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Petition for Madison special election on city manager issue submitted to probate judges

By Maria Rakoczy

MADISON – Madison’s city manager proposal is moving closer towards a special election after acquiring the necessary signatures on a petition distributed by the Madison Forward citizens group.

At last week’s city council meeting, co-chair of Madison Forward Jim Ross provided an update during the public comments section. Ross announced his organization has received the required number of signatures, about 900, on a petition they circulated requesting a special election on the proposed city manager plan. He said the organization had delivered the petition directly to local probate judges in Madison and Limestone counties for verification of the signatures.

If passed, the proposed change will narrow the current role of an elected mayor in favor of an appointed city manager.

“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 also the co-chair for the group. She serves on the city’s planning commission and previously served on the Madison City Schools Board of Education for ten years.

Ross also chaired a citizens committee appointed in 2021 by Madison Mayor Paul Finley that recommended changing the form of government for the city to a council-manager form of government.

“On the fourth of January, Madison Forward submitted the signatures to the probate judge, and they have fifteen days to adjudicate the signatures, then we move forward in the process for the Madison city governance initiative to potentially bring in a city manager,” Ross told city council members last Monday.

The signatures on the petition must be validated as legible and belonging to residents within the Madison city limits. The judge’s process of verifying the residency of signees remains unclear.

What is clear, is that the judge has a deadline of January 19 to validate the signatures, after which, the petition will be forwarded to the mayor’s office. The mayor will then have a period of ten days to issue a proclamation calling for a referendum on the issue.

Should the petition be verified, a public vote can be expected as early as this spring. In the event that the public votes in favor of the city manager system, the council expects a transition period of two years, in which, the city will undergo redistricting and law codes will be updated to include the city manager. This means the new form of city government would officially take effect in November of 2025.

The city manager system has been under consideration since Finley appointed the Madison Governance Transition Committee that Ross chaired in August of 2021 to investigate the fitness of the system for Madison. The committee produced results in January of 2022, unanimously in favor of the city manager system.

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 seven voting district representatives and mayoral recommendations with no vote.

If the change is approved, it would require redistricting Madison into six 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 manager would be hired under a contract with conditions, including the duration of the term, determined by the council. The council would retain the authority to dismiss the manager, but severance would be required should the administrator be terminated before the duration of his or her term as outlined in the contract. The city council estimated at last week’s work session that the manager’s salary could be around $184,000.

On the potential search for Madison’s first city manager, Council member Maura Wroblewski articulated the council’s priority to consider seasoned candidates.

“I would like to see five years’ experience as a city manager to a city similar in size and population as Madison,” she continued. “I think the most important message that needs to get out is that we are hiring a professional that does this job.”

Wroblewski’s comments were, in part, a response to the concerns some citizens have expressed at prior city council meetings regarding who would assume the role of city manager and the system’s potential to reduce the impact of the votes of Madison citizens. Madison Forward, however, says the council-manager form will benefit the residents of Madison “because they gain continuity and accountability in city government, as well as increased transparency.”

They 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.

“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 explained during a public meeting hosted by Forward Madison in July to promote the petition. “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.

Before plans can be put into place to hire a city manager, residents in Madison must first vote to approve the transition. That could be an uphill battle. The push to get the petition’s required 900 signatures started over six months ago and just now reached their goal. Progress has been slowed by opposition to the plan and confusion over why city leaders feel the change is necessary.

In the July meeting hosted by Madison Forward, 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.

Those against the change have also expressed concerns at prior city council meetings 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. They say even though there will still be a mayor, in reality he will be an “at-large” council member.

Opponents argue 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.

Madison Forward boasts that Finley endorses the new system and that the council-manager form of government has proven effective in other cities in Alabama, including Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook, Anniston and Auburn.

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