Down The Drain...

By Dave Devine

IT WAS ONLY 20 years ago, but looking back, it seems like it happened in a different millennium. The January 1977 Tucson City Council recall election, however, reverberates in Tucson politics even today.

Back then, the metropolitan area had a population of more than 420,000. The city limits encompassed 91 square miles, and the water bill for the average household was $8. That sum bought almost 15,000 gallons of water.

Today, more than 725,000 people live in the metro area, and the city proper is spread across 190 square miles. But while Tucson has ballooned in size, the average wage today is almost 10 percent less than it was in the 1970s. And today the average Tucson Water customer uses considerably less water each month and pays a lot more--15,000 gallons now cost about $40.

But the mid to late '70s were certainly not the good old days:

To help lower demand on an overtaxed delivery system in the face of continuing population growth, Tucsonans, in the summer of 1976, were asked to volunteer for "Waterless Wednesdays" and limit their outdoor watering.

That helped, but the need to improve and enlarge the water system to serve a growing population meant additional revenues had to be raised. The politicians and bureaucrats knew it wouldn't be easy--Tucsonans were still smarting from the Arab oil embargo of a few years before that had pushed up gasoline prices. And they'd recently seen a huge increase in local electrical bills.

The people were worried and angry...

THE FOUNDATION OF the 1977 recall was laid in late 1975, with the election of Margot Garcia and Doug Kennedy to the Tucson City Council. They joined Robert Cauthorn and Barbara Weymann and formed a four-member "reform Democrat" team which dominated the council.

Mayor Lew Murphy was the only Republican on the council. The other two Democratic members, Ruben Romero and Rudy Castro, were not associated politically with the other four Democrats.

These four council members--Garcia, Kennedy, Cauthorn and Weymann--were publicly linked with Ron Asta, then a member of the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Some in the local business community accused this group of favoring limited growth, or even no growth.

Those accusations were confirmed in the eyes of many when the reform Democrats voted in June to institute a higher water rate. Adding insult to injury, they also voted to charge a "lift" fee--an additional expense to the customer based on how high his water meter was above Tucson's well sites. The idea was to charge for the actual cost of delivering the water, since pumping uphill is expensive.

The combined impact of these increases skyrocketed many bills. People told of monthly charges going from $8 to $13 and from $12 to $26. But that was in the central part of the city. In the higher elevations, at many homes in the affluent foothills and outside the city limits, costs went up much more. One customer's bill went from $19 to $107 because of the lift charges.

When folks received their July water bills, they were furious. The reform Democrats tried to explain their votes in a front page story in The Arizona Daily Star. Kennedy stressed the extra income would allow the city to improve the water system. Garcia admitted the timing of the increase was terrible, but she stood by her decision.

The people of Tucson, however, were not interested in explanations. Led by John Varga, an electronics teacher at Pima Community College, the effort to gather enough petition signatures to force a recall election of the four council members began in early August.

To blunt the increasing criticism of the new rates, the four council members quickly abandoned their support for the lift charges. Later, they called for a public referendum on several water issues, to be voted on during the November general election. Eventually they tried to "educate" people about the seriousness of the issue by holding a series of poorly attended public workshops on water.

But the furor persisted, and the recall effort continued. The ease and speed with which the required number of valid signatures were obtained was impressive.

In addition to simple rage over the hike in water bills, other issues fueled the recall movement. One of those was the perceived "no-growth" philosophy of the four, which some promoting the recall effort claimed was the real reason for the lift charges.

As one critic complained: "The drastic increase in...water rates in Tucson cannot be justified on the basis of economics or planned growth. They are only a subterfuge for restricted growth."

The recall affected the city's ability to sell bonds to finance expansion of the water system. Lawsuits filed over the new water rates, including one involving the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association (SAHBA) as plaintiff, made selling the bonds impossible. According to a newspaper story at the time, SAHBA contended "the city is using the new rate structure to slow growth on the city's outskirts by making it too expensive to live there."

After the recall election date had been set, there was a short campaign. The anti-incumbent effort was led by Varga, Jack Fitzgerald, a local businessman with a residential water bill that had gone from $14 to $83, and several others. They worked for three candidates--Richard Amlee, Cheri Cross and James Hooton--who promised to roll back the rate increases.

A few weeks before the election, however, the message from the three challengers changed. They warned water rates would have to be raised some, because of inflation and other causes. At the same time, the recall movement endorsed another challenger, Schuyler Lininger, a local hotelier, even though he never promised to roll back the higher rates.

The recall was the first and only nonpartisan city council election in Tucson history. The three incumbents were Democrats; of the challengers, only Hooton was a Democrat. However, because of election provisions, that information was not be on the ballot.

THE INCUMBENTS WERE outspent by their opponents, and the water issue dominated the campaign. The result was a political slaughter.

The carnage was not surprising. As Cauthorn had predicted in September, "I think we're going to lose, every one of us." He didn't lose, only because he'd resigned his council seat in November to take a job in Florida; but his three colleagues were crushed.

The impact on water rates was minimal. Of course, that had been a given all along. While the newly elected council members eventually supported reducing the amount of the increase, the hike was still significant. As Kennedy said throughout the recall campaign, water rates had to be increased to finance needed improvements in the system.

But the impact of the recall effort on Tucson politics was immense. Combined with Asta's defeat in November 1976, the reform Democrats had been routed. Whatever their views about growth in Tucson, they'd been sent packing by the voters. The continued control of the community by Tucson's powerful Growth Lobby was assured.

Oddly, however, the political victors did not have long political lives. Hooton was defeated by George Miller in the city council primary election only eight months after taking office. Lininger was beaten by Democrat Tom Volgy in 1977's general election.

Two years later it was Amlee and Cross' turn. Amlee decided not to seek another term, while Cross was defeated by Democrat Chuck Ford in the general election.

Varga ran for mayor as an independent in 1979. Though he had an impressive second-place finish to Lew Murphy in the general election, his political career was over.

But despite these election reversals, the basic message had been loudly sent--Tucson politicians should stay out of the way of the growth steamroller. For the past two decades, it has been a rare city council member indeed who questions any growth-related issue.

But the recall movement didn't stem rising water rates. The money was desperately needed to expand the system to accommodate an ever-increasing population. The price of water continued to escalate.

LOOKING BACK ON the recall after 20 years, what do those involved think it accomplished?

Fitzgerald is the most enthusiastic. He says it "stopped no-growthers dead in their tracks." Tucson has grown and progressed tremendously since that time, he believes, so the recall did a lot of good. But, he concedes, the winning candidates melted under pressure and double-crossed the movement when they raised water rates.

Lininger and Amlee are more subdued in their assessments. Lininger believes the four incumbents were using the water price hike to slow growth. While acknowledging that a recall is not a good way to change office holders, Lininger says the mood in 1976 was that people were being shafted by the City Council and the Water Department, so that's why it happened.

Amlee isn't sure the recall effort had any long-term impact on Tucson. He thinks the growth/no-growth controversy has lost its meaning here. He also says water decisions have become too political, adding the current debate over Central Arizona Project water reflects that. He also admits the four people swept into office by the recall didn't handle the water issue very well.

Of course, the ousted Democrats see the recall results differently. Garcia thinks it made local politicians more likely to duck difficult issues and afraid to take positions necessary for the good of the community. Kennedy says the recall changed politics for the worse in Tucson by scaring off qualified candidates for office for several years after the election.

Cauthorn says it's easy to overestimate the recall's impact. The inequities in water bills--due to the lack of lift charges--are still with us, he noted.

In Weymann's view, history has vindicated the ousted council members. She says they changed water policy in Tucson for the better, adding they were absolutely right in what they did. But, she noted, "The builders and car dealers wanted us out from the beginning."

Weymann also says the growth issue had nothing to do with the lift charges. Kennedy agrees. Garcia says the lift charges were really a matter of social equity--necessary if the city is ever going to bill the actual cost of delivery to a customer.

Even today, some members of the current council are critical of the situation in which in-town residents, many of them poor, are subsidizing the rates of their better-off neighbors in the foothills. But don't expect any of the current council members to go around spouting the idea of simple fairness.

Weymann, Garcia and Cauthorn admit they were "politically naive," "inexperienced," and "pretty stupid" to have hiked water rates during the summer months. But all four Democrats still believe they did the right thing. Kennedy says, "No water system improvements then would have been the ultimate no-growth position."

The recall helped to bring Tom Volgy to the city council, and later he became mayor. He believes the recall limited Tucson's ability to deal with its water problems. "If there hadn't been a recall," Volgy says, "maybe we'd have stumbled into a more creative water solution. Because, after the recall, people were afraid to make an error like that again."

Volgy agrees the actual issue in the recall election was not water rates. Instead, he says, it was all about who controls development in Tucson.

Volgy describes the four ousted Democrats as bright people who made one big political mistake. The recall made them pay for that mistake and sent out a terrible message about making an error in local politics. It resulted, he says, in people shying away from running for the city council.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the recall, Tucson is a much larger place than it was in 1977. Ironically, the water rate increases which led to the recall were needed to support that growth.

Without the lift charges, new development could easily continue in the foothills and other areas outside the city limits. Would Tucson, currently with vast amounts of vacant land within the central city, be having to encourage infill projects within the city limits--as it is now-- if the lift charges had been allowed to stand?

If nothing else, Amlee points out, the recall showed that in Tucson, water is a very political issue. It's a lesson we're still learning today. TW

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