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What the Devil won't tell you

Tucson charter committee backs off bold action

Wait 5 days to find out details but ward-only & strong mayor don't survive public comment

Bold charter changes a citizens committee considered recommending the Tucson City Council put to a vote did not survive a month-long public comment period. 

The Charter Review Committee will recommend the mayor get a vote on all issues and allow for sales taxes to pay for bonds without a vote of the people but only in small sizes. The committee rejected recommending ward-only elections with a 7-7 vote, and suggested yet another committee to look at the question. A veto for the mayor and eliminating the maximum sales tax limit were both rejected by the committee.

The prospect of ward-only elections appears to have taken a sideways turn down a cul de sac of doom but may not be dead forever.

Giving the mayor a veto, without a vote, would have turned the mayor from a figurehead action figure with a bully pulpit accessory into a political force. 

It also would have made him an outlier among mayors representing the "strong manager" system. Mayors out west don't tend to get that kind of power, because the model was developed as a reaction against the strong-mayor machine politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (and New Jersey today).

The charter comittee split 7-7 on the idea of ward-only elections, voting 8-6 to tell the Council to appoint another citizens task force to look into changing Tucson's election system.

This is straight-up powerball.  

General elections are now held city-wide with the theory being that Council members will represent the whole city. However, with each member working in their own disparate ward office, the council has a ward-by-ward vibe to it. Then come election time, they get city-wide religion in a hurry.

The business community feels shut out with an all-Democratic City Council and conservative East Side voters feel ignored and overwhelmed by Democratic votes in the other four wards (although Ds outnumber Rs in each ward, including the eastern pair). Democrats win big under these rules because of a two-to-one edge in voter registration over Republicans. Independents tend break right but not often in sufficient numbers to win the GOP seats on the Council.

So, Republicans and the business community want Council members elected by wards — and are ready to give up on ever achieving a governing majority to gain some representation on the Council.

Democrats have been winning in walk-overs without facing much competition from big-name Republicans. The system works well for the Democrats and the two-to-one collection of interest groups in no hurry to change that provision.

Two other provisions would allow the city to take out more debt, much of it would require public approval but some would not.

The city has a limit on primary and secondary property taxes. The committee would keep the former and lift the latter to that imposed by the state. This is the same limit governing every other city in Arizona. The secondary property tax can only be used to pay off debt and voters must agree to raise it but because of a self-imposed limit the city has a bonding capacity to deal with roads, public safety and open space that is far less than other cities in Arizona. The new limit would simply give Tucson parity with Mesa, Flagstaff, etc.
The committee is also recommending giving the council the right to bypass voters to issue bonds paid for by property taxes. However, the city's charter limit of a 2 percent limit on sales taxes would remain in place.

The net result would give the city a very limited ability to bond for small items — but too big for daily operating expenses — between elections. The city's cup is not exactly running over with sales tax dollars the Council doesn't know how to spend, and hasn't been in years.

However, in most cases, the city can only issue bonds in the form of certificates of participation, i.e., a project like a parking garage is paid for with its own parking fees and the garage is the collateral or secondary property taxes. Under the proposed charter change, the council could bond for specific pressing needs without the cost of an election.

Here's another issue, the certificates of participation are more expensive bonds to issue than a revenue bond tied to sales taxes. Without the authority to lift the sales tax cap, this would be a very limited power.

We'll know more Monday — five days after the meeting — about the charter change proposals the committee voted on Wednesday. I'm stuck with an overwhelming urge to sigh big and cleansing. Members of the committee are heeding the advice of a consultant hired to assist them, and not commenting on the record about their recommendations: "I wouldn't say anything to anybody about anything."

No charter provision can be changed without a popular vote. Nothing is going to be foisted on the people through secret communiques. Committee chairman Kasey Nye is doing what lawyers do, having struck the terms of the deal, he's getting the wording right and taking the time allowed by the law to do it.

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It will all come out in the wash and everyone I talked to was forthcoming on background and pleasant about the questions. They were very nice and professional. The city even posted the audio of the meeting Friday afternoon, after I brought it up with staff.

However, that the committee won't just post their recommendations gives me an overwhelming desire to sigh and think — gee, why do people have a hard time dealing with the city? Why would anyone suggest the city needs charter changes? And finally, is it really a good idea not to "go bold"?

Come on guys, the recommendations themselves should have been online and plainly public days ago. The exact wording can still get done.

Don't go blaming Nye. He's swimming in the current of city politics. If the story ended with Nye and his wording, the story would end right there with that last paragraph.

I can't help but think one has a lot to do with the other. The city is under pressure to change the way it does business because the city has a tendency to operate in fear of a giant shoe dropping on their heads and works that way. In Tucson, every verb is a potential sheet of flypaper that may get under someone's craw creating bad blood and all that metaphor gets jumbled together to undercuts a consensus that exists only in dreams.

I'm reminded of two quotes that have stuck in my head over the years.

The first is from a friend who optimistically joined the city staff hoping to make a difference: "I'm amazed at how many people in Tucson want to see the city fail."

And the other is from former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, who said, smartly, "You don't conduct diplomacy in public." Of course, he was talking about arms control treaties.

It's just not all diplomacy. It's local politics and it's democracy. People are always going to get angry.

And that's just it. The sheer amount of diplomacy required within the city ranks and among its stakeholders is massive. For a city the size of Tulsa our drama is Londonian. Just to say "let's lift the bonding capacity to the state limit" could cause enormous grief, so there's a sense it must be worded exactly right, lest the shoes drop.

True, the local press has a tendency to turn conflicting agendas into grievous errors in judgment. Mistakes get treated like scandals. 

Yet being treated like you are guilty doesn't mean you should act guilty, as a general rule. All that diplomacy has caused those who operate in the nexus of the city government to cover themselves 90 ways to get out and that look of guilt has been going on for a long time.

I would argue transparency and getting public information out there faster won't piss of stakeholders any more than they ordinarily may be pissed off. The desire to avoid big toes, sooth touchy egos and stonewall a bitchy media egos doesn't help with the rest of us.

The committee members put in hard work. They made recommendations. Some will like them. Some will hate them. Most will find something to like and hate. It's done. You aren't delivering a burning bag on the city's doorstep.

Act proud of your work because if you aren't, no one else will be. Good job, guys. Now make it public.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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