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EDITORIAL: Tonight’s community meeting about changing Madison’s city structure is very important

Madison residents can attend the meeting in person or watch it online

MADISON – This evening an important meeting will take place that Madison residents need to pay attention to. It’s the first of a few town hall style meetings designed to give people a better understanding of a proposed change in city structure and to gauge the public’s feedback before placing the issue on the ballot in a special election.

If passed, the proposed change will narrow the current role of an elected mayor in favor of an appointed city manager. Madison City Council member Renae Bartlett is moderating tonight’s community meeting. It will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Madison Council Chambers at City Hall, 100 Hughes Road. The purpose of the community meeting is to discuss transitioning to a council-city manager form of government.

The meeting will also be live-streamed on the city’s webpage at www.madisonal.gov. Those watching this way, can submit questions prior to the meeting by clicking here.

Bartlett said there will be two city managers in attendance who will describe their roles and duties. They will be available to answer questions. They are Sam Gaston, the city manager for Mountain Brook, and Jeff Downes, city manager for Vestavia Hills.

The proposed change would place a council-appointed city manager in charge of the city’s daily operations and departments.

Earlier this year, Madison City Council members heard from a special appointed “Madison Governance Transition Committee” on their research and recommendation of changing the form of government for the city. The committee unanimously recommended that the city should shift to a council-manager form of government.

The committee members were appointed by Mayor Paul Finley in August 2021 and tasked with looking into the proposed change and develop a recommendation for the city council.

Currently, the city of Madison operates with a mayor-council form of government, with 7 voting district representatives and Mayoral recommendations with no vote.

If the change is approved, it would require redistricting Madison into 6 districts, with a voting mayor elected at large. The mayor would mostly represent the city in public events and in meetings with neighboring cities. Currently, the mayor is elected and oversees municipal departments and functions, with a heavy hand in deciding the overall direction for the city.

The proposed change would place a council-appointed city manager in charge of the city’s daily operations and departments, who answers to the city council. The mayor would be the “face of the city” and serve as the city council president.

The city council could remove the city manager if not fulfilling duties.

Those for it say the change is needed to bring stability to the separate functions of a city continuing to experience tremendous growth and the various issues that causes. The function of the manager would keep politics out of city administration, they argue. Having department heads in place under an overall city manager that is appointed rather than elected would remove the threat of change every time a new mayor is elected, they say, and give the city a better chance at realizing long-term goals.

Speaking of long term, a group of city and community leaders are currently working on a strategic plan that will help guide Madison’s growth for the next 20 plus years. Called Madison on Track 2045, it will be a policy document for use by the community at large to make decisions about future growth. You can read more about that at www.madisonontrack2045.com. Those for the change feel that any long-term strategic plan would have a better chance of working if the current structure is changed, because ultimately whoever is elected mayor currently has a heavy hand in the overall direction for the city.

In other words, any strategic plan might be thrown in jeopardy if Madison elects a mayor down the road with an entirely different vision for the city or lacks the management skills necessary to push the city forward. Some of these fears stem from the dysfunction between the city council and former mayor Troy Trulock, which came to a head in 2015 — the last time there was a push for a city manager structure of government.

Then former mayor Paul Finley ran for election again with a campaign promising to bring back a positive working relationship between the mayor’s office and city council. It worked and the push for a city manager was dropped for the time being. Now Mayor Finley is in this third term. But the “what if?” still looms. What if the next mayor is not a strong leader who can work with the city council effectively? What if they try to take Madison into a direction that could slow down the progress already made or even halt it? What if? What if? What if? And that is where the proposed change may be a hard sell for some people. There is not a problem right now.

Those against the change are concerned with placing too much power into the hands of the city council. The council currently appoints the city’s school board members, who in turn hires the superintendent. Placing them in charge of hiring and overseeing the city manager too would mean the only elected city officials will be the city council. Even though there will still be a mayor, in reality he will be an “at-large” council member, they argue. They say eliminating the leadership of a strong mayor would reduce the ability to allow a system of checks and balances to work in such a way that keeps either the city council or the mayor’s office from exercising an overabundance of power. At the end of the day, they really have no choice but to try and work together. After all, the city council ultimately has the last say in approving the budget for the city. If the mayor wants to take the city in a direction that is at odds with the city council, he still has to work with them to fund it. It seems to work for Huntsville. Why can it not continue to work for Madison?

The reality of the situation is simply this: you can have an ineffective mayor in the future, and you can have an ineffective city council with members who cannot work together in the future too. There are many examples of both in similar cities throughout the United States. A city manager may or may not be what Madison needs to manage the complex infrastructure problems as we continue to grow….and grow it has. Madison increased by 968 people, from 57,389 to 58,357 in one year, from 2020 to 2021. With this 1.69% increase, Madison has moved past Decatur to become the second largest city in north Alabama and ninth largest in the state.

We have been extremely fortunate to have the city leaders in place we do right now. Madison has likely dodged many bullets just by having elected leaders who have a desire to work together and work with the other local governments to push this area forward. It has paid off, regardless of what problems still exist (it will never be perfect). And why do we have that? Because we have voters who elect strong leaders. They study the issues and debate what they think is best for the city. They listen to the proposals, like when the school system asked for an historic tax increase, and they competently know how to decipher between a real need and rhetoric. The decision of what kind of city government structure Madison will have to manage the growth in the future will rest upon their shoulders.

In order to transition to the council-manager form of government, under the Alabama Council-Manager Act, a petition is necessary to kick off the process. That petition will be circulated soon. If the requisite number of Madison residents sign the petition, which is roughly 1,000, then the question of whether to change the form of government would be submitted to voters in a special election.

When it is all said and done, it will not be a committee who changes the city government. It will not be the city council. It will you, the voter. Meetings like the one today are vital in understanding why this is being proposed, how has it worked or not worked in other areas, and to make an informed decision that will likely be taken to the polls in an upcoming special election. I will be one of the many trying to make sense of it all and understand it too. I want what we publish in The Record to be accurate and capture the situation in a realistic and fair light. We will be learning together. To start with, here are links to the Governance Transition Committee report and recommendation to the city council in January. Hopefully after tonight we will get an even better understanding of the issue and how others feel about it.

Click here to view the Governance Transition Committee’s initial report to Council on January 10th.

Click here to view the Committee’s final recommendation to Council on January 26th.

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