ELECTION DAY: Voters in Madison asked to decided if the city should transition to a city manager form of government
MADISON – It’s election day! Voters in Madison are being asked to decide what shape the city’s government structure will take for the foreseeable future. They are being tasked with deciding whether the city continue to operate as it has or adopt an appointed city manager style of government.
Polls at voting locations throughout the city opened at 7 p.m. and close at 7 p.m. tonight. For a list of locations, click here.
For years, city leaders have been pushing for Madison to adopt a city manager form of government, saying the move will bring better stability to the operations of the city.
Currently, the mayor is elected and oversees municipal departments and functions, with a heavy hand in deciding the overall direction of the city. He is aided by a city administrator who answers directly to the mayor. The proposed change will narrow the role of the mayor in favor of a city council-appointed manager who answers directly to the city council. It is not clear yet what staff the city manager would require if voters approve the change.
If the change is approved by a majority of voters, it will require, by Nov. 2025, redistricting Madison from the current seven districts to six, with the mayor serving as an elected-at-large city council president. The mayor would become the “face of the city”, representing Madison in public events and in meetings with neighboring cities.
Madison Mayor Paul Finley kicked off the process by appointing a committee in August 2021 tasked with looking into the proposed change and developing a recommendation for the city council. In early 2022, the “Madison Governance Transition Committee” unanimously recommended that the city should shift to a council-manager form of government.
Under the Alabama Council-Manager Act, the decision rests with Madison voters and must be decided through an election, which required a petition from registered voters with approximately 900 signatures to place the issue on the ballot. A citizens group, “Madison Forward”, took up the task of collecting those signatures and succeeded in March, prompting Mayor Finley to call a special election.
“This next step towards a special election to allow the citizens of Madison to vote on this initiative has been a long time coming. Two separate committees in 2015 and 2021 unanimously recommended that Madison move forward to a council-manager form of government,” stated Jim Ross, Madison Forward co-chair. He also served as the chair of Finley’s Madison Governance Transition Committee.
Madison Forward is also chaired by Dr. Terri Johnson, who served on the Madison Board of Education from 2007-2017 and as board president from 2015-2017. In addition, she co-chaired the city’s Growth Impact Committee in 2018 and was appointed to the city’s planning commission in 2019.
“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 during a public meeting hosted by Forward Madison.
City council member Maura Wroblewski echoed that feeling in a letter to the editor last week. “To be a mayor in Alabama, you must be 18, live in the city in which you are running for 90 days, and pay a $50 filing fee. Are we willing to put someone in charge who has just graduated from high school but doesn’t have any real work experience? Are we confident that just anyone can manage a $70,000,000 budget, 350 employees, and a growing city? And are we positive they will be successful in both the short and long term? I don’t think anyone is positive about that,” she stated.
Opposition to the change says that is exactly what they are trying to insure, that the decision of who runs the city stays with voters. “The proposed council-manager form of government takes away the voters’ right to directly choose the person who runs the city,” stated Tiffany Knox, who heads up another citizens group, “Don’t Mess with Madison” that was created to fight the change. “It disrupts the separation and balance of power by making the mayor a legislator and placing a selected individual into an executive position of power. The executive branch is completely controlled by the legislators.”
“There are simply too many unknowns about how the council-manager form of government would function, and more notably, a significant lack of information regarding financial cost,” she added.
The city has created a FAQ page with several answers to questions about the proposed change and special election. Knox says one noticeable vague point on the page regarding salary. It says, “Salaries have not yet been defined.”
“Voters would be able to make an informed decision if there was a comprehensive cost and benefit analysis. In the absence of such an analysis, voters should vote ‘no’ simply because they do not have all the information needed to make an informed decision,” Knox said.
Ross says the city’s success could be hindered if the proposed city manager form is not approved. “The growth and development that has descended upon the city create a significant threat to our future if we do not take action to assure greater accountability and professional management of our city government,” he said. “Our current mayor and council have served us well. But we need to look forward to the future and make certain our form of government provides for a prosperous future under the growing complexity of our city.”
Ahead of today’s election, Mayor Finley said, “We hope this special election is the catalyst for our community staying involved in municipal government. As Mayor and Council, we have welcomed the discussion, focus, and passion for our city, and we see caring people on both sides of the topic energized to do their research and make an informed vote. Whichever way the vote goes, we will remain focused on continuing to keep Madison a fantastic place to plant your roots.”
For more coverage of the special election, click here for past stories on the issue and a look at stories from other attempts to have a city manager in 2015 and 2004. You can also find more information at www.ivotemadison.com.