who have voiced support for the government transition have these same worries but think a city manager would serve to lessen these concerns.

A. The mayor has said that the search for a city manager would follow the same process as the search for a new police chief or superintendent. When the city hired a new police chief, the search was nationwide. The city's HR department drafted the job description and it was then approved by mayor and council and released. A hiring team was created consisting of the mayor, council, and the police department. This team conducted private interviews of 10-12 candidates. These were narrowed down to 3 candidates, and those interviews were public. One possible question to ask about this possible transition is who would serve alongside the mayor and council on the hiring team. Another question that has arisen is how the current city administrator was hired. Does this role require a vote by the city council?

Q. How much would a city manager cost? City managers are trained professionals who often have graduate-level degrees in areas such as public administration, so their salaries reflect that.

A. The mayor has said that the city manager would probably be the highest paid city employee. One of our debate participants mentioned that the city would no longer have the salary of the city administrator. We've noticed that some city managers have assistants, so one question for the city of Madison is whether our city manager would have an assistant or if another job role will be created to accompany the city manager. Another question that has arisen is whether the mayor's salary would be reduced if a city manager was hired.

Some other questions that have been raised include how power would be balanced between the mayor and city manager and among the mayor and council members. Another question is "What specifically does a city manager do?"

What questions do you have?

You'll have a chance to ask questions directly at the community meeting being held in City Council Chambers on Wednesday, June 22, 2022 from 6-7:30 pm. Jim Ross, the head of the Governance Transition Committee, will be in attendance to provide information and field questions. The city manager of Vestavia Hills and the city manager of Mountainbrook will also be there to answer questions about the role of a city managers. District 5 Councilperson Ranae Bartlett will moderate the meeting. Citizens can also submit questions ahead of time and watch the meeting via livestream on the city's website.

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