Noon public meeting at library today to discuss city’s proposed city manager transition
MADISON -Another meeting to discuss Madison’s possible transition to a city manager-council form of government is being planned today at noon. It will be held at the Madison Public Library, 142 Plaza Blvd.
The meeting is being led a citizens group called Madison Forward, which is co-chaired by former Madison City Schools Board of Education member Terri Johnson and James Ross from the mayor’s Governance Transition Committee. The meeting is designed to help citizens better understand what is being proposed and why. It will also give them a chance to ask questions and voice their opinions.
Today’s meeting is the second community meeting held to discuss the potential transition. The first was held last week by the city and a third is planned for July 11, also at noon in the Madison Public Library. More information about the meetings can be found at www.madisonal.gov. Videos from past public meetings are also available on the city’s website.
City leaders are using the meetings to explain why they feel transitioning to a city council appointed manager would benefit Madison, especially with handling the fast-paced growth of the city, over the traditional format of an elected mayor in overseeing the day-to-day functions of the city. They are also an opportunity to gauge the citizens’ reaction to the proposal. To make the change, city leaders must first have a petition signed by roughly 900 citizens calling for a special election.
At a June 22 community meeting at city hall, city managers Sam Gaston from Mountain Brook and Jeff Downes from Vestavia Hills were on hand to answer questions. Both are strong advocates for cities like Madison transitioning to a city manager.
“The council-manager form of government is clearly a form of government that is more business-like,” said Downes. “The mayor serves like the chairman of the board as council president and the council serves like a board of directors. They collectively drive the vision of the city, while the city manager reacts to the high-level instructions, policies and guidelines of that ‘board of directors’, and accomplishes the work in a less-politicized manner.”
Downes said there are many cities doing great work with a council-mayor form of government, but how the work is accomplished is the chief difference with a council-manager form. “Some of the challenges I had as an administrator in a mayor-council form of government when I worked in Montgomery had to do with irrational decision-making based on relationships and a desire to please the public,” he said. “My job now is to react to the collective desires of the mayor and council to work in the most rational way possible to deliver services in the most efficient and effective manner.
Earlier this year, city council members heard from a special appointed “Madison Governance Transition Committee” that recommended changing the form of government for the city to a council-manager form of government.
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.
The proposed change would place a council-appointed city manager in charge of the city’s daily operations and departments.
Resident Susan Pierce asked if the city manager form of government will save or cost the city more money? “Are we as citizens going to be taxed more?”
Madison City Councilwoman Renae Bartlett, who served as moderator for the meeting, said there are no plans to increase taxes. “There is no need to have increased taxes to pay for a transition in government,” she said.
Bartlett also stated more discussion about potential salaries would be at the next community meeting on July 11.
Another citizen asked how Huntsville has been able to manage with a mayor-city council form of government if having a city manager form is so much more desirable.
Downes responded that while cities like Huntsville may be doing well with their forms of government, he believes switching to a city manager would help them as well. “IBM did a study several years ago of large cities and they found in a council-manager form of government in cities over 200,000 was at least 12% more efficient than the mayor-council form of government. I would say it is probably a lot more than that,” he said, while adding that those without a city manager run a higher risk of being influenced more by political special interest groups and tend to be more bureaucratic. “They do run the cities but things do not get done as fast.”
There was some confusion from a few citizens at the meeting over the role of city administrator Steve Smith. Smith had served on the city council before losing to Connie Spears in 2020 for the District 2 position. He was serving as the city council president at the time. Smith was then appointed by Mayor Finley to serve as the city administrator, which has similar duties to a city manager but answers solely to the mayor. Finley has used other city administrators with success since his first term, including Taylor Edge and Marc Jacobson.
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