If it were a conventional corporation rather than a city, the shareholders of Decatur — with an annual budget of $67.7 million and more than 500 employees — would elect a board of directors and chairman, and they in turn would hire a professional chief executive officer.
Corporations use this system of governance because it works. Broad policy decisions and strategic vision come from directors answerable to shareholders, but day-to-day operations like employment decisions and budget implementation are supervised by the trained CEO answerable to the directors.
According to Gary Voketz, who has a master’s degree in urban planning and was Decatur’s first planning director beginning in 1964, Decatur should have this corporate form of government, which is referred to as a council-manager government under state law. City residents voted for a council-manager government in 2010, and nine years later litigation over whether it should be implemented continues.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit Voketz filed against the City Council in 2014, a council-manager form of government could be implemented in Decatur. The main problem with the state law utilized by Voketz in 2010 was that it allowed for only three council districts, not enough in Decatur to include one with a majority of black citizens. That defect in the law has recently been corrected.
Because of legislative amendments passed in 2018 and 2019, a successful referendum now would result in either four or six district council members, a part-time mayor functioning as council president and elected at large, and an appointed city manager. The method of getting the issue on the ballot is the same as it was in 2010 — a petition must be submitted with signatures numbering 10% of those who voted in the last municipal election.
“All it’s going to take is a petition. You think it would take a long time for somebody to collect 5,500 signatures? Give me a break. They could do that in less than a week, easy,” Council President Paige Bibbee said last month.
Actually, she overstated the number of signatures that would be required. According to City Clerk Stacy Gilley, 9,158 people voted in the last municipal election, so a petition placing a change in government on the ballot would require the signatures of only 916 registered voters.
So another vote on switching to a council-manager form of government is possible. But is it a good idea?
Yes it is, according to Sam Gaston, who began his career as a planner in Decatur’s Planning Department in the early 1990s and is in his 26th year as city manager of Mountain Brook.
“Decatur’s always been one of my favorite places. I think they could really benefit from having a professional city manager there. But that’s a choice each community has to make on its own,” Gaston said.
Gaston points to numerous benefits of a council-manager government over the mayor-council government currently in place in Decatur and most Alabama cities. The main advantages, in his view, are having a professional supervising day-to-day operations and reducing the inevitable political conflicts between an elected mayor with administrative control and an elected council, conflicts that have defined Decatur governance for years.
“Most people don’t elect mayors because they’re going to be great managers. They elect them for their personality, their charisma, their ideas,” Gaston said. “If you happen to elect a mayor that’s not a good manager or administrator, not well organized, then there’s not a lot you can do until the next election.”
A trained city manager, likely with an advanced degree in public administration or urban planning and with continuing education in city management, provides stability, in Gaston’s view.
“If you’ve got someone who is a professional who knows about management performance and benchmarking and efficiencies in government, who knows about streamlining government and how to get a proper organizational structure to your government, over time you will see better and more efficient services,” he said.
A council-manager government also reduces some political conflicts that Gaston sees as inherent in a mayor-council government. A city manager is answerable to the full council, which includes the part-time mayor. In a mayor-council government, the mayor is not answerable to the council, but still functions as the city’s CEO.
“You’ll see less politics in the administration of your city operations,” Gaston said. “The manager works for the entire governing body. In a mayor-council form of government, the council doesn’t control the mayor. The mayor is a separately elected person.”
Jim Buston, Auburn’s city manager, said the use of a corporate model increases governmental efficiency and reduces political conflict.
"If you look at most council-manager governments anywhere, it’s basically a road map for success. It really just follows the corporate model," he said. "The mayor’s sort of like the chairman of the board of directors in a corporation. The council members are the members of the board, and I am basically the CEO or president that’s hired by the board to run the company. Then I hire all of the staff to work at the company."
Decatur Councilman Billy Jackson says the city should implement a council-manager government because that’s what voters asked for in 2010, but he suspects that in Decatur a manager would reduce governmental stability.
“This person may be a professional and know the inner workings of municipal government, know exactly how to manage a city, but a city manager will be obligated to answer to the City Council,” Jackson said. “I think we’ll have what we have now, except we’ll have a high-paid person on staff that will take the brunt of any blame that comes. But they’re going to do things exactly the way the council majority wants them to do it, or they will be in fear they might be removed.
“I don’t know that there’s any real benefit to it.”
Jackson also fears that in every election, challengers to the incumbent council members necessarily will advocate upsetting the status quo, and that’s likely to mean advocating for a replacement of the city manager.
“If the new council comes in and the majority changes, because promises have been made to the citizens that we’re not going to continue doing this or we’re going to do this a different way, the guy that’s pulling all the strings in the eyes of the public and those new elected members is the city manager,” Jackson said.
Most of the 15 Alabama cities that have managers try to increase stability through the manager’s employment contract.
“At any public meeting, the city manager can be let go. It takes a majority of the council to get rid of the city manager, so it’s not enough if just one or two council members don’t like the city manager, or maybe the mayor doesn’t like the city manager. But there is in my contract a severance clause that says if you want to get rid of me, you’ve got to give me one year’s severance,” Buston said.
Gaston also points to severance pay as providing governmental stability. It acts as a disincentive to rash moves by the council majority.
Jackson also worries about a city manager’s accountability. At least in theory, Decatur’s CEO mayor is directly accountable to the people.
Gaston views the city manager as being more accountable, not less.
“I’m accountable every day to the mayor and the council. I do have an employment agreement, but my job is on the line every day. The mayor is only accountable every four years, as opposed to the city manager being accountable every day,” he said.
Cost is another concern raised by Jackson and other skeptics of a city manager system. Auburn’s population is about 10,000 more than Decatur, and its city manager makes $215,000 per year — more than double the $106,000 salary of the Decatur mayor.
Gaston said the focus on a manager's salary is a false economy, and not just because the mayor would drop to part time and a lower salary in a council-manager government.
“A city manager in the size city of Decatur would need to make more than $106,000, but should save his or her salary many times over by more efficient and effective services and cost savings provided by good and professional management,” he said. “You would see consolidation of many of the small departments into larger ones to provide for a more efficient delivery of services and reduce the number in the chain of command (who report directly) to the city manager.”
Manager vs. administrator
An alternative to a city manager, proposed by both Bibbee and Mayor Tab Bowling, is the hiring of a city administrator. Sixteen Alabama cities, including Madison, have administrators. An advantage is that hiring an administrator would require no referendum and no change in district lines.
Gaston said some cities have had success with administrators, but that their authority is necessarily limited because it’s a position not referenced in state law.
City managers, for example, have authority to hire and fire employees — a critical power in increasing efficiency and keeping politics out of employment decisions, according to Gaston and Buston — but only the mayor has that authority in a mayor-council government.
“The city administrator might be a professional, but he or she would work mostly directly under the guidance of the mayor. Now some mayors are kind of part time, ceremonial, and the city administrator really does run most of the day-to-day operations, like in Gulf Shores. But the final call on firing employees or preparation of the budget comes to the mayor before it’s presented to the council,” Gaston said.
An administrator necessarily answers directly to the mayor rather than to the council, according to a 2011 Alabama Supreme Court case, and the mayor has the statutory authority to hire and fire an administrator. The council can increase its authority over an administrator through an ordinance.
While city managers remain uncommon in Alabama, Gaston predicts recent amendments to the Council-Manager Act will change that. He’s been contacted by several cities since the 2019 amendments inquiring about the feasibility of a change, and he’s given presentations on the topic to several city councils.
Nationally, most cities have appointed city managers, and they are common in all of Alabama's border states except Mississippi. Florida has 276 cities with managers, Georgia has 120 and Tennessee has 90.
Gaston said there are several reasons for Alabama’s slow adoption of council-manager governments, most having to do with past problems with the Council-Manager Act and some having to do with the natural reluctance of mayors to cede authority to a professional appointee.
Another impediment, he speculated, is that as much as Alabamians complain about the inefficiencies of local government, they rather enjoy the entertainment.
“What’s the saying? ‘Politics is the second most popular contact sport in Alabama.’ It’s ingrained in the political and cultural nature of Alabama,” he said. “Over time we’re hoping with this legislation in place we’re going to see more cities go to council-manager.”