Questions remain about Madison's possible governance transition
Updated: Feb 7
I Vote Madison sent an email to city leaders on December 8, 2022 to ask them some in-depth questions about the possible governance transition. The content of the email is in this blog post. We still have not received responses to our questions.
Starting at the end of last fall, the leaders of I Vote Madison started looking back at what we have seen happen since the Governance Transition Committee first presented its report to Council and Mayor Finley. With the knowledge that the petition was close to reaching the required signatures, we realized we needed to take stock of our role and our efforts thus far and plan what actions we wanted to take next in case a special election drew near.
To help guide us, we considered information that was presented by the city, citizen groups who support the transition, and also the opinions and concerns expressed by residents at meetings and on social media. Residents have voiced concerns not only about a council-manager government but about the steps being taken to place it in front of citizens on a ballot.
After sorting through this information, which included re-watching recordings of town hall meetings, we realized several questions and concerns posed by residents to the city over the last year had still not been addressed. Requests for information were still unfilled.
This led us to two overarching questions:
Has the city presented the information in the most objective, transparent, and accessible way possible?
Do citizens have enough information to make a truly informed decision if this is placed on a ballot?
Our answer to both of these questions was "not yet." We decided that reaching out to our city leaders would be a good first step in addressing those two questions. A main role we have played in Madison thus far has been filling in gaps. It made sense to us to first give our elected leaders an opportunity to fill those gaps.
Below is the content of the email, in its entirety, that we sent to Mayor Finley, Council President Bartlett (who was also in charge of the education and outreach efforts the city undertook related to this issue), and the city attorney on December 8, 2022.
We have still not received responses to these questions. The city attorney did quickly reply to say he’d “be happy to prepare a bullet point response to [our] questions with some citations to the Alabama State Code that clarify how the transition would affect the Mayor’s duties.” However, we never received that response.
As you probably know, I Vote Madison has made efforts to help inform residents, provide objective information, and increase everyone’s ability to understand this possible governance transition.
We have mostly echoed the information the city has presented, but we want to make sure we do our due diligence to address the questions and concerns those opposed to it have. Our organization continues to neither support nor oppose a transition. We want to continue our efforts, and we have new questions for you as we move forward.
We ask these questions after having taken in all we have seen from the beginning of this process (from the committee’s recommendations, the city’s communication and education efforts, and what citizens are saying about it), and after asking ourselves two questions:
Do citizens have enough information to make a truly informed decision if this is placed on a ballot? Has the city presented the information in the most objective, transparent, and accessible way possible?
The sections below contain our questions for you.
Laws governing a transition to Council-manager government
The laws we have found do not negate what the city has presented (and we are not calling into question whether the city is circumventing the law), but to make sure we have accurate information so that we can continue to address the mis- and possible dis-information we have seen, we’d like more information.
We found the 2021 Alabama Code that relates to Council-manager governments.
Is this 2021 code the most recently updated, applicable code that dictates this possible transition for Madison (a 2018 document was mentioned by Councilperson Bartlett, but we have not found one from that year)?
We have seen debate among citizens about whether the mayor could vote on council decisions under a council-manager form of government. Some citizens have been citing section 11-43-16 of this 2021 code but not including section 11-43-1.1 to support their argument that the mayor is ceremonial and does not vote.
Are we correct in understanding that both of these sections apply to a mayor in a council-manager style of government? In other words, the mayor simultaneously plays a legislative role (laid out in 11-43-1.1) and an executive role (laid out in 11-43-16) and that one section does not negate the other. The legislative role is serving as City Council President and a voting member and the executive/administrative role is mostly ceremonial with the city manager taking on the day-to-day administrative duties (This is, of course, the same information the city has presented from the beginning).
For further clarification, we noticed there are exceptions for certain classes of cities, 6 and 7, so are those two sections mentioned above applicable to cities the size of Madison? Class 4?
We think it would be beneficial for the city to cite exactly what laws are governing this possible transition and make them readily available to citizens on the city’s website (if there are citizens who take issue with the law itself, they can take those up with the state of Alabama instead of asserting that the city is running afoul of the law in some way).
Opinions of the Mayor and Council
Is there something, legally speaking, that would prevent the mayor and council members from expressing their opinions publicly (and reasons for their opinions) on this possible transition?
It seems pretty clear that Mayor Finley supports it, and Councilmember Shaw has spoken in a way that indicates support. We get the feeling that there is overall support for it from the city. We know the committee’s report said that our department heads are favorable to the transition as they would have a clear chain of command.
But let’s say the city, including many leaders and even department heads, didn’t feel it was a good change or were just outright opposed. Would the city still be presenting this possible transition in the same way? Would the mayor still have appointed a committee to research it?
We were told that the last time this option was presented, the current mayor was opposed. But we have been told it is a citizen-led effort, with a petition and then a vote, and that it is the citizens who ultimately decide and not the mayor and Council. Did the people who wanted the change a few years ago just decide not to pursue it further because they decided to follow the wishes of that current mayor? Could they have gone ahead anyway?
We’d like to know what other members of the Council think, even if they can’t (other than casting their own personal vote at the ballot box or choosing to sign the petition), stop it. Council was elected and entrusted to make important decisions that affect the future of our city, so if there is nothing preventing them from doing so, we’d like to know if this very big decision is something they feel is best for Madison and why or why not.
If there are other reasons apart from the law that is causing the council to refrain from expressing support, opposition, or even concerns or other statements, we’re interested in hearing that reasoning as that also furthers our understanding of how city government works.
A problem/solution lens
Often when there is a big change, whether it is in an individual’s life, a business, or an organization/institution, it is because something is not working; there is a problem. After identifying that problem, brainstorming for possible solutions happens. These possible solutions are then researched and steps are taken to implement the solution and fix the problem.
Although citizens have been presented with how this transition to a council-manager government will benefit our fast-growing city, (stability, reduce politics in the administration of the city, and be more efficient), straightforward and specific messaging about what is not currently working hasn’t been relayed. What exactly is not working? How do we know it’s not working (is there a problem within our city that has manifested from instability, inefficiency, or politics)? We’ve heard citizens speak from an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it perspective. Our city has ranked, repeatedly and recently, highly among the best places to live, and our schools rank highly as well, so it does make sense to ask, “What exactly is broken”?
Now we understand that there is a proactive element to this push for a transition, but we think it makes sense to clarify what specific problems will arise if Madison continues to grow without shifting to a council-manager form of government. We think it would be beneficial to look at the issue and present information about it using a problem/solution lens.
So, what is the identifiable problem(s) that a transition to a council-manager form of government would solve? And if a problem(s) can be named, is there perhaps more than one possible solution?
The citizens have been given information from the city and Madison Forward related to just one solution: A shift to a Council-manager form of government. It’s a solution that didn’t begin with an acknowledgment of a specific problem, though. We also know that there is more than one way to have a city manager.
As we understand it, the council could place a city manager at the helm of a lot of the executive/administrative tasks without changing the structure of the government and without a petition/vote. If one reads through the report by the committee, one will see that the committee briefly mentions appointing a city manager and keeping the current structure of government. They say that it would be better to change the structure so that the mayor and manager would not be in competition and that department heads would have a clear chain of command.
It’s been said, though, (by several professionals) that under a council-manager form of government, the biggest con is what would happen if the wrong manager was chosen. Competition between the mayor and city manager was cited as a reason that would be a con. So in either city manager scenario, it seems like a lot hinges on who exactly is appointed.
With growth being a main reason given for needing this transition, is there a concern that a mayor-council form of government will not be able to manage it as efficiently as a council-manager government? Growth is a big topic for Madison residents. How much to grow and how. What does “manage” mean exactly in this context? Does it involve being able to continue to grow but providing the infrastructure and other things to support that growth? Does it mean curbing growth? Being more thoughtful and strategic about growth?
Some citizens who are opposed to more growth, are concerned that a city manager will lead to even more growth. If growth getting out of hand is the problem that a council-manager form of government will solve, are there not other ways to solve it? For example, are there zoning changes that can be made?
We think addressing these questions and being more clear and precise would help citizens understand, lessen the distrust some residents have, and hopefully reduce the misinformation being spread in our community. If this issue makes it on a ballot, voters will have the chance to shape our city in a big way. It’s quite a responsibility. We think everyone needs to know as much as possible before casting a vote. Getting feedback from their local representatives, who know more about how local government works and how one form of government over the other would impact carrying out the vision of the city, would further inform voters (if Council is legally able to provide that feedback, of course).
We’d be happy to meet and talk through some of this with you or correspond through email.
Co-founder, I Vote Madison
We hope the city will provide answers to these questions, especially if the petition leads us to a special election. If this is placed on a ballot, citizens will have the opportunity to decide whether to maintain a mayor-council government or switch to a council-manager form of government. This is a decision that will shape Madison in a large way for decades to come.
I Vote Madison has already made plans to host an in-person, citizen's debate if a special election is announced. And, of course, we will be doing voter outreach to encourage Madison citizens to register to vote and show up at the polls. We have been thinking of additional ways to amplify the voices of residents. We will be inviting residents to submit guest posts for our blog. We have published residents on our blog in the past, but it's an avenue we have not pursued since early in I Vote Madison's history. More information about guest blogging is coming soon. [Edit (1/7/2023): We added a link to a blog post that contains guidelines about guest blog posts.]