Some local elected officials praised the Legislature for adding a year onto current council and mayoral terms, but two Decatur council members questioned the legitimacy of the state granting them one more year in office than voters did.
Under Senate Bill 119, signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey earlier this month, elected officials in municipalities in Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties, as well as most other Alabama cities, will get an additional year on their current terms. It pushes back municipal elections from 2024 to 2025 in all but 11 of the state’s cities.
The Alabama League of Municipalities pushed the bill that was introduced and passed in the current legislative session, arguing that it is more efficient to separate the presidential and municipal elections. Four-year municipal terms will resume after 2025.
Decatur City Council President Jacob Ladner said he had concerns about the law.
“The city selects its leadership every four years and this extends the terms without the voters having a say in whether it should be extended,” Ladner said.
Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks, an executive committee member of the League of Municipalities, said the legislation is meant to “end the confusion” that occurred with the municipal and general elections held in the same year. State and county elections are not affected.
“There were a lot of problems related to the runoff and general elections, poll workers and other situations,” Marks said.
Morgan County Probate Judge Greg Cain said the move will help the Board of Elections, simplify the handling of absentee ballots and assist the companies who have to test the voting equipment for each election.
“There won’t be as much conflict and it just makes things simpler and cleaner,” Cain said.
Most of Decatur’s elected officials like the change. Mayor Tab Bowling and Councilman Carlton McMasters said the additional year gives them more time to accomplish their goals for the term.
“It will give the city much-needed continuity,” McMasters said.
Bowling said the extra year gives his administration valuable time to move forward.
Councilman Hunter Pepper said this council now has four and a half years to reach its goals.
“Now we have a beginning year to learn and then we still have four years to conduct the city’s business,” Pepper said.
Decatur Councilman Billy Jackson said he believes the state Legislature passed the bill “with not any significant thought behind it.” He said the move benefits the politicians more than it does their constituents.
“It made more sense to reduce the terms to three years versus going to five years, from my perspective,” Jackson said. “If a constituent was satisfied with their elected official, he or she would reelect them. But now if they’re dissatisfied with the person, they’re stuck with him for the additional year.”
Jackson said it might have made sense to adjust the election dates 15 or 20 years ago “but now we have machines in which they can just pull the data by a thumb drive. It’s really much easier now.”
Marks said the state Legislature couldn't reduce the number of years in a term because it would have created a conflict with the state’s constitution.
Jackson said he thought a better solution for separating the municipal and general elections would have been to move the municipal elections and any possible runoffs to earlier in the year.
“It would definitely be more considerate of the constituent base,” Jackson said.
New City Clerk Stephanie Simon, who will run Decatur’s elections and has been with the city 24 years, said the only major impact on her office is the election is a year later. She said separating municipal and general elections may help with getting more poll workers, which has been a problem in recent elections.
“To me, it will help the counties and make it easier on the companies that do ballots because everything won’t be so close together,” Simon said.
Cain said the handling of absentee ballots is the major issue because the October votes for the municipal runoff and the November general election are so close together.
“We really need to end that tug of war between the different elections,” Cain said.
Cain said it’s possible that a clerk could confuse whether an absentee ballot is meant for a city runoff or the general election “if the clerk doesn’t catch the separation in the records. It’s just better that we eliminate any possibilities we can.”
The new legislation also reduced runoffs from six to four weeks after the election. Bowling, who has been in two runoffs, welcomed the change. He said six weeks was excessive.
“Usually, the candidates use the first week (of the runoff campaign under the old system) to catch their breaths,” Bowling said.
Bowling said he hopes the move increases voter turnout because there won’t be so many election days in a short period.
The bill does not impact some cities because separate legislative acts set their elections. These cities are Auburn, Bessemer, Dothan, Gadsden, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, Mountain Brook, Scottsboro, Talladega and Tuscaloosa.