Fairhope councilman comes out against change of government referendum

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In a post on his Robert Brown For Our Hometown Facebook page on Oct. 25, Fairhope Councilman Robert Brown laid out his case for why he was voting no in the city’s upcoming change of government referendum.

Brown said his decision was made after attending several meetings about the potential change in government to a council-city manager form, including ones hosted by the Common Sense Campaign and an informational meeting with several elected officials and city managers from other Alabama municipalities hosted by the City of Fairhope on Oct. 24.

He laid out his thoughts in several points:

“Here is my opinion on changing the form of government, that was confirmed by the mayor of Vestavia Hills, Alberto “Butch” Zaragoza.

“1) This without a doubt has been a rushed process. Possibly to take advantage of, the now fading, discord with your city leaders. Myself included. 

Mayor Zaragoza was the mayor of Vestavia Hills prior to the change to Council-Manager form. The mayor and council discussed, held forums/ town halls and took surveys for 3 YEARS. Yes, they processed the information for 3 years prior to changing. The change was not rushed through by some special interest group.

“2) Districts vs At-large

“This was the most interesting and largest factor in forming my opinion. Mayor Zaragoza said Vestavia Hills chose to stay at-large because they, the city leaders, believed districting would cause more division in the community. I am afraid the same would be the case for our Fairhope. You can argue one versus the other, I’m not interested. I believe Fairhope is better at-large. 

To clarify, if the city chooses to change its form of government, the city gets to choose at-large versus district. Since our change was done with a petition, it has to be districts.”

Brown also took on the idea touted by some change supporters that the city needed a business person to help run the city and its $60 million budget.

“Fairhope is inarguably in the best financial standing it has ever been in,” Brown wrote. “Reserve accounts are maxed out and paying off debt has been a priority for Councilman Burrell for 6 years. It is not in this great financial shape because of the new councilmen or Mayor Wilson, but because of the previous elected leadership that has been voted in by the people of Fairhope. Leaders with conservative principles, like myself, have tried to continue these positive trends.”

Brown said voting for change didn’t necessarily equate with a better Fairhope in his mind.

“Could Fairhope be better?” Brown wrote. “Sure. However ugly the process has been over the last 2 years, there have been some positive steps towards a better Fairhope. Note, I said Better Fairhope, not Different Fairhope. I’m afraid some people just want different - a change. Something must have been done right by the previous elected officials for decades for all these people to move to my hometown. I’m voting NO on November 6.”

Opposition group forms in Fairhope

Over the last few weeks, a group calling itself Forever Fairhope has formed in opposition to the change in government, led by Fairhope resident Gary Thorson, Thorson worked for 37 years with municipalities across the country to help automate their processes and said he has seen how the council - city manager form of government can go wrong.

In an interview Oct. 29 with WABF Radio’s Lori DuBose, Thorson said he realized his group was late to the game but felt he had to do something because he felt the people of Fairhope were not hearing the whole story on the potential change in government.

“Fresh Start Fairhope and the mayor have done a very good job of making this all about the city manager,” Thorson said. “There are different ways of doing that than having to change the form of government. Right now, as it stands, we could actually hire a city administrator that could have the same qualifications, the same experience requirements as a potential city manager would. That can be done right now without changing the form of government, but Fresh Start Fairhope and the mayor are not in favor of that. Why wouldn’t they be interested in that? You have to ask yourself what’s the hidden agenda, what’s the real motive?”

Thorson said he feels the real issue is about consolidation of power.

“It’s really not about the city manager,” Thorson said. “It’s about the change in power and control of the city that the council-manager government would bring about. I think there is probably some ulterior motives in there, but the purpose of this is to change the whole power structure of the city. When you do that, you take away the citizens’ right to have a direct vote of who is running the city. You take away the checks and balances we’ve benefitted from over the years and you place a tremendous amount of power in the office of the mayor as the new leader of the council.”

Thorson added that the expense of creating a new city manager position would likely by well over $1 million over the course of a four-year term, especially when considerations for additional necessary staff came into play.

Thorson said voting yes for the change in government would also mandate the creation of districts for the city, which he felt would not be beneficial.

“I feel like creating districts would artificially divide this city,” Thorson said. “Everyone identifies as a citizen of Fairhope now, not of a particular district.”

Thorson said he also feels a change to the council-manager system will do nothing to remove politics from the day-to-day operations of the city government.

“Politics is always going to be a part of this,” Thorson said. “It’s just not good to give any one person that much direct authority and power over the city. What you’re seeing new with the bickering between the mayor and the council just becomes bickering within the council. Nothing ever gets resolved any further and now the bickering just becomes even more public.”

Fresh Start Fairhope forum on Nov. 4

In an email to change supporters on Oct. 23, Fresh Start Fairhope spokesperson Chuck Zunk said the group would be sponsoring a town hall meeting on Nov. 4 for registered voters at 3 p.m. at the Rock Creek Clubhouse.

“The panel will consist of local Fairhope residents, in primarily a question-and-answer format,” Zunk wrote. “This will be the last scheduled informational event before the election.”

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