Many questions still remain unanswered in the eyes of local elected officials and citizens regarding the upcoming Oct. 2 election in Fairhope that could change the city’s form of government from a council-mayor system to a council-manager form of government.
At issue is whether the upcoming election also mandates a move from at-large representation for the city’s council members of if districts would have to be created, and, if districts are to be created, what the process for creating those districts would be.
Mayor Karin Wilson requested that the city seek an attorney general’s opinion to provide clarity on the matter before the Oct. 2 vote, saying she wanted to make sure citizens knew what they were voting for before heading to the polls.
“It is our joint responsibility to make sure our citizens understand what they are voting for,” Wilson said. “If an answer can’t be determined, we need to request that the vote must be postponed. We need to make sure the citizens have the most accurate information on which to vote.”
Wilson said she had come out in favor of the change and for the move to district representation, even though she said the change would change the role and power of the mayor’s office.
“I have already voiced my support for this new form of government although it reduces the role of the mayor significantly,” Wilson said. “Personnel matters should not be the subject of political drama. This change lends to a council which includes a mayor as a voting member.”
Under the proposed council-manager form of government, the mayor would be elected at-large and serve as the permanent chair of the council, setting the agenda for the body.
Wilson said she felt it was time for the city to move to district-based representation.
“I do not see a strong argument to keep a council at large,” Wilson said. “As the city grows, districts are essential, fair and should be required. Clarifying this important distinction is a must.”
Chuck Zunk, one of the leaders who spearheaded the Fresh Start Fairhope group who submitted the successful petition that caused the election, took umbrage with the potential questions being submitted to the attorney general for interpretation.
“It’s clear that the author of this draft has a strong bias against our petition generally, and a strong bias against the at-large form of council representation,” Zunk said. “We wonder why such a biased draft was submitted to you for approval in the first place instead of a much more neutral and straight-forward document, in what appears to be an attempt to disenfranchise over 800 registered voters who followed every legal step to secure the Oct. 2 referendum.”
Zunk said the questions being submitted were confusing and open for multiple interpretations.
“The draft is over half a page of artfully drawn legal pettifogging trying to describe a hypothetical situation that’s close to but not entirely like the actual petition submitted by Fresh Start Fairhope, thereby creating a strong bias by using most of the truth but not all of the truth,” Zunk said.
Council President Jack Burrell said there were some questions that needed to be answered about how the change of government actually worked, which was why it was put on the council’s agenda.
“The way I read the state statute, there was not a question about whether we need a opinion,” Burrell said. “The citizens put forward a petition with the proper number of signatures and when that happens we hold an election. I thought that if the new form of government passes, the city council chooses whether or not the council members are elected by district or at large.”
Burrell said none of the council members had tried to bias anything for or against the coming referendum and agreed with Wilson that asking for a clarification wasn’t a bad thing.
“I think the greater question is can you have an election on a total change in the form of government without knowing what the final government will look like,” Burrell said. “It may even be proper to challenge the statute to know whether or not you can have the election at all.”
Wilson said regardless of the wording of the submission to the attorney general’s office, there would still be an opinion that would provide some clarity.
“Regardless of how you word it, they’re going to come up with an opinion,” Wilson said. “This isn’t for any of us. It’s so the citizens know clearly what they’re voting on. I don’t think you can have a vote unless this is clarified.”
Zunk said he and Fresh Start Fairhope did not object to asking for an attorney general’s opinion for clarity, but they did oppose the convoluted language in the draft the council was voting on.
“Our reading of the law is that the law is silent on whether the city council should make a determination on at large or district representation before or after,” Zunk said. “We would prefer before. But we’re not the lawyers and we’re not the attorney general.”
City Clerk Lisa Hanks informed the council that it would be unlikely that the city would receive a response from the attorney general before the ballots for the election had to be printed.
The council voted 3-1 to move forward with asking the attorney general to clarify the issue, with Councilman Kevin Boone voting against the resolution. Councilman Jay Robinson was not present for the meeting.
Boone said he opposed the resolution because the city would not receive the opinion before the ballots would be printed for the election.