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Citizens group promoting petition to place city manager decision on ballot

MADISON – A citizens group called Madison Forward held a community Thursday to discuss the proposed transition to a city manager form of government for Madison. Held at the Madison Public Library, the meeting was designed to help citizens know more about the group, why it is supporting the change in the city’s government structure and a petition drive to get the issue on the ballot.

“Madison Forward is a group of citizens wanting to see Madison plan for the future and doing what we can to keep our city great and make it greater,” said Dr. Terri Johnson, who is the co-chair for the group. She also serves on the city’s planning commission and served on the Madison City Schools Board of Education for ten years.

Johnson’s co-chair for the group, James Ross chaired a citizens committee appointed last August by Madison Mayor Paul Finley that recommended changing the form of government for the city to a council-manager form of government.

Several city and community leaders are hopeful meetings like this one will help explain why they feel transitioning to a city council-appointed manager would benefit Madison in overseeing its day-to-day functions. 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.

“Obviously, we are in favor of the change, but mostly we want to bring this issue before the people to vote on,” Johnson said. Once enough signatures are gathered on the petition and each one verified, the mayor can call an election. It is not sure yet if the issue can be placed on the upcoming November general election ballot or if it must be decided in a special election.

For information about how to sign the petition, Madison citizens can go to madisonforwardal.org.

Thursday’s meeting was the second community meeting held to discuss the potential transition, but the first hosted by Madison Forward. The first was hosted by the city of Madison on June 22, and they plan to host another public meeting on July 11, also at noon in the Madison Public Library.

Johnson said the city would have to follow the state’s “council-manager act of 1982”, which allows for the transition of city government to go to a council-manager format and spells out how it should be implemented. “It states the general job description of the city manager and mayor,” she said. “The mayor would become the city council president, set the agenda for the council and would still be instrumental in setting the vision and strategic plan for the city, but the mayor would no longer be handling the day-to-day operation.”

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

Currently, the city of Madison operates with a mayor-council form of government, with 7 voting district representatives and a mayor that oversees the various functions of the city. If the change is approved, it would require redistricting Madison into 6 districts, with a mayor elected at-large. The mayor would also serve as the face of the city in public events and in meetings with neighboring cities.

One citizen at the meeting asked, “What has changed since 2015 that has the city wanting to put this before the people again?”

In 2015, the city council made a strong move towards bringing a city manager-council transition before the voters, but ultimately abandoned the effort. Then Mayor Troy Trulock opposed the plan. There had been a brewing conflict between the mayor’s office and city council at the time and Trulock viewed the city manager issue as the council’s way of sidestepping the mayor’s office. The issue was ultimately resolved when the city’s former mayor, Paul Finley, returned to public service and was elected mayor, restoring a better working relationship between the two branches of city government.

“Growth is one of the factors, not the most important, but it is a strong factor,” Ross answered, “especially with the projected growth for Madison.”

Ross also said Madison is about to begin a process of redrawing council districts based on new census data, so this is a good time to decide whether six or seven districts are needed.

Johnson also serves on a committee of city and community leaders 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 managing future growth. Those for the change feel that any long-term strategic plan would have a better chance of working under a city manager-council format.

“We have an excellent mayor, and have had excellent mayors in the past, but someone might be elected that doesn’t have the right skill sets to run the city,” Johnson said. “To be a good politician and get elected requires a different skill set than what it takes to be a good city manager.” She said a city manager can run the city like a business without outside political pressure and manage growth more effectively.

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.

Johnson did bring out some of the chief concerns citizens are having about the plan. “Alabamians like for elected politicians to make their decisions,” she said. “So, it is not as popular in this state as it is in others.” A few citizens at the meeting echoed that sentiment, by indicating they feel a better connection to an elected mayor than they would a city manager.

Johnson also said there is also the possibly the city council could get it wrong. “They could hire a bad city manager the same way they could a police chief, fire chief or city attorney,” she said. “They could also hire someone who doesn’t really support the vision for the city. They may give lip service to the city council, but then lead the department heads in a different direction. Those are certainly some things that could happen. The city council would then have the ability to remove that person.”

Another citizen took issue in the planning of the public and community meetings. “Many people have been left out of the loop with having two noon meetings and only one evening meeting right on top of each other,” she said.

Johnson said she, and others, will be available to meet and talk with any group. They are also working to make information available online. Citizens can access the Madison Forward website and social media at www.facebook.com/MadisonForwardAL, www.instagram.com/madisonalforward, and madisonforwardal.org. Also, information has been added to the city’s website at www.madisonal.gov about the proposed transition, and videos of their public meetings. The report to the city council by the transition committee recommending the change can be found on the city’s website.

The next community meeting will be hosted by the city of Madison on July 11 at the Madison Public Library. The meeting starts at noon and will be moderated by city council-member Renae Bartlett. It will include Mayor Paul Finley and Auburn Mayor Ron Anders. Auburn has a city manager-council form of government. Anders will be able to answer questions about his role as mayor in that structure.

There is also expected more information on potential salaries for the city manager and mayor if the proposed change occurs. Johnson said Thursday that she would expect the city manager to make around $140,000 to $180,000 annually. The mayor’s salary would likely be revised from what it is now to reflect the position’s new duties.

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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