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Council seeks charter change input

Town halls on changing City Charter this week

Members of the Tucson City Council are seeking more public input on proposed amendments to the City Charter.

The possible changes, pushed by the Tucson Charter Change Coalition, a group backed by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, are touted as increasing the efficiency of city government.

Opponents of some of the changes say they would increase the power of the unelected city manager, and decrease transparency and democracy in city politics.

The council is scheduled to vote July 7 whether to refer the proposals to November's ballot for approval by the voters.

Charter change town halls

Council members in Wards 1-5 have scheduled town hall meetings on the charter changes. Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik has set up a special phone line to take public input on the amendments.

Wards 1 & 5

  • Thursday, July 1, 6 p.m.
  • El Pueblo Senior Center
  • 101 W. Irvington Rd.

Ward 2

  • Thursday, July 1, 6 p.m.
  • Eastside City Hall
  • 7575 E. Speedway

Ward 3

  • Wednesday, June 30, 6 p.m. & Thursday, July 1, 12 noon
  • Ward 3 office community room
  • 1510 E. Grand Rd.

Ward 4

  • Wednesday, June 30, 6 p.m.
  • Clements Recreation Center
  • 8155 E. Poinciana Dr.

Ward 6

  • Direct comment line: 837-4239 or email Ward6@tucsonaz.gov

While the details of the changes have been in flux as boosters have tried to build consensus for altering what is essentially Tucson's constitution, the basic proposals are:

Change the city manager's relationship to the council

The charter and Tucson's civil service rules would be changed to eliminate civil service protection for department heads and their deputies.

The city manager would have the authority to hire and fire most department heads, with the consent of the mayor and council. The city attorney and city clerk would be under the authority of the council.

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Some department heads would be directly under the authority of the city manager.

Supporters of the change say the city manager should be a municipal CEO, with the capacity to hire and fire staffers and carry out the policies as directed by the city council.

Opponents say maintaining a strong mayor and council leads to direct accountability to the voters, and that giving the manager more power could provide special interests the ability to lobby behind the scenes.

Boost mayor and council salaries

The mayor and council would be paid based on the salaries of the county Board of Supervisors. Supervisors' salaries are set by the legislature every four years.

The mayor's salary would be raised to $76,600, equal to a supervisor's pay. Council members would be paid $61,280, 80 percent of the mayor's salary.

Council members are currently paid $24,000 a year. The mayor is paid $42,000.

Supporters of a pay raise say that both mayor and council members are underpaid, and that a raise would widen the field of candidates.

"It's impossible to expect people to work for $24,000 a year and consider it a full-time job," said Bill Roe, an environmentalist and member of SALC, at last week's council meeting.

While not many disagree with raising council pay in a revenue-neutral way (by cutting council staff, for instance), some charter change opponents say that the pay raise is a carrot to induce the council to give up some of its powers.

"A salary increase is a difficult sale," said Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers, but "as part of a package" it may meet voter approval.

Establish mayoral parity

The mayor would have the same voting rights as council members, be deemed a member of the council, and count toward a quorum. Currently, there are issues on which the mayor may not vote, and only council members count toward a quorum.

Supporters of the change say that Tucson's restrictions on the mayor are a legacy of its original charter in 1929.

Even most opponents of changing the charter concede that there's no reason to limit the mayor's ability to vote. Some express worry about the details of making the mayor a full member of the council, such as giving the mayor the power to set the agenda.

Change the election cycle

City elections, now held in odd-numbered years, would be moved to even-numbered years. It's been an open question whether to continue with staggered terms, with only some members running in each election, or move to a system with all members running in each election.

Holding elections at the same time as county and state elections could lead to lower costs and higher turnout, charter change supporters say.

Opponents of changing the election cycle point out that a move to even years could lead to less attention being paid to city elections, with higher profile national and state races attracting all of the notice (and funding, as well). They say a clean sweep of council members could eliminate the city's "institutional memory" all at once.

The process

The council will decide at the July 7 meeting whether to refer the amendments to the ballot in November.

The council's practical deadline for a decision is the only meeting in July because of requirements to notify Pima County, which administers local elections.

"The key to selling charter change is as a package of good government changes," said SALC head Ron Shoopman at last week's council meeting.

The amendments would be "a step in the right direction, but is it what I would have come up with? No," said Democrat head Rogers. "It's a delicate balance if this goes to the voters. It could go over like a lead balloon."

Rogers has favored moving to a "strong mayor" system, with more power vested in elected officials. He has worked to build consensus between Democrats and charter change backers, with those pushing the amendments backing away from an absolutist stance on the power of the city manager to hire and fire.

The SALC backed a "strong mayor" system in a 2001 push to modify the charter. That initiative would have also added two council seats and moved Tucson to nonpartisan elections.

Those changes were shot down by the council in June 2001.

So why the new attempt to change city government?

SALC spokesman Jim Kiser pointed to the council's spending time on issues of everyday government as a reason to rework the system. "The council's looking at minutiae like delinquent accounts" he said. "There's too much turnover in city managers. We need to clear up the lines of authority."

This year, SALC began floating a new package of charter and policy changes. The group listed 8 charter changes, 6 policy changes and 3 "community practice" changes in a Feb. 1 planning document.

A SALC document from Feb. 11 lists 7 charter changes, 6 policy changes and 3 "community practice" changes.

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Through a series of meetings and discussions with potential supporters of changing city government, that list has been narrowed to the four recommendations the Charter Change Coalition is pushing.

In an April interview, Kiser said that the group still backed the proposed policy changes, but would put them on the back burner to focus on getting changes to the charter on the ballot.

Former councilman Steve Leal offered support for the amendments, but with caveats.

"Eliminating staggered elections has enormous merit," he said. "We could have a stable legislative environment for one year; right now we have election cycles every two years."

"If all were elected at the same time, you'd have a two-year window. You could all get skittish (about election-year issues) at the same time," Leal said.

"Without real checks and balances in this document (the charter), Tucson's council could lose its power. I've worked with eight city managers," Leal said. "With at least five of them, the city manager used money for projects" to keep council members happy.

"Don't let anybody pressure you people that we can take the next two weeks and work out some of the details," Leal said. "The attorneys and lobbyists always find a way to have a relationship with staff." Leal said. "The average citizen can't."

Rogers called the move to change the charter "a very real and significant step forward for our city and that's why it deserves your serious consideration," in an open letter.

Several opponents of charter change were quite vocal at last week's public hearing, held during Tuesday's council meeting.

Blogger Luke Knipe of PocoBravo.com has long been a critic of the SALC. "These proposals... did not emerge from a group that serves the voters' interests," he said.

Former state Rep. Tom Prezelski, a Democrat, compared the SALC to a group of "colonial overlords," expressing concern about the amount of citizen input on the proposed changes.

Prezelski argued against changing the structure of city government, saying that it doesn't matter if 90 percent of cities in Arizona are structured as the charter changes propose.

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"If everyone were jumping off a cliff, we wouldn't do it too," he said. "Most cities in Arizona are bedroom communities in Maricopa County. We have a different set of problems. We know we're better than those cities. That's not really a place where people are engaged" in their communities, Prezelski said.

Tucson's charter dates to 1929, and while it has been amended, the changes proposed by the Charter Change Coalition would be more far-reaching than any previous change.

"Charters should be living documents. They should change with the times," said Councilwoman Regina Romero last week.

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