by Tiffany Knox
Since July 2022, “Madison Forward” has been collecting signatures to call for a special election to change Madison’s form of government. Many citizens are skeptical about this change. This article will look at two reasons why Madison residents should be concerned:
Potential conflicts of interest with those involved with pushing the initiative.
Voter disenfranchisement because citizens will no longer vote for the city executive.
1. Potential Conflicts of Interest
Citizens may find it alarming that this initiative appears to stem directly from City Hall and not everyday citizens. Although this same change was first attempted in 2015, it ultimately failed due to lack of support from the mayor. This time around, Mayor Finley initiated the move towards a City Manager form of government in August 2021 when he appointed members to a “Governance Transition Committee” to research the best form of government to suit Madison’s growth needs.
In January 2022, the committee unanimously recommended that Madison pursue the change towards a City Manager form of government. See their slideshow presentation here: Governance Transition Committee.
This is not inappropriate for the mayor, as assigning a committee to look into various ideas for the city is not unheard of. The alarming aspect is that a number of the committee members have ties to the city itself and/or to groups that lead to questions about conflict of interest.
Governance Transition Committee Members with a Conflict of Interest
Beth Richardson, a member of the mayor-appointed committee, is also a member of Huntsville Committee of 100, which is a collection of Huntsville’s most influential business owners. This group also endorsed Mayor Paul Finley in his most recent mayoral race.
Cecilia Showalter legally represented Ballcorps (the owner of Trash Pandas, the new minor league baseball team that plays at Madison’s new $50 million Toyota field), as recently as 2017. She is also married to Jeff Showalter, whose name is on the founding documents of Madison Forward, as well as a board member of Madison Visionary Partners, aka MVP. Her husband is also financially invested in Ballcorps.
James ‘Jim’ Ross is a Co-Chair of Madison Forward, which is an advocacy organization promoting the governance change. However, he was appointed by the mayor to sit on the supposedly impartial Governance Transition Committee and, not surprisingly, was one of the unanimous votes in favor of changing Madison’s governance style.
In June of 2022, an advocacy group called “Madison Forward” began gathering signatures so an election could be held on the proposed change in how our city is governed. Madison Forward calls itself a “citizens group,” but its leaders are not regular, private citizens like you and me. They have ties and affiliations with the city, influential groups, and long-term planning initiatives.
Let’s look at Madison Forward’s connections to the city administration and other influential groups in Madison:
Madison Forward Members with a Conflict of Interest
Dr. Terri Johnson is one of the two Co-Chairs of Madison Forward. She works closely with the city as a member of the City Planning Commission. Dr. Johnson helped with Madison on Track 2045, a strategic planning document on how to direct Madison’s growth for the next 20 years.
James ‘Jim’ Ross is the other Co-Chair of Madison Forward. He also had been appointed by the mayor to sit on the supposedly neutral Governance Transition Committee and was one of the unanimous votes in favor of changing Madison’s governance style.
Jeff Showalter is on the founding documents of Madison Forward PAC as the Chairperson. Jeff Showalter is married to Cecilia Showalter, who also sat on the supposedly neutral Governance Transition Committee. Jeff is also a board member of Madison Visionary Partners which is a non-profit that promotes government-funded projects. And most appallingly, Jeff is a financial investor in Ballcorps, which is the owner of the Trash Pandas, the team that plays at the Toyota stadium that cost Madison $50 million to build.
Yet another concerning connection was discovered when HAAR, Huntsville Area Association of Realtors began blasting text messages to Madison residents, encouraging them to sign a petition to get a special election for the City Manager initiative. Many Madison City voters received these texts on November 14, 2022 and November 22, 2022. Why does HAAR care about the form of government that Madison has? Does having a City Manager form of government benefit them somehow? It could–the city government has power to give tax breaks and to grant building permits or change zoning (multi-use zoning is mentioned heavily in Madison on Track 2045).
It is concerning to learn that so many of the people involved in the efforts to push for a City Manager have ties to the city itself, as well as ties to advocacy groups, realtor groups, and Ballcorps. All of these entities have vested interest in how Madison develops and grows.
2. Disenfranchisement of Voters
Voters are disenfranchised when they are deprived of the opportunity to influence policy or make their voice heard. This is exactly what will happen if Madison City votes to approve a change in our form of government. Right now, voters directly influence who leads the administrative branch (mayor), as well as the legislative branch (district council members). Under the proposed form of government, the mayor joins the council as a legislator. In this new form of government, the mayor is a mere figurehead for ceremonial purposes, in addition to joining the council in its legislative role.
This disrupts the separation and balance of powers that our forefathers imagined for our country, states and cities. The legislative branch would become all-powerful, and the person at the helm of the administrative/executive branch would be accountable only to the legislative branch. This change turns our city council into a board of directors with the power to hire and fire the CEO of the city. It is no surprise to learn that cities that have opted for this form of government have lower voter turnout in municipal elections.
Madison Forward, the advocacy group pushing for this change, implies that having a city
manager in the CEO position and running the city like a business is actually a good thing. They claim this benefits the citizens because it adds more accountability, more transparency, and more continuity. More accountability by distancing voters from the people running their city? More transparency by adding another layer of unelected bureaucrats? This is completely false. The city manager would be accountable to the council, not the voters.
Dr. Terri Johnson, co-chair of Madison Forward acknowledges that having voters make these choices is not in their interest when she says, “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….” This implies that she doesn’t trust Madison residents to make smart and informed decisions when they vote. She even admits “Alabamians like for elected politicians to make their decisions… So it is not as popular in this state as it is in others….” In other words, Alabamians still have a desire to participate in their local political process, and she knows it.
Every push for this initiative always includes the word “continuity” as a reason that Madison needs this change. “Continuity,” and greater legislative power, would allow the vision that some influential people have for Madison’s prescribed vision for itself to progress without interruption or delay. It is definitely worth looking at the 82-page document on what the city government envisions for our future.
How would a bad manager be removed? Dr Terri Johnson explains that the council could hire a bad city manager, like someone who “doesn’t support the vision of the city…They may give lip service to the city council, but then lead the department heads in a different direction…. The city council would then have the ability to remove that person.” In other words, if the city manager they hire doesn’t like the direction the council wants to go, they can just fire them. This neglects the fact that the City Manager would have a contract and would enjoy some job security due to labor laws. But what input does the individual voter have? We can always write or speak to our district representatives, but that does not mean that they will do what we ask them to. In our current form of government, we can vote the mayor out if we are displeased with how they are administrating and executing the laws and ordinances. With a city manager, our voting power is severely diminished and the legislative branch would have increased power.
Keep an eye out for the “Council-Manager” special election. Vote against the City Manager form of government, or you will forfeit your right to influence policy and have your voice heard.
Visit DontMessWithMadison.org to get updates from those opposing the change.