Letter to the Editor: Why is Madison’s form of government facing possible change?

Editor’s note: The following is a letter to the editor addressing the upcoming May 9 special election and city manager issue. The views expressed in all letters to the editor and editorials in The Madison Record do not necessarily express the views of The Record. To submit a letter to the editor, email john@themadisonrecord.com. We reserve the right to edit all submission for space considerations in the paper and content.

Dear Editor,

Like many residents, we moved here because Madison is a great place to raise a family and call home. It is a nice town, has the services and amenities we need, has things to see and do, and comes with good schools. However, it has been changing and in the next seven weeks, can possibly change in a very significant way.

Our current form of government is a mayor-council where the voting citizens elect both the executive who runs our city as well as their designated district council or legislative representative. The mayor represents the city and is responsible for running it through leading and managing the city department heads.

The mayor can veto a council’s action, and the council can vote down/disapprove a mayor action—part of a checks and balance process. The seven council reps vote to approve projects, ordinances, etc. This form of government is consistent with our state and federal levels.

The proposed form of government is a council-manager where the functions of the mayor would be split between two people. The mayor—with the more ceremonial functions—is now part of the legislative branch and becomes a voting member of the council, serving as the council president. The city manager is selected by the council versus elected by the citizens of Madison. Under this proposal, the city manager is the executive who now runs our city by leading and managing the city department heads. Of significance, the city manager is not accountable to the voters. Checks and balances vanish.

Most citizens are unaware that for a short few months in 1981 and 1982, the city of Madison officials adopted a council-manager form of government. The city had a mayor and three commissioners who decided to make the change for the population of about 4,000. Without the people’s input, the city manager made numerous actions that were so disturbing, the citizens quickly organized and recalled the mayor and city manager, then went back to the mayor-commissioner form of government. In 2015, our elected council again attempted to adopt the council-manager form of government without the input of the citizens, but the mayor vetoed it.

Here we are again, and this time, our elected officials are trying a different approach. Madison Forward obtained the needed signatures to prompt a special election—at great taxpayer expense—that we will now vote on May 9th. The group is advertised as a “citizen’s” group though when one looks beyond the splash page, one must ask the question—are the members truly “grassroots citizens” or city elites?

Why is this form of government being proposed? Here are some reasons:

1. We have no proof the executive functions a city manager would take over are being performed unsatisfactorily. What is currently broken so badly that cannot be fixed with the right management attention that would require the addition of a city manager to fix? If we the citizens view there are issues serious enough to require fixing, new elections are a cheaper, more direct way of addressing the problem than adding additional bureaucracy.

2. This proposed change is a guaranteed increase in costs to the taxpayer. Besides a special election that could easily cost well over six figures, there is additional payroll, an assistant, car, office equipment/space, and benefits—expenses of an estimated $250,000 to $500,000 per year. Then additional costs can be levied, such as tax increases decided upon without the people’s voice or transparency. The multi-year transition to the proposed form of government will further increase expenses as well as inefficiencies in government.

3. There is no guarantee of improved overall performance. There are no cost-benefit trades available by our city officials for the citizens to make an informed choice in this special election. There are no details on the roles, responsibilities, and authorities of each of the positions and how they would effectively interact. Examples of an action following the process—so we can see, as voters, how they will handle different issues—include topics, such as street lights, road repairs, traffic lights, etc.

Reducing districts in a growing city from seven to six and even potentially down to four (raised in the march 13th council meeting) is even less representation of our expanding city. Which district goes away? Initially we will remain at six, but if voted in, can the council with city manager just make the change to four without a citizen vote? We just do not know the answer.

4. The council-manager adds bureaucracy which is an increased potential for corruption and wasteful spending. Currently the mayor is where the buck stops—under a council-manager, it is anybody’s guess. We learned the lesson the hard way in 1982; let’s avoid lessons re-learned.

5. This proposed change diffuses accountability with reduced transparency, a result of increased bureaucracy. The city manager is not accountable to the people. A simple search on cities in Alabama or across the USA that are having significant issues with this form of government proves plentiful.

Can a Council-Manager form of government work and work well? Yes, it is possible, but why do we in Madison City really need it? What do we gain and lose?

The biggest question to answer: Is it right for the citizens of Madison, and right now? There are too many unanswered questions for me to support. I am one of a growing number of citizens who will vote NO on May 9th.

Sincerely, Rick Makowski
Citizen of Madison

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