Voters within Fairhope’s corporate limits will have an additional ballot to fill out Nov. 6 — a referendum to change the government to a council-manager form. If approved, the city must adopt the changes by the 2020 election cycle.
In August, a nonpartisan group of citizens successfully petitioned the state for a referendum to change the current strong council/weak mayor system. The council-manager form would give the mayor a seat on a five-member council, where three council members would be elected by district and a fourth elected at-large.
Currently all council members are elected at-large and the mayor does not have a vote on the council.
The referendum will be the culmination of efforts by Fresh Start Fairhope, which gathered more than 800 signatures in support of the vote over the summer. Mayor Karin Wilson and several former members of the Fairhope City Council endorsed the effort, claiming the hiring of a city manager to handle day-to-day operations will remove politics from the process and allow elected officials to focus on development and infrastructure problems that have long plagued Alabama’s fastest-growing city.
None of the current City Council has endorsed the council-manager form, but at least two of the five councilmen have made statements against it.
Meanwhile, on Oct. 11 a new political action committee, Forever Fairhope, was formed to defeat the referendum. Forever Fairhope spokesperson Gary Thorson appeared last week on WABF 1480 AM to explain the genesis of the organized dissent.
“Right now, as it stands, we could actually hire a city administrator … that could be done right now without changing the city government,” Thorson said. “But Fresh Start Fairhope and the mayor are not in favor of that. So you have to ask yourself, what’s the the hidden agenda here? I think the thing that a lot of people have missed is it’s really not about the city manager, it’s about the change of the power and control of the city the council-manager form of government would bring about … the purpose of this is to change the whole power structure of the city.”
In September, the Alabama Office of Attorney General issued an opinion stating both the petition and election were “valid.” Originally scheduled for Oct. 2, the Fairhope City Council sought an 11th-hour injunction against the referendum in late September. Subsequently, Baldwin County Probate Judge Tim Russell admitted it was incorrectly scheduled, and pushed the referendum back to Nov. 6 to correspond with the general election, even though some voters had already submitted absentee ballots.
If the referendum passes, the City Council will have to hire a consultant to divide the city into three voting districts and the 2020 election may likely feature an entirely different slate of candidates. Once elected, the new City Council, including one at-large member and the mayor, would have to approve the hiring of a city manager.
More information about the referendum is available by searching lagniappemobile.com. For anyone still unsure of the effects of the referendum, Fresh Start Fairhope will hold an informational meeting at the Rock Creek Clubhouse at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4.
CORRECTION: This story originally stated a city manager would have to be approved unanimously by the City Council. In fact, the hiring could be approved by a simple majority.