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City managers answer questions from Madison residents at 1st governance transition community meeting

District 5 Councilperson Ranae Bartlett moderated a community meeting about the possible shift in Madison’s government on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. This is one of at least two meetings Representative Bartlett will moderate for citizens. The purpose of these meetings is to provide residents with information, including what the process for such a transition would look like, and answers to their questions. We provide the questions and answers from the meeting in this post.

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Meeting Highlights

Many residents have been wanting to know what city managers do. At the meeting, they had the opportunity to ask their questions directly to two current Alabama city managers.

Sam Gaston, city manager of Mountain Brook, has been a city manager for 29 years. He has previous experience working as a planner and as an assistant city manager. He has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Auburn University. Gaston was the first city manager in Alabama to receive official credentials from the International City/County Manager Association.

Jeff Downes has been city manager of Vestavia Hills for 9 years. He has a Master’s of Public Administration from Auburn University in Montgomery. He has worked in local government for more than thirty years. He has served as a risk manager and deputy mayor for the city of Montgomery.

Both city managers echoed what the Governance Transition Committee had to say about a council-manager form of government:

  • City managers handle the daily operations/administration of the city allowing the mayor to devote more time to city visioning, regional relationships, and interacting with the public. Jeff Downes said the city manager works on a tactical plan to carry out the “will of the entire council.”

  • Under a manager-council government, the city is run more like a business with less politicization. Downes said that political relationships can interfere with city decisions, but city managers are more removed from politics and are able to make “rational business decisions.” These decisions include hiring employees, such as department heads. Downes said as city manager, he has never felt pressured to hire anyone based on anything other than their credentials.

  • There are lots of pros to a manager-council government. The main con is when a city hires a manager who lacks the necessary education and experience or who isn’t a good fit for a particular city. In addition to hiring someone with the proper education and experience, Sam Gaston said it's important to get the community involved in the decision-making process.

Below are questions asked by residents at the meeting and answers given either by the two guest city managers, Councilperson Bartlett, or Governance Transition Committee head James Ross. Several residents asked questions at the meeting, but Councilperson Bartlett also asked questions on behalf of residents who submitted them ahead of the meeting.

[Disclaimer: We have paraphrased the listed questions and answers. We want people to be informed and become engaged around this issue. The information we provide can help residents decide if they support or do not support the transition to a manger-council form of government. I Vote Madison does not have a stance on this issue. 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.]

Q & A

Q. What should Madison look for in a city manager?

  • Both visiting city managers said Madison should search for a city manager with local government experience and graduate-level education. Sam Gaston said that a majority of city managers have Master’s-level degrees, and many have degrees in Public Administration.

Q. Who holds a city manager accountable?

  • First and foremost, city managers are held accountable by their employment contracts. Downes said he has a performance evaluation each year. Oftentimes, city managers have probationary contracts that can range from a few months to a year. A longer-term contract is created if the city wants that manager to continue. Gaston said it’s easier to get rid of a city manager than a mayor. Whereas a mayor would have to be impeached, a city manager could be removed by a majority vote of the City Council.

Q. Will a city manager cost the city a lot of money, and will citizens have to pay for a city manager through additional taxes?

  • Councilperson Bartlett assured residents that no new city taxes are on the horizon. She said the city is planning and budgeting for additional city employees in various departments to meet the needs of our rapidly-growing city. Both city managers agreed that the efficiency of a city manager offsets their salary. Downes said that city managers, because of their efficiency, can even help to grow a city’s economy. Gaston said that city managers often can better streamline government, which can include hiring fewer people or having fewer departments.

Q. What is the chain of command with a manager-council government?

  • City department heads will go directly to the city manager instead of the mayor. The mayor and city council members will go through the city manager and not directly to department heads.

Q. How do large cities without city managers function?

  • Both city managers reiterated the efficiency city managers can provide, and that cities without a city manager can function, but things aren’t as efficient. Things may take longer to get done. It was also mentioned that some city mayors have qualifications and experience that enable them to run their city in a more business-like manner, whereas some mayors might be more of a figurehead.

Q. Why don’t more cities in Alabama have city managers?

  • Gaston mentioned that legislative requirements have not been accommodating to manager-council governments, the League of Municipalities of Alabama does not champion this form of government, and that city manager governments are generally just not politically favorable in Alabama. In Vestavia Hills, it was politically favorable. Downes said citizens wanted more transparency from the city. One of his roles has been to increase transparency and conduct more outreach to citizens. Gaston mentioned that neighboring states, such as Tennessee and Georgia, have hundreds of cities with city managers.

Q. Would the city manager live in Madison?

  • Downes said that Vestavia Hills mandated that city managers reside in Vestavia Hills. Gaston said that Mountain Brook has no such mandate, but one reason is because of how expensive it is to live there. The city of Madison can choose to make it a requirement that the city manager is a resident of Madison City proper.

Q. Will Madison have staggered elections for council members under a council-manager form of government?

  • The Governance Transition Team recommended back in January that Madison shift to staggered elections. Councilperson Bartlett said that the decision to stagger elections will be put on hold until after citizens determine whether they want a city manager. Note that the city does not have to have staggered elections even if a transition in government occurs. Mountain Brook has staggered elections whereas Vestavia Hills does not.

Q. What is the timeline for a transition to a council-manager form of government?

  • Councilperson Bartlett emphasized sooner rather than later. A special election would have to be held prior to 2024. If citizens gather the 900 signatures needed for a special election, the petition would go to the probate judge. Once the probate judge has verified the petition, it is returned to the mayor. The city of Madison has 90 days from that point to hold a special election. That timeframe is dictated by the state.

Q. Which district will be cut if the city chooses to transition to a council-manager government?

  • A district will not be removed, per se, and not even necessarily divided and dispersed into other districts. Councilperson Bartlett said the city has hired an independent consultant to redistrict Madison. If a council-manager form of government is chosen, that consultant has the ability to completely redraw the districts to distribute the population equally and create demographic balance.

Q. Who will be on the team created to hire a city manager? (The team hired to begin the search for a police chief consisted of the HR department, the mayor, and individuals from the police department. In the case of a city manager, who will fill the role that the police department filled?)

  • There is no clear answer at this point, but several city department heads may be included in the hiring team. Downes said that before he was hired, he was interviewed by each city department head and then interviewed by the public. He explained how he also had to be interviewed by industrial psychologists. The final hiring decision was made by the governing body: The city council. Gaston said his hiring experience wasn’t as involved, but he echoed the importance of having department heads and citizens involved in the process. He reiterated that it’s important to have a city manager who is a “right fit” for the city.

What's Next

Councilperson Bartlett has organized and will be hosting a 2nd community-wide meeting about the possible transition on July 11 at noon at the Madison Public Library. Whereas this last meeting focused on city managers, this next meeting will focus on mayors. Ron Anders Jr., mayor of Auburn, will be there to discuss and answer questions about his role as a mayor in a council-mayor form of government. Mayor Finley will join him.

The city recorded and archived the 1st meeting. View it here.

Councilperson Bartlett has clarified that the city's role is to provide education and facilitate and pay for a special election. The transition to a council-manager form of government is a citizen-led effort. A citizen's group, Madison Forward, is advocating for the transition and will be collecting the 900 needed signatures (10% of the voter turnout in the last municipal election). James Ross, the president of the transition committee appointed by the mayor, is the chair of Madison Forward, and Dr. Terri Johnson is the co-chair. Read more about Madison Forward and its efforts in this article in The Madison Record. The group is holding a petition drive at the Madison Public Library on Wednesday, July 6, 2022. There are some residents who are vocally against this transition, but we aren't aware of a concerted effort in opposition. If 900 signatures are collected, the petition will go to the Probate Judge and then be returned to Mayor Finley. Once Mayor Finley receives the petition, the city has 90 days to hold a special election.

If you have questions, the city's submission form is still available.

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