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Appeals court upholds Tucson's city-wide partisan elections

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Appeals court upholds Tucson's city-wide partisan elections

  • City Hall
    PhotographyBySakura/FlickrCity Hall

A three-judge panel ruled in favor of Tucson's current election system Wednesday, saying it's a matter of "purely local concern."

The Arizona Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision in favor of a 2009 state law that sought to change city elections.

Members of the city council are now run in primaries by ward, but are elected city-wide. Candidates run on a partisan basis.

A 2009 law, sponsored by then-state senator Jonathan Paton, would have changed Tucson's system to a nonpartisan, ward-only election system.

Tucson was the only city affected by the law.

The court found that the Legislature overreached in changing local elections.

"If a state law conflicts with the provisions of a city charter and if the relevant interest is solely local, the city's charter supersedes the statute," the judges said, citing a 1951 case, Strode v. Sullivan.

"The statute's prohibition of partisan elections, in fact, interferes with the city‟s authority to control its municipal affairs," the decision said.

City Attorney Mike Rankin hailed the ruling.

"It's a great decision, founded in prior case law," he said.

The case "determines where the line is drawn with respect to how far the Legislature can go in dictating to charter cities," he said

Rankin noted that voters didn't pass changes to the city's charter in November that would have enacted an election system similar to the one mandated by the Legislature. 

"Twice before that, voters rejected the same sort of election changes," he said.

Paton, a Republican who intervened in the case along with the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, said the case will likely go to the state Supreme Court.

"There are definitely grounds to appeal," he said.

The city's current election system is tilted to candidates who are "beholden to small interest groups, like neighborhood groups," he said.

Paton pointed to candidates, such as Republican Councilman Steve Kozachik, who were defeated in the general election in the wards they represent but are elected because they win city-wide.

"It's happened 12 times in our city's history," he said.

Paton said he pushed the 2009 law, and got involved in the case, because "the city of Tucson is one of the most dysfunctional jurisdictions in Arizona."

"It's a system created by the Democrats," he said.

He cited the Rio Nuevo project as a focus of his concerns. Paton was recently appointed to the board overseeing the downtown development district.

Paton criticized the court for not ruling sooner, saying the decision's timing means that this year's election cycle is already underway. Candidates for mayor and council have until June 1 to file nomination papers.

Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers supported the decision in a statement.

"The ruling is a repudiation of former state Sen. Jonathan Paton and his southern Arizona Republican cronies, including the bill’s co-sponsor Sen. Frank Antenori who have sought to impose every bit of their extreme agenda on an unwitting public," he said.

"The law was an attempt to rule Tucson from Phoenix, plain and simple," Rogers said. "Folks down here want to protect their main stream values and the court's decision simply allows them to continue to do that."

The judges split, 2-1, in deciding that the law's prohibition of at-large elections violated Tucson's local concerns.

Judges Joseph Howard & J. William Brammer agreed with the city, while Judge Phillip Espinosa, in a partial dissent, wanted to uphold the law.

Paton cited concerns that the city's at-large elections might violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

The judges disagreed: "The legislative hearings make it clear that these amendments were an attack on the city's form of government rather than any attempt to protect the state's opportunity to bailout from the preclearance requirements of the (Voting Rights Act)."

Arizona holds elections under a consent decree with the federal government because of past discrimination. Changes to voting or voter registration must be approved in advance by the Justice Department.

In the Strode case, the state Supreme Court found it could “conceive of no essentials more inherently of local interest or concern to the electors of a city than who shall be its governing officers and how they shall be selected.”

The court held "that the method and manner of conducting [municipal] elections... [are] peculiarly the subject of local interest and [are] not... matter[s] of statewide concern."

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