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Are Alabama cities ready for city managers?

Next week, voters in the North Alabama city of Madison will head to the polls to decide if they want to change their form of government.

If the referendum is adopted, a city manager will be hired by the mayor and city council to oversee the day-to-day business of Alabama’s ninth largest city. The vote is May 9.

The debate between a mayor-council form of government and a council-manager government is not unique to Madison. Homewood is expected to hold a referendum next year.

Council-manager is the most common form of government in the United States, according to the International City/County Management Association. However, in the Yellowhammer State, only about a dozen cities have the council-manager government, including Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Auburn, Pelham, Tuskegee, and Talladega.

The ICMA says 54% of the more than 4,300 U.S. municipalities with populations of 10,000 or more use the council-manager format. The percentage jumps to 59% for municipalities with populations greater than 100,000.

(Jason Grant/Contributed)

In regards to the Southeast, Jason Grant of the ICMA said Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana are outliers.

“In the Southeast, 39% of cities and towns operate under mayor-council form of government while 59% operate under council-manager form,” he said. 

Florida, Georgia, and Virginia all overwhelmingly employ the council-manager form of government that hires “a qualified professional to run the day-to-day operations of the city”.

“If you look at the research, it supports that the council-manager form of government performs better than mayor-council forms of government,” Grant said.

According to Grant, city manager-led governments are proven to be more efficient, more likely to offer comprehensive, effective financial incentives, maintain balanced budgets, and engage in less corruption than mayor-council form of governments. Citing a study published in the Public Administration Review, Grant said local governments led by city managers are 57% less likely to have corruption.  

Despite the research, at last count there were only 15 city managers statewide. So why aren’t there more city managers in Alabama?

(ICMA – International City/County Management Association/Facebook)

Theories vary but Sam Gaston, the long-serving city manager of Mountain Brook, said the state of Alabama never made it easy.

“The legislation never was in place to make it easy,” he said. “Cities have had to go through special legislation through their legislators.”

Gaston said an amendment to the Council‐Manager Act of 1982 four years ago makes it easier for municipalities not to have to obtain special legislation to transition to a Council‐Manager government.

Obstacle course legislative challenges aside, Gaston said another reason city managers aren’t commonplace in the state might be quite simple.

“People don’t like change,” he said. “Change is not easy for some people. Sometimes it can be hard.”

In Madison there’s been plenty of discussion, online bickering and more than a few wild claims to the proposed change.

Opponents of a council manager format often point out that Huntsville, Alabama’s largest and arguably the most successful city, has no city manager.   

“Huntsville may not have a city manager, but they do have two super department heads,” Gaston said. “So there is management in place.”

At the other end of the state, a situation similar to Madison was brewing five years ago.

Fairhope, in Baldwin County along Mobile Bay, was struggling with rapid growth as the fastest growing city in Alabama. Hundreds of residents signed a petition asking for a referendum to change the city’s mayor-council form of government to council-manager.

In November 2018, Fairhope residents voted against changing to a council-manager government by a 58-42 percent margin.

Supporters believe the vote failed in large part due to confusion as to whether the council would be voted in by district or at large.

However, according to Gaston, there wasn’t enough due diligence to help inform the residents.

“There were some meetings, but it wasn’t like the long discussions that have been going on for quite a while in Madison,” he said.

As for the election day fast approaching in Madison, Gaston admits he’s biased.

“A city manager form of government works really well for cities like Madison,” he said. “You know, you’ve got a well-educated community, an affluent community with good schools, and facing rapid growth.

“You have a high quality of life and you want to make sure that that quality of life is professionally maintained.”

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