by Jim Nintzel
Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers gives his take on four proposed Tucson City Charter amendments. The Tucson City Council is considering asking voters to approve the changes on the November ballot.
We're still trying to make up our minds about most of it, but we're sure we don't like the idea of moving elections to even-numbered years.
I know this is a long e-mail, but it is critical that everyone understand that very important changes to our Tucson City Charter could be voted on by the Mayor and Council this coming week.
Our charter is like our constitution, so changes need to be considered very carefully. Voters must approve charter changes. It is anticipated that if the City Council approves the proposed changes, they will appear on the November ballot for an up/down vote.
Background of the Proposals
A recommendation has been forwarded to the City Council
for changes to the Tucson City Charter, which dates back to 1929. The new proposal was drafted by the Tucson Charter Change Coalition (TCCC), which is basically the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC) with a few additional folks. This draft proposal has undergone a number of changes from its original version, mostly I think to our benefit.
There may also be an “alternative recommendation” that was drafted this weekend with input from some Council members, their staffs, and members of the public. It gives more power to the Mayor and Council and less to the Manager than the TCCC/SALC proposal. I believe many parts of the “alternative” may not be palatable to TCCC/SALC’s membership and that might cause the package to lose their support. But, keep in mind that sometimes improvements have to be made incrementally, and as part of a compromise, or nothing happens.
Below, I explain the TCCC/SALC proposal that has already been pretty much agreed to. It is important to remember that Charter changes have been routinely rejected by city voters in the past 20 years, usually because “everyone was not on the same page.” Hopefully, this attempt will be different. It is hoped that a large coalition of business groups, Democrats, Republicans, social service non-profits, labor, and environmental groups may well agree on whatever compromise is reached. Much like the RTA, if it is embraced by virtually everyone, the chances for its passage increase dramatically.
Some parts of the proposal are long-needed excellent changes to our City Charter. Others represent compromises reached after input with TCCC/SALC, Council members, and the public.
There has already been a public hearing at the Tucson City Council regular session on June 8th and a study session on June 15th. Previously, TCCC/SALC held three public sessions on their own. While large crowds attended the first two at the Doubletree and the Tucson Community Center, they were substantially SALC and its supporters. I attended all three meetings and gave as much input as I could from the Democrats’ perspective.
Recently, some have suggested that there still may not have been enough general public input into the matter; hence, this action alert e-mail to you. Part of this is because there has been nearly zero coverage by the Arizona Daily Star and the televison news media. Since it doesn’t “burn or bleed,” they have ignored it. I believe it is important that more of the public hear about this and have a chance for input. In fact, this could be the most important action taken by the Mayor and Council this year.
The Council will discuss the proposed changes at the June 22nd Study Session starting at noon and the Regular Session at 5pm. The council MAY even vote that same day to place some version of this on the ballot. So, it might be the last chance for any further public input.
Analysis & my thoughts
A. Civil Service Protection
First, this would remove the Civil Service Protection for all Department Heads and their immediate Deputies or Assistants. Everyone agrees these people should not have Civil Service Protection. No one can explain how or why civil service protection exists at this level. We can’t find another City Manager charter anywhere in the U.S. that extends civil service protection to department heads. I liken this to the situation of President Obama taking office and being stuck with Bush’s Cabinet and not being able to replace them except for proven misconduct — and even then, they can appeal the discharge to the Civil Service Commission, which could reinstate them. This is just not “good governance” to have entrenched bureaucrats who cannot be removed when they are not “on board” for moving forward with the Mayor and Council’s priorities. I believe there is unanimous agreement of the current Mayor and Council on this issue. We have encountered no real opposition to this part of the proposal.
B. Hiring & Firing Authority
This recommendation alters some of the authority as to who hires and fires Department Heads. This has been the most difficult of the four proposals for us to gain a consensus — and it may still be in flux. TCCC/SALC started with a proposal that would vest all hiring and firing of all Department Heads in the City Manager’s hands. They were wise enough to understand that this was a “non-starter” with absolutely no chance of passing. TCCC/SALC has slowly given a lot of ground to “us” in this area and we may now be to a point where, while not perfect, it is a big step forward in better governance of our city. I describe these hiring/firing authority areas as “tiers.”
The City Manager is currently hired by Mayor and Council, but can only be fired with a 2/3's vote of council only. The mayor cannot vote for firing. See Recommendation number 3 below. This would change to a majority vote of Mayor and Council for both hiring and firing the City Manager — that is, 4 of 7 votes instead of the 4 of 6 votes currently (without the mayor voting). This is uncontroversial and appears to have universal support.
The second tier of Department Heads includes the Police Chief & Fire Chief. The proposal would have these two positions hired or proposed by the Manager, but the Mayor and Council would have to approve the proposed hires with a majority vote (same as current charter). The same would be true for firing them. The only substantial change here is the Manager would apparently propose the firing, but would need consent of Mayor and Council. Now, the Council fires with a 2/3's vote, not including the Mayor. So, there would be a slight change here.
The third tier proposed by SALC would be Finance, Human Resources and Parks & Recreation. In the proposed change, the Manager would hire, with the consent (majority) of Mayor and Council required to approve the appointment. But, the Manager would be allowed to fire without the consent of Mayor and Council. Currently the charter allows the manager or 2/3's vote of council to fire these Department Heads. These changes might spark some debate.
A substantial change to this proposal is currently being discussed and it is my understanding that TCCC/SALC will be on board for it. Many in the environmental community and others suggested the Water Department ought to be in this tier or even in the first or second tier, above. The change that has been proposed, and which we believe TCCC/SALC also now supports, would move the Water Department into this tier and lower Parks & Recreation into the fourth tier described below
The fourth tier includes all of the rest of the departments and does not represent a significant change in the hiring/firing authority contained in the current charter for most departments. The ones that would change are Parks & Recreation (see above). The only one of these departments that has raised any “eyebrows” is Transportation. Some members of the public have suggested that, like Water, it is an important department that ought to be included in one of the above tiers of Mayor and Council authority.
The “alternative” proposal that was worked on this weekend, with input of council, staff, and members of the public, raises the level of involvement of Mayor and Council in the hiring and firing in some of the above areas. As indicated above, some or possibly all of these changes could cause us to lose the support of the TCCC/SALC folks which could doom the entire package.
Index the pay of Mayor and Council to the Board of Supervisors’ pay by giving the Mayor 100% of the supervisors’ pay and the council 80%.
There were initially several suggestions of how to deal with the pay issue, including just raising it and indexing it to the Consumer Price Index. Finally, the consensus was that indexing it to something that the legislature changes periodically was the better idea. Currently, the Mayor is paid $42,000 and the Council $24,000. Obviously, it is very difficult to live on $24,000/year without having a side job or being retired. This proposal is a “no brainer” for virtually everyone who hears about it. This is especially so if we require that it be “revenue neutral” by either taking it out of the current council budgets or paying for it with the one to two million dollar savings from Recommendation number 4 below.
Currently, a commission recommends salary changes to Mayor and Council who then place it on the ballot — where it promptly fails.
As indicated above, the Mayor is like a “weaker” version of a council member. The mayor cannot vote to fire certain individuals and does not count for a quorum. This change would allow the Mayor’s presence and vote to count just like any other council member’s. I have not found anyone who opposes this change. Once this change is made, it requires a few other tweaks to the Charter to remove the 2/3's language in some votes to fire Department Heads that require 2/3's vote. That must be changed to a “majority” so 4 votes will be enough. This too, is not controversial.
This TCCC/SALC recommendation would be to continue with staggered elections and move them to even-numbered years. Some people believe that this would have two benefits. First, it would save money by combining City Elections with either the National, Congressional, and State elections in one cycle and with Congressional and State Elections in the other even- numbered year.
This recommendation is already in flux and I think another version will probably be approved by Mayor and Council which would leave odd-numbered year elections in place, but remove staggered elections. Serious problems arise by switching to even-numbered years for City elections (as suggested in the current TCCC/SALC proposal).
If we were go to even-numbered years, here are some of the pitfalls:
1. The city races will be so far down ballot that they will be lost in a sea of other offices, propositions, etc.
2. It will be very difficult to raise money, volunteers, and enthusiasm if you are on the ballot with president, congress, legislature, etc. — especially so if clean elections is disappearing, as it appears to be. The same problems occur if you do it in the Governor's even-numbered year. Although this issue theoretically cuts both ways for Democrats and Republicans, it probably cuts more against Democrats.
3. If down ballot with no D or R next to the name (that is, if we lose the lawsuit against “Paton’s law”), candidates who have name recognition alone can win. That means well- financed R's get name recognition alone with money, and the confused voter at the end of the ballot just votes for the name, not the party — since he or she has no idea what the party affiliation is. In contrast, in an odd-numbered cycle, we can, if our candidates agree, focus just on M & C elections and get our info out to the D's as to who our D candidates are — even if we are stuck with non-partisan.
4. Very rich donors can mount more dangerous independent committees that could hammer our candidates and/or support others (allowed under new U.S. Supreme Ct. case).
5. Combining into the even years would mean the County would always run the elections and the City would cooperate and pay its share. While there have certainly been significant improvements in the County Elections Department, they still don’t have the level of trust that we have in the City Clerk’s running of City Elections.
In contrast, staying with odd-numbered years and eliminating staggered elections has significant advantages. First, it saves at least one million and possibly as much as two million dollars by completely eliminating one election cycle. Second, it allows the Mayor and Council members to have more years when they can completely focus on making the tough, but necessary, decisions without the constant distraction of one-half the Mayor and Council either being in an election year or only one year out from one. Many have suggested that if they are all in the same cycle, there will be even more “teamwork” and hence, better long term governance.
The only criticism leveled at non-staggered elections is that there could, theoretically, be a complete turnover of all positions in one cycle and a loss of “institutional memory.” However, the Board of Supervisors is all on the same cycle and we’ve never seen a problem with that and it is an even smaller group of people — 5 districts in the county versus 7 wards in the city.
I have grown to believe that this may be one of the most important changes we can make to our charter. Steve Leal is the originator of this idea and has pushed it for years. I think Steve was visionary in this idea.
If this attempt to reach a consensus falls apart, we have a solid group of people ready, willing, and able (with money) to put on the ballot next year with signatures another proposal for an elected Strong Mayor, accountable to the voters. In fact, just such a Strong Mayor proposal has already drafted.
But, keep in mind that the TCCC/SALC proposal, with the compromise changes all pretty much agreed to, is much better than the status quo. It is a very real and significant step forward for our city and that’s why it deserves your serious consideration. And, if the compromise can be supported by everyone, including TCCC/SALC, then we have been assured they will raise money to help us pass this — probably hundreds of thousands of dollars.
While this is not exactly what I and a group of Democrats with whom I have been working on charter changes would have drafted, we did come up with many of these same suggestions on our own.
So, please show up and make your opinions known at Tuesday’s Council Meeting or at least call your council member and the mayor.
I hope that all this information is helpful and keeps you informed on what’s happening with YOUR city.
Chair of the Pima County Democratic Party