DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to force the city of Decatur to follow the results of a 2010 referendum in which a majority of voters backed the city adopting a city manager form of government.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon means that, at least for now, the north Alabama city can keep a full-time mayor.
“This result may seem unfair to Voketz and the Decatur citizens who approved a council-manager government,” Kallon wrote of the lawsuit by Gary Voketz. “From their perspective, the (city of Decatur and council members), though well-meaning, have essentially ignored the results of an election.”
However, the Decatur Daily reports Voketz is considering an appeal, and citizens are free to petition for another referendum on the subject.
Decatur city officials claimed it would be illegal for them to adopt a council-manager form of government as envisioned by the 2010 referendum because it called for only three city council members representing districts, along with an at-large council member and an at-large part-time mayor. City leaders argued that would violate the federal Voting Rights Act because the city could no longer draw a district with a Black voting majority, meaning they couldn't guarantee that African Americans would be able to elect a candidate of their choice to the council.
The city currently has five council districts.
Voketz started the petition calling for a government with an appointed city manager as the chief executive in 2009.
Kallon dismissed the lawsuit based on a change in state law. He noted that in 2018, the Alabama Legislature amended the council-manager law to allow either four or six council districts. That would have allowed the city to keep a Black-majority district.
But in 2019, the Legislature changed the law again, requiring that a referendum state whether the new government would have four or six council districts. The 2010 ballot did not include this language, and couldn’t have since only three districts were possible under the 2010 version of the law.
Voketz's lawyer, Charles Cole, said the city’s winning dismissal based not on the Voting Rights Act — the justification the city gave for rejecting the referendum — but on an amendment to state law reveals “that the only goal of certain city leaders was to protect their own power.”
Cole wrote a letter about the change to the city in 2018 and City Council President Paige Bibbee questioned whether Mayor Tab Bowling knew about the 2018 law and never told the council to preserve his own power.
"I guess my biggest question was whether the mayor was notified. If he was, did he suppress that from coming to council?” said Bibbee, who supports the change to a city manager. “If they knew and didn’t disclose that to me, to the other council members and to the public, then that’s a problem.”
Bowling didn't directly address the issue when asked for comment.
Bibbee said she thinks another referendum is inevitable. If approved, the change would take place in 2024.
“This was an intentional effort to deprive the people of Decatur of their constitutional right to choose their own form of government,” Cole said.