You can’t say it wasn’t a valiant effort. After more than 800 people signed a petition in less than two weeks — at least 779 signatures were certified — a special-interest group in Fairhope forced an election for a new form of government, but it was ultimately defeated Nov. 6.
The group, Fresh Start Fairhope, found a groundswell of support for a council-manager form of government after hosting its first community meeting in June. But a lack of further detail and the Fairhope City Council’s subsequent efforts to postpone a special election initially scheduled in October may have doomed the effort.
Currently, the city is governed by a strong council/weak mayor system, with the City Council elected at large and charged with making legislative decisions. Among other duties, Mayor Karin Wilson is responsible for hiring department heads and drafting the annual budget.
Fresh Start Fairhope’s proposal would have mandated, beginning with the 2020 election, that whoever is elected mayor would become a voting member of a five-member council, in which one other council seat would be elected at large and the three remaining would be elected from districts.
The city currently is not divided into districts. Further, a city manager would be hired to handle the day-to-day operations, leaving the council, including the mayor, to focus on strategic planning.
The group’s petition was challenged from the beginning. Spokesperson Chuck Zunk, previously an appointed member of the city’s finance committee and airport authority, claimed the referendum would not enforce districts. However, Wilson sought legal advice and immediately determined it would. She circulated her own petition clarifying what would later be affirmed by Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office.
Both petitions were the result of statewide legislation passed in April. House Bill 147, signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey, allows cities like Fairhope to convert to a council-manager form of government by simply submitting a petition to the probate court to have an election and voting for it by a simple majority in a general citywide election.
The first part was easy. While Wilson’s petition only gathered around 200 signatures, Fresh Start Fairhope collected the requisite number — 10 percent of the number of voters in the last general election — by early July. In accordance with HB 147, it was submitted to Probate Judge Tim Russell, who certified the petition and scheduled a special election for Oct. 2.
But legal intervention was also swift. First, the City Council voted to seek an attorney general’s opinion on whether the referendum would indeed enforce districts. On Sept. 19, the council received a preliminary opinion stating both the petition and election were valid, and districting would be imposed.
Immediately, the council held a special meeting, voting to file an injunction against the election. However, before the injunction was filed, the council’s attorney discovered language in the legislation stating the election should never have been scheduled for Oct. 2. The council filed an appeal to Russell.
On Sept. 28, the special election was postponed to coincide with the general election scheduled for Nov. 6.
John Bennett, deputy chief of staff for the secretary of state, issued a statement reading: “The Alabama Secretary of State’s Office was requested to review a matter brought to our attention by Baldwin County Probate Judge Tim Russell. At Judge Russell’s request, the Secretary of State’s office reviewed certain facts related to the proposed special election after which, and as concurred to by David Whetstone — the Probate Judge’s legal counsel — it was determined that the city of Fairhope did not issue the proclamation in the required 10-day period for calling a special election as directed by the Code of Alabama (11-43A-1, et seq., Ala. Code). Since the standard in the code was not met in this instance, according to state law, the county chief election official shall determine the date of election. The state law requires the election in this case to be held on the same day as the 2018 General Election – November 6, 2018.”
Last Tuesday, around 38 percent of registered Fairhope voters each waited as long as an hour to cast a separate ballot from the general election. The results were uncontested: 3,887 voters against the referendum, 2,762 voters in favor of it.
The ballot language did not mention the city would be split into districts.
Immediately, there were complaints about the long lines being a deterrent to some who wanted to vote. City Clerk Lisa Hanks said that wasn’t the case; instead, the Probate Court could only provide one voting machine for each of seven polling places. Hanks said the referendum left only four spare voting machines available countywide.
“Lines were a little longer due to that … we didn’t have a big issue until probably 3 or 4 [p.m.] and it stayed that way until 7,” she said.
Registered voters were cross-referenced against a list for eligibility, but around 50-60 voters who were unverified were permitted to cast a provisional ballot. The election was canvassed Nov. 13 and the results were certified.
Organized resistance to the referendum was slow to react to the petition, but on Oct. 8 a political action committee was formed to fund a formal campaign.
Forever Fairhope, as it is known, was the creation of Chairperson Gary Thorson and Treasurer Bill Pennington, each of whom donated $1,000 to the cause. According to reports filed with the secretary of state’s office, the group raised a total of $5,250 in cash contributions to print opposition signs and send a mailer to defeat the referendum.
Thorson has lived in Fairhope a little over five years, Pennington seven. Both admitted prior to the referendum they haven’t been very involved in Fairhope politics.
“I am a not politician and don’t claim to be, but I’ve worked in municipal government for the past 37 years,” said Thorson, a consultant who helps local governments redesign business processes and automate. “I’ve seen all forms of municipal government at work. And every one of them has pros and cons and every one can work and every one can be dysfunctional; it just depends on the people you elect.
“So I started listening to talking points of Fresh Start Fairhope and knew from experience those points weren’t necessarily true. There were overpromises being made to get this thing passed. I realized there was an ulterior motive and did some research as to the founders of Fresh Start Fairhope and put the puzzle together.”
Among the advocates of the referendum were former city councilors Lonnie Mixon, Debbie Quinn and Bob Gentle. Mixon and Quinn were on the council in 2010 and 2011, when it voted to strip the mayor of certain duties and pay, employing a city administrator instead.
Jack Burrell and Kevin Boone were elected to the council in 2012 and acted swiftly to defund the city administrator position and restore those duties to then Mayor Tim Kant. When Wilson defeated Kant in 2016, she declined to assume the role of utility supervisor and later delegated some of Kant’s previous duties to department heads.
“Quite frankly, I feel like [the referendum] is a knee-jerk reaction to the current political situation, where the mayor and council aren’t working together,” Thorson continued. “To me that’s what elections are for. You don’t change the form of government because you have a difference of opinion, you change the people who are serving.”
Pennington agreed, but admitted that before the petition was circulated he “had no idea” there were problems in the city government.
“I just didn’t want to jump into it and didn’t want anybody else to jump into it,” he said of the council-manager form of government. “I don’t think people were getting the correct information or understanding it. We need more time to go over it and the system may need to change down the road, but we don’t need to do it that quick.”
So, along with his $1,000 donation Pennington also sought other contributions and spent Election Day carrying a “VOTE NO” sign outside polling places.
“I’m not saying I know everything about it. I disagree with some things and agree with others. it just seems if you’re unsatisfied, you vote for someone else in the next election.”
Other $1,000 contributors included Cornelius Booher and Angus Cooper Jr., neither of whom list addresses in the city limits and were thus ineligible to vote in the referendum. Wolfe-Bayview Funeral Home and Robert C. Baird each pitched in $500 to defeat the measure, and smaller donations were made by Michael Turner, Dale Cunningham and Robin Sanders.
Prior to the election, councilmen Jack Burrell, Kevin Boone and Robert Brown made statements against the referendum.
“The problem to me was [the referendum] was going to be an automatic vote for districts,” Councilman Boone said after its defeat. “The politics would have been very strong — it kind of takes the community away when you have a decisive situation … it takes away the team effort.”
Boone also noted that since the mayor and one council person would be elected at large, the council could conceivably have three members from the same district.
Brown said the certified petition was inherently misleading since it did not specify districts, and Fresh Start Fairhope actually advocated for an at-large council.
“I think a lot of people that signed the initial petition did so because it was advertised it was being at large,” he said, adding that staffing changes since Wilson’s election were behind most of the petitioners’ derision. “A lot of the problems that led to the push for a city manager has been a loss of department heads. We currently have some qualified people running their departments, but a lot of them don’t have the institutional knowledge of the departments they are running, so it takes more effort from the people in the department and those above them. Close to 30 people either left through early retirements or resigned or were let go … a lot of knowledge has been lost.”
Both Brown and Councilman Jimmy Conyers said they would be open to negotiating changes either to the mayor’s pay or role, but neither believe a city manager or administrator is immediately necessary.
“I felt like Fairhope would be fine either way, but I voted ‘no’ because it was an unnecessary expense,” Conyers explained. “There is a large percentage of people that want some type of change … and I take notice. We’re working on a lot of the things people want, but it’s not going to happen overnight. We’re making a lot of positive changes but it will take a while before they are fully implemented.”
Among those concerns are growth, infrastructure and what some believe is a degraded environment. Conyers acknowledged the struggles between the council and mayor but suggested their relationship has improved.
“I think what people want to see is the council and the mayor’s office working well together. It’s a two-way street and maybe both sides could improve. I can only say I’m putting an emphasis on better communication, but as a group, infrastructure is a top priority; we’re taking a look at different things in the zoning arena, the K-1 Center is a top priority … I have a feeling the citizens are going to want to a make a change in two years, either on the council or the mayor,” Conyers said in a nod to the next election.
For her part, Wilson believes she’s made progress in spite of her relationship with the council and a council-manager form of government would be a permanent barrier to internal politics that have plagued Fairhope since even before her tenure.
In a newsletter emailed to constituents Oct. 31, she argued “a nonpolitical, professional city manager would decrease operating expenses by increasing efficiency and improving productivity … I believe that a political executive, having control over staff, is a fundamental flaw in proper and efficient local government management.”
In a two-year progress report published Nov. 10, she counts among her success cutting wasteful spending, appointing new planning commissioners and department heads, securing RESTORE Act money for a comprehensive land-use plan, enforcing new sewer standards for development and improving communication with constituents.
At her coffee shop Monday, Wilson said the referendum’s defeat is not discouraging and she will continue to push for a city manager.
“I think the people who voted ‘no’ either didn’t understand the benefits, bought into the misinformation that was being spread around or are among the people who benefit from the system,” she said. “When you have an at-large council, it opens itself up to special interest control … these things will no longer happen when you have a nonpolitical CEO. The reality is there is a high demand for profit and development and the city hasn’t been diligent in enforcing that it’s consistent and fair.”
Still, while declining to point fingers at anyone in particular, she did suggest the City Council remains unreceptive to her ideas or imperatives, and noted the full city budget remains unapproved although she sent it to the council in August; state law advises its adoption by Oct. 1.
“There is a more professional way of doing things,” she said. “We all took an oath, and our main promise was to work together for the betterment of the city. [The referendum] was an opportunity to push the ‘reset’ button. There’s probably no form of government where things work perfectly, but it was an opportunity to put things in their place and better define roles and create an environment of cooperation.”
Meanwhile, Fresh Start Fairhope spokesperson Zunk conceded while the results of the referendum were clear, perhaps the message was not.
“Of course we’re disappointed, but I think it’s a complicated issue and apparently a lot of folks would like to have a better explanation of the benefits and problems the city is facing,” he said. “So we’re going to take a step back and reassess the result and decide how to go forward.”
Both Zunk and some of the referendum’s opponents suggested the wheels were already in motion to amend and clarify House Bill 147 in the next legislative session.
“I think we would consider another referendum in a few years,” he said. “One of things we have to overcome is the knowledge of the electorate, the problems with the system now and why we think the council-manager system is a solution. In hindsight, we could have been more clear, but I think everybody understood going in what their ‘yes’ vote would mean.”
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