Mayor George Miller's Big Push To 'Ward-Only' Elections May Be Stalled By A Tiny Procedural Matter.
By Dave Devine
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS. One thousand, 444 minutes. Eighty-six thousand, 400 seconds. One day. Not much time--but possibly enough to prevent a vote this year on Tucson Mayor George Miller's "election-by-ward-only" idea.
When the City Council several weeks ago refused to place Miller's proposal on a springtime special election ballot, it was generally assumed supporters of the measure would take the initiative route. That will require them to obtain thousands of signatures from registered city voters, but would guarantee a public vote on the idea.
Many believed that if the signatures were collected in a timely fashion, the vote would be held in November. City Clerk Kathy Detrick, who is responsible for city election issues, said as much in an interview last week.
But that's where one day--and a precedent--intervene. Back in 1984, then-state Rep. John Kromko led an effort to have the Neighborhood Protection Amendment initiative put in front of city voters. The measure was focused at stopping the construction of the Aviation Highway, a popular project with local officials at the time.
In early 1984 Kromko's group turned in more than enough valid signatures to require a vote. They asked that it be held along with the city's bond election scheduled for May.
The city refused, and even declined to place the issue on that November's general election ballot. The reason: The Tucson City Charter states, "There shall not be held under this (initiative) chapter more than one special election in any 12 months."
Since such an election had been held on November 8, 1983, city officials ruled the next general election scheduled for November 6, 1984, was within the 12-month period. Then-City Manager Joel Valdez told the Council in April 1984 that for legal and practical purposes, an election on the issue couldn't be held until 1985. Thus, a vote on the "Neighborhood Protection Amendment" was delayed in accordance with the provisions of the City Charter.
Kromko filed suit against the city to force the initiative to be placed on the November 1984 ballot. He said state law required an earlier vote on the idea and argued city officials were just trying to stall the vote until after construction of the parkway had begun. His legal effort failed and the vote was finally held in November 1985, or 20 months after the signatures had originally been submitted. In the end the measure was narrowly adopted.
Last year's city election was on November 4, and it included three initiatives. This year's general election will take place on November 3. So it appears that under the City Charter's 12-month rule, no balloting on a city initiative measure should occur with the 1998 general election.
Although City Clerk Detrick said last week that she'd have to research the matter, she indicated a precedent may have been set by the 1984 decision. But she added that the method of calculating the 12 months might also become an issue.
After reviewing the earlier case, Detrick said she was referring the issue to the City Attorney's Office for an opinion. If the 1984 decision is upheld, a vote on the "election-by-ward-only" initiative might have to wait until November 1999, although it could possibly be held along with a city bond election earlier next year.
Kromko said recently that conformance with the Charter should be the criteria for deciding when an initiative is held. Ironically, he remembers Miller was "a big pusher for not putting the (Neighborhood Protection Amendment) on the ballot" in 1984. Miller was the one primarily responsible for delaying the election until 1985, Kromko recalls.
Kromko also says that legal action preventing the "election-by-ward-only" question from being put to the voters on this year's ballot is possible if city officials decide to ignore their previous decision. "They need to be consistent," he warns.
Miller was out of town and unavailable for comment about this potential problem for his proposal. Former Mayor Lew Murphy, another proponent of the idea, said he wasn't interested in talking about it.
There may be another way for the issue to be placed on this year's November ballot, however. If the City Council were to adopt the proposal, and then refer it to the voters for a final decision, the Charter provision could be avoided.
But the likelihood of that scenario being followed is remote. Both Democratic city councilwomen Shirley Scott and Janet Marcus would be vulnerable to losing their seats in next year's city election if the measure were adopted in 1998. They each represent wards with high numbers of Republican voters, and their positions on issues such as the use of CAP water has made them potentially very unpopular within their own wards. So the prospects for the council itself placing the matter before the voters looks small.
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