Committee to eye separating mayor and utilities superintendent functions

By Mary Hood
Contributing Writer
Gulf Coast Newspapers
Posted 7/24/07

FAIRHOPE — For years, the mayor of Fairhope has worn two hats, the first as part-time mayor and the other as superintendent of utilities. During staff reports at Monday evening’s City Council meeting, Council Chairman Bob Gentle appointed the …

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Committee to eye separating mayor and utilities superintendent functions

Posted

FAIRHOPE — For years, the mayor of Fairhope has worn two hats, the first as part-time mayor and the other as superintendent of utilities. During staff reports at Monday evening’s City Council meeting, Council Chairman Bob Gentle appointed the chairman of a committee that will take a closer look at whether a mayor can balance both jobs.

Chuck Zunk, who is also the chairman of the Fairhope Airport Authority, is the appointed chairman.

Gentle said a few months ago, he discussed with Zunk the possibility of perhaps separating the mayor and utility superintendent jobs. Gentle said Zunk’s comment was that it was something that would need to be studied, and he offered his help if Gentle ever needed it.

This past weekend, Gentle said he approached Zunk to see if he would be interesting in heading a committee to study the mayor’s job. Zunk officially accepted during the council meeting.

Gentle said the need for this became more apparent when he received many phone calls last week from citizens expressing their concerns. Gentle also said it is something the council has considered in the past.

“The council thought it was time to move and explore it,” Gentle said.

He said this is not a political move on the council’s part, it’s just the council doing its job.

Zunk explained some of the things Gentle asked him to do with his committee.

The first objective is just to look at the differences between running a city and running a utility business. Zunk said with Fairhope starting off as such a small town, it was reasonable for a mayor to run the government and a business.

“As the utilities continue to grow, we have to make sure we have the right structure,” Zunk said.

With Fairhope growing, however, Zunk said he believes it’s a legitimate question to wonder whether the mayor can or should handle both jobs.

He said the committee will look at other cities in Alabama and across the country to see who’s been successful separating the two positions and who hasn’t.

Another objective of the committee is to look at what the job qualifications of the superintendent would be if they were to separate the positions. Zunk said this would include the potential employee’s proficiency, education, experience and other qualifications.

Again, if they were to distinguish the two positions, they would have to take into account whether the mayor position should remain part-time or become a full-time job.

Salaries for both jobs would have to be revamped if there were a change, and that, Zunk said, would be a consideration, as well.

Gentle said when looking to change the rate of pay for set positions, you have to start looking into it six months before an election year.

“If we’re going to do something for the future, we have to do it now,” Gentle said.

He said by appointing the committee, he has no intentions of removing Mayor Tim Kant from the superintendent position while he is currently in office.

“Personally, I’d be careful to remove a man’s pay from him,” Gentle said. “There’s some that wanted to do that. I’m not likely to do that unless there’s an indication of impropriety or some other issue that’s overwhelming.”

The committee’s purpose is studying and gathering information to bring back and present to the council. Gentle said there would be no private meetings, any information presented to the council will be done in public.

Zunk also mentioned that he wants this committee and the work it does to be straightforward and out in the open. He said he wants to give residents the chance to speak their minds and give their opinions

Gentle said Zunk’s appreciation of transparency is one of several reasons he thought he was a good candidate to head the committee.

Councilwoman Debbie Quinn said she thinks Zunk will do a good job as the head of the committee, but she also hopes to have council involvement in the information-gathering stage.

When the committee makes their report two months from now, the City Council will determine if any action needs to be taken.

Zunk’s appointment seemed to come out of nowhere, without ever being addressed in public before. While the council chairman is allowed to make such decisions without a vote, it still took the mayor by surprise.

He said Monday night was the first he ever heard of this committee.

“I don’t know what to think of it,” Kant said. “I just don’t know where that came from.”

He said he doesn’t see the need to separate the two positions.

The residents voted for him knowing he would also be superintendent of utilities, so he said he doesn’t understand the change of heart.

Councilman Mike Ford also said he was surprised.

“I had no prior knowledge,” Ford said. “No one consulted me or talked to me about it.”

Ford said he thinks Kant has done “a wonderful job,” adding that he is the kind of man who thinks if something is working, don’t try to fix it.

“We’ve got one of the best cities in the nation to live in, and now we want to change it?” Ford said.

Zunk will appoint the other committee members; they are to report back to the city in 60 days and present their information.