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Cunningham: Az GOP pushing to remove Tucson's self-government by tossing City Charter

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Cunningham: Az GOP pushing to remove Tucson's self-government by tossing City Charter

  • Paul Ingram/

I’ll admit that Tucson has an unusual system for picking our mayor and City Council. We are the only city in the state the does so on a partisan basis and the only one I can think of anywhere that has primary by-ward and general election at-large.

The important thing to remember about our quirky system is that the voters of Tucson chose this system and have re-affirmed it numerous times despite attempts to alter it.

There has been another attempt to tinker with our way of choosing the Council. This one is not coming from Tucson voters, but from our friends at the State Capitol.

The legislator who wrote SCR 1023 claims that it is about better representative government, but it would leave the important decision of how we organize our civic life in Tucson up to voters statewide.

The bill is two full paragraphs. It would repeal Article XIII, Section 2 of the Arizona Constitution. This is the provision that allows cities to have charters that establish their governments. There are 19 charter cities in Arizona, and those charters allow communities ranging from Bisbee to Phoenix to manage many of their own affairs the way their voters see fit.

Even though it would affect all 19 cities, the target is clearly Tucson. There have been numerous attempts, often by interests outside of town, to challenge the way we run our elections. A law mandating when Tucson can have its elections was struck down just two years ago.

It was struck down because of the rights of the city under our charter. Obviously, the people that don’t like the choices you’ve made decided that the only way to change things was to get rid of charters entirely.

Since the bill calls to amend the state Constitution, it goes to the voters rather than needing the governor’s signature. That would leave the question of how we in Tucson govern ourselves to voters in places like Kingman and Scottsdale. The bill’s backers say that the bill is about democratic representation, but leaving such an important choice about how Tucson runs its local affairs to people that wouldn’t know how to find the nearest Güero Canelo seems to be a poor way to practice democracy.

There is also a big question about what happens if this were to pass. As I’ve said, the bill is extremely short. It doesn’t address what happens to charter cities after the constitutional provision is removed. I had my staff talk to an expert on city charters with our City Attorney’s Office. It could be that since Tucson’s charter predates statehood, that it would be unaffected. Or, we could revert to what’s called a “general law” city or even a town. It could very well be that the city dissolves entirely. This has not been tested by the courts.

All three of the latter cases would mean choices that voters have made for Tucson would be null and void and would limit our ability to govern ourselves in the future.

I’m sure it isn’t exactly a secret that what motivated this is Tucson’s unusual election system. It’s been tough for Republicans to be elected, but I think that arguing that this is the purpose of the system is a bit hyperbolic. It wasn’t that long ago (only a few years before I got on the council) that there was a working Republican majority, despite a registration advantage for Democrats. We had a Republican mayor, two Republican councilmembers and an independent. Both of those Republicans, plus one elected subsequently, were elected at large while losing their wards.

This week, thanks to the work of Tucson state Sen. Priya Sundareshan, the bill was stopped on its third reading. These things, however, tend to get resurrected. My staff along with our city’s intergovernmental relations team will be keeping an eye on things.

Paul Cunningham represents Ward 2 on the Tucson City Council.

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