Mayor George Miller's Call For A Special Election Is Rejected By Democrats On The City Council.
By Jim Nintzel
MAYOR GEORGE Miller's grand plan to change the Tucson electoral system in hopes of inspiring a massive annexation campaign in the suburbs hit a surprise snag earlier this week. The five Democrats on the City Council united to block his proposal for a ballot proposition which would allow voters to amend the city charter so that candidates would run only within their wards, rather than citywide.
Only Republican Fred Ronstadt supported Miller, making a motion to call for a special election on May 19 to rewrite the charter based on Miller's plan, which would also increase the number of wards as the city's population grows. The Ward 6 Councilman's motions were met by a response so silent that, in Ronstadt's words, "You could hear the tumbleweeds rolling."
"I was shocked," Ronstadt said after the study session. "The Mayor called me last week, he called me Saturday, he called me Sunday. He said he had the votes, and I guess he didn't."
Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal, who has been a vocal opponent of the plan, says he was also surprised that none of the other Council members seconded the vote.
"I can only think that the more people thought about it, the problems with it came to them," Leal says.
Both Ronstadt and Leal were pessimistic that the Council would reconsider the proposal.
The lack of support for the proposal was a blow to Miller, who made the charter changes a centerpiece of his agenda in his state-of-the-city address earlier this month.
Miller believes changing to ward-only elections would entice residents who live outside the city limits to agree to be annexed into Tucson. Many residents north of the city limits say one reason they're reluctant to become citizens of Tucson is because the Democrats hold a powerful registration advantage, outnumbering Republicans about three to two.
To provide further incentive, the charter changes would allow "geographically compact and contiguous areas" to become new wards if they helped increase Tucson's population by 100,000, compared to the population figures established by the 1990 census. Miller hopes that opportunity would inspire residents in the Catalina Foothills to request to be annexed into the city.
With Council support for a May election virtually non-existent, Miller will instead have to lead an initiative drive to put the issue on the November ballot. Council insiders say Miller has already lined up car dealer Jim Click, well-known for his financial generosity to GOP causes, to lead fundraising for the campaign.
Supporters would have to gather about 10,700 signatures by July to get the proposal on the ballot.
Leal says the proposition would have a more difficult time passing in the fall than in a May election.
"In November, there's more people participating," Leal says. "It's just unconscionable to try to change the charter in such a significant way using a special election process that's used on purpose because it has such a low turn-out."
Jonathan Kress, chairman of Pima County's Democratic Party, promises the party will "absolutely" oppose the initiative.
"My personal feeling is that the majority of Democrats are 100 percent opposed to it," says Kress. "George has got this strange, strange pipe dream that if we go to ward-only elections, there will be less opposition to annexation. But I think that everyone else in Pima County realizes it's absolutely irrelevant. It's not going to change people's attitudes toward annexation one iota. Particularly in the foothills north of Tucson, it's not going to have any influence whatsoever."
Joe Pennington, chairman of the Pima County Republican Party, says the GOP will support the initiative.
"We should be having ward elections," says Pennington. "We would support and endorse that. In fact, when the Mayor first proposed that some time back, I suggested we send him a voter registration form to change his registration from Democrat to Republican."
John Jones, who heads up the city's annexation team, says Miller is right when he argues that residents north of the city are concerned about the political structure of the city, but he adds that they have additional concerns about services and taxes. He says even if Miller's proposal succeeds at the ballot box, it could take 25 years to annex the developed areas north of Tucson.
"What the Mayor is proposing on one hand is a political incentive," says Jones. "We still have all the issues, though, that we have to deal with when we go out there.... It's still going to come down to approaching people on an honest-to-goodness, one-on-one basis and convincing them that there's an added benefit to them, whatever that benefit is. There's no magic wand that can be swept over this and say, 'OK, now we've fixed the political situation, everything else is fixed.' "
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