According to an advisory opinion released by the Alabama Office of Attorney General today, the election to create a council-manager form of government scheduled Tuesday in Fairhope will in effect require the City Council to adopt three single-member districts, eliminating the at-large system currently in place and likely forcing one or more current city councilors out of office in 2020.

The opinion (posted below), which is expected to be submitted as evidence into a pending lawsuit seeking an injunction against the election, mirrors one issued by Mayor Karin Wilson over the summer. It differs from one provided by the Fresh Start Fairhope group, which garnered more than 800 signatures on a petition for the election certified in late July.

While the petition and ballot language were written plainly to establish a council-manager form of government, Fresh Start Fairhope indicated the election would either preserve the at-large system, or allow the city to choose whether it wanted at-large or district representation after the election.

Drawing from two separate pieces of legislation, Attorney General Steve Marshall determined House Bill 147, signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Kay Ivey as Act 2018-569, did not modify the petition process set forth in the Council-Manager Act of 1982. Therefore, the petition is “valid” and “does not authorize the petitioners to select whether the future council will be composed of member who are elected at-large or by districts.

“On the contrary,” the opinion continues, “section 11-43A-8(a) mandates the composition of the future council in a municipality that decides to adopt a council-manager form of government by using the petition process …”

The composition called for in that section of law requires a five member council composed of a mayor elected at-large, one council member elected at-large, and three council members elected from single-member districts.

Further, Marshall advised the council must follow the provisions of the Council-Manager Act of 1982 in setting districts and holding elections for the City Council in the future.

“Accordingly, strict attention should be given to these provisions.”

State court records indicate the injunction approved by the City Council at a special-called meeting last week has yet to be filed, but at a forum hosted by the Common Sense Campaign Tea Party last night, City Councilman Jay Robinson cautioned voters about the effects of the referendum.

“The way our system works now, we have five council members elected at-large,” he said. “Anybody can run for any seat, and anybody can vote for anybody. Your mayor is elected at-large. The mayor is the administrator. The council sets the agenda and objectives of the city. The mayor sends the budget to us, we’re responsible for the finances.”

Under the new form of government, Robinson explained, the council doesn’t lose authority, but the mayor becomes the City Council president, sets the council agenda and gets an equal vote.

The council would hire a city manager to carry out the day-to-day operations of the city, recommend a budget and hire and fire employees.

“I’m not here to advocate one way or another,” Robinson said, suggesting the downside to districts would be pitting one district against another for resources and funding.

Robison was one of four council members who voted unanimously for the injunction last week. Councilman Jimmy Conyers was absent.

Dr. Lou Campomenosi, whose Common Sense Campaign has derailed several ballot initiatives in Baldwin County over the years, said delaying the election would be in everyone’s best interest.

“From a process perspective, this fails the test,” he said, adding that voters were too distracted by statewide primary and runoff elections, summer vacations and other obligations to pay attention to the petition process underway in Fairhope.

“This is a major change in government,” he said. “If you’re unsure about it, just vote ‘no’ and we’ll let the dust settle and figure it out some other time.”

Meanwhile Chuck Zunk, spokesman for Fresh Start Fairhope, said his analysis of the AG’s opinion is both the petition and election are valid. Further, he said the group raised money for a mailer that will be sent to all registered voters in Fairhope this week explaining the date, time, location and ballot language of next week’s referendum.

“There are no more questions and no reason for anyone to be confused,” he said. “Now we can focus on the real issue: do we or don’t we want a council-manager form of government?”

Reiterating the group’s talking points throughout the summer, Zunk said employing a city manager over the past 10-15 years would have prevented or mitigated many of the problems the city is facing today, including stormwater runoff, aging infrastructure, environmental degradation and planning and zoning lawsuits.

“Where this thing started to come off the rails was back in 2004, when Fairhope had to convert to weak mayor/strong council system,” he said. “The way that law works is the least efficient and most cumbersome system there is … had we had a city manager during those years, it would have allowed the council members to set a more strategic direction, to make sure larger issues are addressed.”

Further, Zunk believes the council’s pending injunction won’t carry much weight. As of Wednesday afternoon — a week after the special-called meeting — it had yet to be filed in circuit court.

“Our reading of the law is there are a few places in the Code of Alabama that very specifically refer to election law and they have an extreme bias against any member of the judiciary interfering with the election,” he said. “I’m assuming the City Council and its legal counsel are very aware of that bias.”

Fresh Start Fairhope has one final forum scheduled for the election this Sunday, Sept. 30 at 3 p.m. in the Rock Creek Clubhouse.

City Clerk Lisa Hanks issued a notice today to remind potential voters there is only one precinct for the Oct. 2 referendum, the Fairhope Civic Center at 161 N. Section St. Unless the courts interfere, the polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. next Tuesday, Oct. 2.


OPINION