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Mountain Brook city manager advises governance committee

Mountain Brook City Manager Sam Gaston, at right, compared municipal configurations for Madison Governance Committee 2025. Committee members Sally Warden, from left, and Cynthia McCollum formerly served on Madison City Council. Auditing the meeting was Bebe Oetjen, in back, former Madison City Commissioner. (RECORD PHOTO/GREGG PARKER)
Mountain Brook City Manager Sam Gaston, at right, compared municipal configurations for Madison Governance Committee 2025. Committee members Sally Warden, from left, and Cynthia McCollum formerly served on Madison City Council. Auditing the meeting was Bebe Oetjen, in back, former Madison City Commissioner. (RECORD PHOTO/GREGG PARKER)

MADISON – Sam Gaston, Mountain Brook’s city manager since 1993, contrasted city manager/mayor configurations to Madison Governance Committee 2025 on Sept. 9.

Chaired by John Allen, this committee is studying Madison’s municipal leadership.

The council/city manager model “offers a strong political system with elected officials who hire a non-political manager. (The city) operates like a business corporation,” Gaston said.

Mountain Brook has staggered elections to avoid new slates of city leaders. The Birmingham suburb has a $36 million budget with 230 employees.

Mountain Brooks’ mayor and city council are not paid. “Our mayor in Mountain Brook serves as spokesperson and ‘face of the city,'” Gaston said. Alabaster, Anniston, Decatur (voted in, not implemented), Tuskegee and Vestavia Hills also have city managers.

City managers are administrative heads of city in day-by-day operations, supervise department heads, appoint/remove employees and prepare/administer budgets. “It’s our job (as city manager) to keep the mayor and council informed about what’s going on in the community,” Gaston said.

About 75 percent of city managers have graduate degrees in public administration or city planning. “Employees are better trained and better paid under the council/city manager plan than mayor/council government. Employees are hired based on education, not political patronage,” Gaston said.

If a city fails with a city manager, “they hired a non-professional … a ‘local Larry’ … who didn’t have the qualifications,” Gaston said.

Gaston also discussed a “city administrator,” which functions like a coordinator. “But the mayor is CEO. The city manager prepares the budget.” Hoover, Gulf Shores, Jacksonville and Northport have city administrators.

Madison “is very fast growing. You have challenges with that growth. Without planning, you will lose some things that make Madison really special,” Gaston said.

Committee member Mary Lynn Wright asked how to broker disputes between mayor and council. “You treat all council members the same and don’t show favorites,” Gaston said.

Allen said their Sept. 4 trip to Auburn was “an inspirational meeting” and challenging with “their approach to professionalism in governance.”

Committee members will visit Vestavia Hills and Hoover on Sept. 18.

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