There’s a grassroots movement underway in Fairhope to adopt a new form of government, but the clock is ticking. During a meeting at the Fairhope Public Library last Thursday, a group calling itself “Fresh Start Fairhope” drew about 150 attendees to discuss a recently enacted law allowing cities of a certain population to adopt a council-manager form of government.

But according to Baldwin County Probate Judge Tim Russell, the group has about 15 days to gather some 685 signatures if they want to call a special election before the new law takes effect. Otherwise, the City Council will have to approve the referendum.

“Some residents of Fairhope have specifically suggested that for at least the last 10 years the city has been beset with conflict among its elected officials that has not abated, even though the people now serving in those positions are completely different than those from several years ago,” introductory materials provided by the group read. “This may suggest a systematic problem with our form of governance that may only get worse as the city continues to grow.”

Organizer Chuck Zunk emphasized the effort is not a response to the recent and ongoing discord between Mayor Karin Wilson and the City Council, but has been years in the making.

“This effort to convert our city to a council-manager format is not something that came off the cuff,” he told the audience last week. “But now, finally, the last piece has fallen into place. When the Alabama governor and Legislature signed into law House Bill 147, that allows us to change our government from what it is now — a little ragged around the edges — to a council-manager form of government, and the power is in our hands now if we’re ever going to do it.”

“Now” is the keyword, according to Russell, who confirmed the group must gather the number of signatures equal to 10 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in the last municipal election — around 700 to be safe — and submit the petition to his office by July 5 at 5 p.m. On July 6 the new statute goes into effect, he said, requiring the council to vote on whether or not to hold a special election.

“If the petition is approved, we are obviously going to follow the advice of the mayor and council about what’s best for citizens, but most likely a special election would be set on a Tuesday, right before the general election in November,” Russell said, adding that he and a member of the Alabama Secretary of State’s office will attend the Fairhope City Council meeting June 25 to discuss the issue further.

House Bill 147 was sponsored by State Rep. David Faulkner of Jefferson County and signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey in April. The bill authorizes municipalities with populations up to 100,000 residents “to adopt the council-manager form of government, having a council composed of either five or seven members with a mayor elected at large and either four or six council members elected either at large or from single-member districts.”

“It’s not really a controversial bill, although I dropped it three years in a row to get it to where it needed to be,” Faulkner explained last week. “We already had in our state code a council-manager form of government, but very few cities had used what was proposed in the code. All we were trying to do was make the code that already existed more amenable, more likely for cities to adopt without having to create special legislation.”

Currently, the city of Fairhope is classified as a Class 6 municipality, according to Alabama state code. It operates under a strong council/weak mayor form of government, one adopted after it surpassed 12,000 residents in the mid-2000s. Often cited as the fastest-growing city in the state, it currently has about 19,000 residents.

Resolving some confusion about the bill early on, Fresh Start Fairhope sent out an email earlier this week clarifying its intent. The existing five-member council is elected at large, but the petition will allow the option of splitting the city into districts. (See editor’s note below).

“When we circulate our petitions to change the Fairhope government to a council-manager structure, we must specify in the petition whether we want the ‘district’ version or the ‘at large’ version. There is no waffling; we must now pick one or the other.”

City managers are not a foreign concept. Sixteen cities across the state, including Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Foley in Baldwin County, have hired city managers to supervise the day-to-day business of the city, although they’ve done it by ordinance rather than by statute. Fairhope itself had a city administrator for three years ending in 2012.

Under the new structure, only the City Council, which would include the mayor, could hire and fire the city manager.

Sam Gaston, city manager of Mountain Brook, Alabama, and the “impetus” behind House Bill 147, according to Faulkner, summed it up this way:

“If you hire a professional manager, you will have less politics in city government because the manager will take direction from the council and the manager will be hiring the best employees they can get — people who are committed to public service, not friends or allies. Managers also ensure all services are delivered equally and efficiently. A lot of times under a mayor and council form, the council doesn’t control the mayor — the council sets the policies and the mayor decides how to implement them.”

Gaston, who said he’s seven generations removed from the family of E.B. Gaston, founder of Fairhope, claimed he was not familiar with the ongoing friction between Wilson and the City Council. Wilson controversially replaced a number of department supervisors after entering office in late 2016, which is her right as mayor, but two weeks ago set off a firestorm of criticism by delivering a negative performance evaluation to Police Chief Joe Petties. In turn, Petties turned in his resignation to the state, but the City Council rejected it.

Appointing a city manager by ordinance would still leave the council responsible for hiring the police chief, fire chief and utilities supervisor, Gaston said, but with a true council-manager form of government, the city manager would be responsible for those hires as well.

“You may have some pushback from those who want to maintain control, but you don’t elect a mayor or City Council person to be a manager,” he said.

None of the current City Council members responded to requests for comment, but Zunk, along with former City Councilmen Lonnie Mixon and Rick Kingrea, expressed concern that none of Fairhope’s current elected officials is qualified to manage a $65 million budget and 200 employees. Former City Council President Bob Gentle, who spoke at the Fresh Start Fairhope meeting last week, also complained about the lack of a comprehensive plan, insinuating that former Mayor Tim Kant and other councilmembers at the time let developers take control of growth in the city in exchange for a substantial increase in utility revenue. In the meantime, Gentle said he frequently got calls from suppliers and contractors who said their invoices hadn’t been paid.

“There were comments made that if such and such happened with planning and zoning, you’d sell a whole lot of utilities,” Gentle said. “Those utility revenues were used to balance the books. These are the kinds of conflicts I saw.”

Kingrea reported a similar experience, saying it eventually led to the council passing an ordinance to hire a city administrator.

“We were trying to do what we thought was the right thing in terms of having a city administrator instead of having the mayor be in charge,” Kingrea said. “Obviously that caused a lot of conflict with Mayor Kant and we probably didn’t do a good job of defining what the city administrator was responsible for and who he reported to. So there was really never any cooperation. The problem we had when we had the city administrator was [Kant] was still exercising control over utilities, and I think we didn’t do a good job over who should report to [the administrator] and who should report to Kant.”

Mixon recalled what happened in 2012.

“As soon as the council I was on left, the new council came on and the mayor’s administration immediately fired [the administrator],” he said. “He didn’t like anyone usurping what he thought was his total responsibility.”

When she took office in 2016, Wilson voluntarily declined to manage utilities in the city. For his role, Kant earned $90,000 per year as mayor; Wilson earns $32,400. Wilson has also been a vocal supporter of hiring a city administrator or manager, although it is unclear whether she supports the Fresh Start Fairhope.

Gaston said a council-manager form of government would resolve those issues. The mayor would essentially become a ceremonial figurehead for the city, but would also be a voting member of a five-member council. The council would approve the budget and set policy, but the manager would carry it out. The mayor would retain certain authority in emergency situations, however, reporting directly to the governor.

“Employing a professional city manager frees elected officials from the administration of daily operations and gives them time to focus on the policy issues that will guide the future of Fairhope,” Fresh Start Fairhope maintains. “A professional city manager typically has a graduate degree in public administration, city planning or business management — plus years of relevant on-the-job experience. The city manager of Fairhope, appointed by the City Council, will be running a $65 million budgeted business with a projected growth rate of 5-10 percent annually, staffed by over 300 full-time employees. No elected official, however well-intended, is likely to be nearly as qualified as a professional city manager.”

According to Gaston, the council-manager form of government is also fail-safe.

“If you have an elected official you don’t like or someone who isn’t doing the job at all, there is not a lot you can do until the next election,” he said. “But if you have a manager, you can get rid of them the next day.”

Gaston has served as the city manager for Mountain Brook for 25 years. A former president of the International City/County Management Association, he said the average tenure of a city manager is about seven to eight years, but some municipalities in Alabama, including Brundidge, Shelby County and Auburn, retained the same managers for two decades or more. But they are also not immune to politics.

“The city manager of Talladega was just fired by a 3-2 vote,” he said. “Talladega and Anniston seem to turn over managers every few years. But I would think a city like Fairhope would be able to attract a lot of good candidates with its high quality of life and amenities.”

Gaston noted there were 340 applicants for the job in Mountain Brook when he was selected.

“The last 10 or 11 years my relationship with the City Council has been outstanding,” he said. “There was some division around 1996 when we had four new council members and a new mayor over a big development on Highway 280. But I took it upon myself — and I consider it the job of the manager if possible — to try to build teamwork on the council as a whole. We did and it’s been great.”

But former City Councilwoman Diana Brewer, who also attended last week’s meeting, expressed reservations about the council-manager form of government.

“You make comparisons to a city manager being a CEO, but in corporate America there is such a thing as corporate culture, and it starts at the top with the CEO,” she said. Changing to a council-manager form of government would diminish that, she suggested. “Would you be satisfied allowing the state Legislature to appoint the governor?”

Brewer also worried that splitting the council into districts — an option under HB 147 but not a requirement — would “further divide the town” and pit one district’s interests against another’s. “Our current government gives us checks and balances and divisions of power. And changing our form of government will not end politics.”

But Mixon suggested opposition to the plan won’t always be as forthcoming as Brewer.

“People are normally against change by human nature, so you may see that kind of hesitation,” he said. “But if there was someone or some group that wants to control this power, they would want to defeat this. You’ll probably see a lot of misinformation spread around. When you start kicking that kind of money around, you make a lot of friends …”

Meanwhile, Faulkner said the cities of Madison and Pelham were also exploring the council-manager form of government. Zunk said there is a common thread.

“One of the reasons we look to cities like Mountain Brook and Vestavia is because they are growing fast like we are,” he said. “The issue of growth is one of the main reasons we want to convert. It creates a lot of things, one of which is stress on the [infrastructure] … Another challenge is all these new people have to go somewhere, and if we don’t plan appropriately, these people and companies and the services they need will be scattered, with no plan in place. Whereas if the [City Council] can address growth strategically, and [a manager] can implement it, we can get a handle on it.”

Editor’s note: On June 19, the organizers of Fresh Start Fairhope indicated they will pursue the at-large model, rather than the district model for all elected positions.