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Tucson elections to go ahead in 2021, Az Supreme Court rules

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Tucson elections to go ahead in 2021, Az Supreme Court rules

  • Tucson City Hall
    Bill Morrow/FlickrTucson City Hall

The Arizona State Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Tucson will have an election after all this year, shutting down a challenge that would have forced the city to move to even-year elections under a state law.

The City Charter's requirement to hold elections in odd-numbered years holds sway, the justices ruled in a 5-1 decision, meaning that the election for three seats on the City Council will continue to go ahead in 2021.

"Whether to align municipal elections with state and national elections or hold them in different years is purely a matter of municipal interest and not a statewide concern," Vice Chief Justice Ann A. Scott Timmer wrote.

Mayor Regina Romero said she was "pleased" by the decision. “I hope that this ruling finally puts the issue to rest, and that our state legislators can return their focus to the pressing issues facing Arizonans instead of meddling with our local elections."

A recent state law, passed by Republicans in the Legislature in yet another attempt to force Tucson to change city elections, requires political subdivisions to move elections to coincide with statewide and federal contests if voter turnout in local-only election is 25 percent lower than the most recent turnout in an election for governor.

Lawmakers claimed that the law, passed in 2018 response to a state high court decision that overruled a 2014 attempt to more directly order Tucson and other charter cities to realign election dates, would increase voter turnout, and was thus a "matter of statewide concern."

"Phoenix state legislators have once again failed to override the will of Tucsonans in disrupting our local elections," Romero said. "Tucsonans have repeatedly affirmed that our local elections belong on odd years, which allows for city-focused campaigns and robust public discourse on local issues that would otherwise be overshadowed by federal and state elections on even years."

The justices found that the "home rule" provision of the Arizona Constitution grants cities with charters, such as Tucson, the ability to set their own election dates regardless of state law.

The city's "autonomy in structuring its government" falls under that right of home rule, Timmer wrote.

City Attorney Mike Rankin called the ruling a "satisfying result."

"Hopefully we're not litigating elections cases every five years" with the "strong language" of the decision backing the city's stance that it has the right to structure voting under the Charter, he said.

The case resolves a second attempt in the past decade by the state to change the timing of Tucson elections. In 2014, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that state law could not directly force even-year elections in the city, so the Legislature tried to approach the issue more obliquely, with the turnout threshold as a basis for a "statewide interest" claim.

In the ruling issued Wednesday, the Supreme Court denied a challenge to Tucson's election calendar brought by state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, but held that the state law is valid for local governments that do not operate under their own independent charters.

The court ordered Brnovich's office to pay the city's attorney fees, which Rankin said would reach into six figures.

Chief Justice Robert Brutinel and Justices John Lopez, James Beene, and William Montgomery joined the opinion. Justice Clint Bolick dissented.

Rankin said that "it's important that legislators start to understand that 1487 (a state law that allows members of the Legislature to prompt the attorney general to challenge state laws) isn't a free ride for them to go after cities."

The city attorney noted that Tucson "put the question in front of the electorate" about changing the Charter to move elections to even years.

"It failed," he said. "We protected the will of the voters that was just expressed" in going to court to keep elections in odd-numbered years.

"It's not like this was just something that dates back to 1929; we put the question to our voters now," said Rankin, who thinks that the recent vote to keep the Charter as-is underscored the weight of the city's court case.

Wards 3, 5, 6 on ballot

Tucson staggers terms for the members of the City Council, with Wards 1, 2 and 4 having had elections in 2019 — along with the election of the mayor.

This year, Wards 3, 5 and 6 will see elections. No Republicans will be on the primary ballot for any of the seats.

Members of the Council are nominated by ward in August party primaries, and voted on citywide in the November general election.

Ward 3, in the Northwest Side and Midtown, is an open seat this year, with Councilman Paul Durham resigning for personal reasons and his interim replacement, former Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, pledging to not run in the fall.

On the Ward 3 Democratic primary ballot will be environmentalist Kevin Dahl, and Juan Padres, who in the last election unsuccessfully challenged Sharon Bronson, the chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

Ward 3 also has an independent candidate seeking the seat: Lucy LiBosha. Republican Alan Harwell has filed to run as a write-in candidate.

In Ward 5, on the South Side, only incumbent Councilman Richard Fimbres will be on the ballot. No challengers filed in the race.

In Ward 6, Councilman Steve Kozachik has a pair of primary challengers: Miranda Schubert and Andres Portela.

Independent Val Romero is also running in that Midtown ward.

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