East Side Story 

GOP challenger Kelly Lawton takes on Democratic City Councilman Paul Cunningham

click to enlarge Kelly Lawton

Kelly Lawton

When he's asked why he's running for the Tucson City Council, Republican candidate Kelly Lawton has a standard response: "I got sick and tired of being sick and tired."

A genial airline-industry veteran who now runs the Tucson and Sierra Vista branches of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical College, Lawton will tick off the frustrations he has with the city of Tucson: Too many potholes, not enough police officers; too much red tape for local businesses, not enough high-paying jobs. Too much graffiti, not enough control of the budget.

Lawton's bottom line: There's not enough leadership at City Hall.

"It just gets to the point where you ask, 'Who is making the decisions here?'" Lawton says.

City Councilman Paul Cunningham, who is seeking his second full term representing eastside Ward 2, has a different view of the city.

While he's "not going to say that everything is perfect," Cunningham is happy to recite a list of what he thinks has gone right in the city during the five-plus years he's been on the council.

"I think a good example of leadership is a billion dollars invested in downtown and picking up the pieces of an unmitigated disaster at the end of the Rio Nuevo era," Cunningham says. "I think paving 300 miles of road and counting is leadership."

Cunningham has other examples: Signing a new lease with the Tucson Airport Authority that helped pave the way for the new buffer zone near Raytheon that the county is trying to develop into a high-tech hub; advancing a water policy that has the city banking water not only for Southern Arizona but Phoenix as well; moving the UA Wildcats baseball team to Hi Corbett Field; reducing the city's workforce by more than 1,000 employees while avoiding layoffs of police and fire despite the city's budget challenges in the age of the Great Recession.

Lawton points out that while the city may not have laid off cops or firefighters, positions have gone unfilled to save money. And despite the reductions in city staff, the city has continued to dip into its reserve funds and find other one-time solutions, such as refinancing debt or selling land, to bridge budget shortfalls.

While Lawton is critical of how the city's budget has been managed, he's not especially detailed in areas he would cut, saying that that the city needs to "strategically look top-down, bottom-up at each cost center" to determine what should stay and what should go.

The candidates disagree on the future of the bus system. With the recent six-week bus strike coming to an end last week, Lawton says it's past time to raise fares and cut routes and frequency. He says the council didn't show leadership on those questions before and, as a result, the city's general-fund support of the bus system has climbed from about $18 million six years ago to about $30 million in latest budget.

Lawton suggests that the bus system should be run more like an airline, with fewer buses running along routes with if the buses aren't full. "In the airline business, a half-empty plane is lost revenue," Lawton says. "A half-empty bus is also lost revenue."

Cunningham doesn't think it makes sense to compare running a mass transit system to running an airline.

"I don't see an analogy between a bus line and an airline," Cunningham says. "That's comparing apples to oranges. I don't even see how you could come to that conclusion. An airline and a local bus service are not at all similar."

Cunningham, who supported a 2011 bus fare increase that hiked the cost of a ride from $1.25 to $1.50 but who has voted against recent proposals to increase it further, says he might be amenable to fare hike, provided he liked how it was structured for the various special fares that Sun Tran offers. He also supports the idea of turning the bus system over a separate entity such as the Regional Transportation Authority, depending on the details.

Cunningham supported 2012's Prop 409, a $100 million bond that has allowed the city to repave hundreds of miles of roadway in the city. He notes that the road projects—including Ward 2 thoroughfares such as Grant Road, Kolb Road and Speedway—are getting done ahead of schedule and under budget.

Lawton is unhappy the city decided to borrow money for the road repairs and questions the timing.

"I find it hysterical that most of the road repairs occur in an election year," Lawton says. "I do believe the city needs a consistent, year-to-year road maintenance program."

The candidates split on the planned expansion of Sabino Canyon Road past Udall Park to Kolb Road, designed to alleviate traffic at the three-way intersection of Kolb/Grant/Tanque Verde roads, which is one of the city's busiest intersection. The $15 million project has been pushed back several times as city planners have had to work with EPA officials to properly build a bridge over the Pantano Wash and an old city dump. Neighborhood opposition has been steep; some residents who now have a quiet street between them and Udall Park dread the day that a four-lane road appears.

Cunningham says he's "not crazy" about the road project, but he hasn't tried to stop it. He says it's voter-approved and expects work to start later this year.

"The traffic from Sabino Canyon to Wrightstown on Tanque Verde is unmanageable and this is probably the only release valve we have," Cunningham says. "This project has to get through."

Lawton questions the need for the project and would oppose it if he were elected to office.

"We don't need to spend $14 million on that," Lawton said. "We need to look at the budget and maintain our existing


More by Jim Nintzel

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