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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

Familiar-sounding compromise saves RTA... for now

A giant chill pill and a retired general's compromise plan has, for the moment, saved the Pima County Regional Transportation Authority as it moves toward a new 20-year plan for a special tax for roads.

Thank Gov. Doug Ducey's Southern Arizona representative on the Arizona Transportation Board for pulling all sides from the fire. Yes, that Doug Ducey.

Ted Maxwell's state position also gives him a seat on the RTA board. He's the only one who isn't elected but was he (or someone like him) ever needed Thursday.

For a decent amount of time, the meeting ramped up to a kind of high-noon standoff. Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and Marana Mayor Ed Honea spent part of the meeting pointing political guns at each other's heads, threatening to end the RTA for all practical purposes.

Romero was representing a City Council prepared to walk away from the RTA and pursue its own transportation initiatives. City leaders say they are under-represented and therefore ignored, with just one seat among the nine voting members of the RTA board.

"The voice of the citizens of Tucson has been diminished. We have one vote of nine when we are 54 percent (of the county population)," Romero said. "It’s easy to ignore."

The city demanded weighted voting that would give them power on the board more in line with representing 54 percent of residents and 70 percent of sales tax revenues. The exact number had been in flux but it amounted to giving Tucson and Pima County together a block on any action by the other seven members.

Honea was not about to let that happen. He was speaking for smaller jurisdictions who weren't as comfortable playing the heavy.

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"When we go to a weighted voting system, I think you destroy this organization. I really do," Honea said.

Then Honea channeled his inner Logan Roy after making reference to his friends in the Legislature and governor's office. Yes, the other jurisdictions could steamroll Marana — theoretically — but changes involving weighted voting with the RTA board would require a approval by the Legislature. 

He promised to be "on the phone before I get home from the meeting" to torpedo the changes or start Marana's own version of a regional planning organization all by its lonesome.

"You are not going to get it through the Legislature to have weighted voting. I can guarantee you that," Honea said. Regardless of the merits, that little move right there was brilliantly played.

But Romero was free to just stare at him because she had the numbers even if Honea had the guns.

To hear and to listen

The standoff provided the opening required for a compromise.

Had the city abandoned the RTA, the transportation plan's prospects would be bleak at best. Much of its prospects at the ballot box would rely on city voters, who would have little reason to approve a program that didn't include them.

Don't let Honea's small-town turf deceive you. The Marana mayor has been around Republican circles forever and likely was in a position to make good on his threat. The Legislature eagerly awaits the chance to stick it to Tucson and bring down the RTA.

No one on any side even hinted they wanted to get rid of the RTA.

Along came Maxwell to the rescue. Both sides' stony intransigence crumbled — like, really fast.

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That tells me neither side really wanted this fight. So why'd they have it? If I didn't know better, I'd think the whole thing was planned out ahead of time. The Red exurbs of Marana and Oro Valley had to have a row with the Blue city of Tucson so both sides could have a face to save. I don't think that's what happened, because it makes no sense. But it's sure what it looked like. So ... maybe?

Maxwell's plan was simple and followed the basic logic I laid out in a column earlier this week, which is why I live in a crystal palace and am regularly referred to as "your Holy Awesomeness."

To reach a deal like the one Maxwell found, don't just hear what the sides are saying. Listen to what the sides are telling you. Yes. There's a difference.

Tucson said it wanted more votes on the RTA board. What Tucson was telling the other board members is that they felt like it had been too easy to ignore its single vote. The city is worried that its promised projects from the 2006 voter approved package won't get done within the 20-year life of the sales tax needed to pay for them.

Marana and the other jurisdictions — with a big assist from the Pima Association of Governments staff — said they would not support those changes. What they were telling the city was "you aren't going to run us over."

So Maxwell flipped the whole situation on its head. Rather than giving Tucson and Pima County the power to control the outputs, he gave the city more say on the inputs. 

The deal

His unanimously approved compromise gave the city weighted representation on the RTA Citizen's Advisory Council (19 of 35 members), which comes up with the program to bring to the voters. 

Tucson will also get another staffer on the technical management council of staffers who do the nuts and bolts of planning for rebar and asphalt after calculating daily vehicle trips to and from homes and businesses. This may not seem like a big deal, but boy is it. It's where the information flow starts.

The Citizens Accountability for Regional Transportation committee may get more city residents.

Tucson keeps its single vote at the end of the process but gains more wallop during the process of developing a plan and keeping it on track after approval.

Marana, Oro Valley and Sahuarita still have more votes than the Pima County and the city of Tucson. The RTA also includes, along with the state rep, seats for the city of South Tucson, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Maxwell's plan also includes figuring out what to do with any projects slated in the current incarnation of the RTA for Tucson that go unfunded because a giant recession messed up financial projections made back in 2004.

The compromise also allows periodic review of any future RTA plan to allow for changes, if predictions about what might be needed over a 20-year span don't materialize.

And lastly, yes, the Pima Association of Governments (consisting of the same representation of the RTA board) will study expanding representation for the city without any commitment to pull the trigger on whatever comes from all that studying.

To fight and compromise with city hall

All sides walked away happy, for the moment at least, and RTA Executive Director Farhad Moghimi kept his job despite Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik saying the Council wanted him replaced.

Romero does still have to bring back to the Council rather less than what was publicly demanded. That's probably why she said "we are going to continue having difficult discussions" after calling lauding the compromise brokered Thursday.

So we had a classic case of governments squaring off in a good old-fashioned bar-room chest fight. No punches are thrown. Threats were spoken, with arms back and the hope that friends would pull both sides away before either party bleeds.

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It's also a reminder of how to fight City Hall, The "Bleep State" or The Man in general. Try to change the inputs and not the outputs. Don't wait for the final vote to start bitching about things A through K. Get involved early at the staff and advisory level to change things 1 and 2. Things A through K never become problems.

Small corrections at the start of the journey save massive changes required at the end of it.

Now PAG and the RTA members can stop fighting each other on the board and go back to fighting the real enemy: Maricopa County.

All in

A point made by Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio at the end of the meeting summed up the how goofy blowing up the RTA would have been and how counter-productive infighting can be when taking on issues affecting the Tucson area.

We all live here. 

Tucson voters venture regularly to Marana and vice-versa. Oro Valley residents work in Tucson. We don't live hermetically sealed lives based on our jurisdiction. 

And when Sahuarita does better, Tucson does better. When the tribes do better, Marana does better.

When Tucson does better, everyone should do better.

And it took a retired Air Force general representing the state to forge a deal recognizing the idea that we're all in Tucson together.

Or as Yucupicio put it:

“You guys are strong. We’re all strong. General Maxwell, let’s go to war.”

Fussin' A. Maricopa County is 90 minutes that way.

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Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years, and as a communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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Jan 30, 2022, 12:00 pm
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Loved the major take-down of Christy in the Star’s letters to the editor today.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero took the Regional Transportation Authority's planned extension straight to the brink. But she got enough compromise to keep Tucson on board.

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