Absentee ballots were made available Aug. 28 for an Oct. 2 referendum before Fairhope voters on a change of government, even though questions remain about what it all means.
Two weeks ago, the city asked the Alabama Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on whether or not the council-manager form of government, if approved by voters, would mean council members are elected at large or from specific districts. The council eventually voted 3-1 to ask for the opinion.
The result was a rare moment where Mayor Karin Wilson and Council President Jack Burrell saw eye to eye on an issue.
“Clarifying this important distinction is a must,” Wilson said. “Many who signed the petition, including me, believed they were signing for a new form of government with council districts. The vote should not take place until this is clearly communicated.”
Burrell and the other members of the Fairhope City Council have not taken sides in the referendum.
“I think the greater question is, can you have an election on a total change in the form of government without knowing what the final government will look like,” Burrell said.
Attorney General opinions usually take months to come down, and on Aug. 28 that left five short weeks until the scheduled vote.
Chuck Zunk, the spokesman of the Fresh Start Fairhope group that gathered enough petition signatures to force the referendum, said he thought the wording in the letter favored those who believe there should be at-large districts voting for council members.
“It’s clear that the author of this draft has a strong bias against our petition generally and a strong bias against the at-large form of council representation,” Zunk said. “We wonder why such a biased draft was submitted to you in the first place.”
Zunk believes the issue must be resolved but felt the resolution passed requesting the AG opinion was as confusing and unclear as the amendment to the state constitution that allows for a city to change its form of government.
“Our reading of the law is that the law is silent on whether the City Council should make a determination on at-large or district representation before or after,” Zunk said. “We would prefer before. But we’re not the lawyers and we’re not the attorney general.”
Wilson said she strongly believes it is time for Fairhope’s council to be elected by district.
Fairhope currently has a mayor-council form of government, with the mayor in charge of operating the city day to day and the council serving as the legislative and financial arm.
A council-manager form, if voted in, would change the council to five members including the mayor, who would be a voting member instead of an administrator. A city manager would be hired to run the city on a daily basis.