Annexed Generation

Proposed changes to the city charter could transfer more power to white Foothills fat cats.

A GROUP OF PROMINENT CEOs, real estate developers, car dealers and attorneys calling themselves the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC) has a plan to give Tucson a make-over.

Their idea is to remake the Old Pueblo into a major metropolitan urban conglomerate--like Phoenix.

The on-again-off-again plan from the business community is to persuade the Tucson City Council to place a few suggested changes to the city charter on the November ballot. But with the U.S. Department of Justice watching, it may be a hard sell.

Yet with a little help from a few well-funded soft-money committees and a well-chosen ad agency or two to educate the Great Unwashed, the Leadership Council might just have a mega-city in the making.

Ah, but attempting to make over sleepy ol' Tucson into the likes of metro Phoenix requires a deft hand, a little time, a few big-time players and help from a majority of the City Council.

The schedule for change is tight. City staffers say they need all the proposals in by late March in order to ready the legal language in time for the election.

The big players are already in place. The Leadership Council's members include attorney Si Schorr, land speculator Don Diamond, car dealers Jim Click and Buck O'Rielly, Realtor Hank Amos, real estate developer Joe Cesare, developer Roy Drachman, construction mogul Hal Ashton, AZ Mail Order king Paul Baker, attorney John Munger and Raytheon Missile Systems president Joe Coyle.

Some of the funds to fuel the Big Makeover will come from the Leadership Council's member dues. Most of the money, however, will come directly from city taxpayers.

The Leadership Council currently has about 54 members--45 Republicans and 9 Democrats. Bob Johnston, the council's executive director, reluctantly told the Weekly his members pay individual dues on a sliding scale varying from $2,500 to $10,000 dollars a year.

Changes to the city charter have a dark and bungled history involving some of these same players.

In 1997, an initiative campaign to put ward-only elections before the voters fell apart when City Clerk Cathy Detrick noticed several signature irregularities on the petitions. A subsequent police investigation found widespread forgeries. Police informants wishing to remain anonymous still talk about the calls they received from city officials telling them to call off their probe.

The 1997 initiative implosion was led by then-mayor George Miller and private citizen Bob Walkup. Today Walkup is the city's mayor.

This year's effort will seek to bypass the messy signature-gathering initiative process. Johnston told the Weekly his group did not seek to use the initiative process to place the proposed charter changes on the ballot because "this is their thing," meaning the mayor and Council. "These changes are for the good of the city. We are just bringing these issues to their attention. It's up to (the City Council) to put these issues on the ballot."

Johnston says his organization's plan to seek changes in the city's charter is the same as last year's effort, which got off to a false start in July when two Council Republicans, Shirley Scott and Fred Ronstadt, "got cold feet." At the time, Scott said that city staffers failed to resolve technical issues.

Johnston says that the proposed charter changes include:

· expanding the City Council wards from six to eight;

· providing the mayor the right to vote on issues before the Council, including the right to be counted for a quorum;

· replacing partisan elections for city offices with nonpartisan elections.

Easing the annexation of unincorporated areas into the city was also an implicit part of last year's plan. Leadership Council board member Schorr pointed out in a July 7, 2000 guest editorial in the Arizona Daily Star that "increased wards allow for and encourage unincorporated areas near the city to consider annexation with the knowledge they can help form new city wards."

Johnston recently acknowledged that facilitating annexation is still the main reason his group wants to implement changes to the charter.

Annexation remains a major priority of city officials, too. Andrew Greenhill, Walkup's chief of staff, said the mayor last week asked Pima County's state legislative delegation to consider a bill that would remove barriers to annexation.

Greenhill could not say what the mayor specifically had in mind when he put forward his ideas. Walkup was unavailable for comment. Without changes to current state law, a large-scale annexation could take years to accomplish.

Johnston says his organization will not play a spoiler role in trying to influence the outcome of the incorporation election taking place in Casas Adobes on March 13.

But if the citizens of Casas Adobes vote not to incorporate, it's fair to anticipate that the city could build up a campaign for the charter changes behind the argument that residents of that northwest community would gladly agree to being annexed if only they could have their own ward represented on the council.

If annexed today, Casas Adobes would add another 28,257 registered voters to the city's rolls--12,886 Republicans, 9,789 Democrats, 5,313 Independents, 217 Libertarians and 52 Greens.

Although city officials smirk at the mention of a potential Green Valley annexation, the Old Pueblo last month vaulted within a few miles of the I-19 retirement village with an ongoing 28-square-mile Sahuarita-area annexation.

If pulled into the city limits, Green Valley would bring an additional 12,648 registered voters, including 7,105 Republicans, 3,316 Democrats and 2,204 Independents, plus 15 Libertarians and eight Greens.

Voter registration figures for the Catalina Foothills are not available from the County Recorder's office as a voting unit.

Because Casas Adobes and the Catalina Foothills are the areas most mentioned by the Leadership Council as communities that might like to benefit from the city's many amenities, some City Council members are increasingly concerned that the Leadership Council's annexation strategy to expand the six city wards to eight or even 10 would water down minority representation.

Johnston said with regard to "the minority issues on the council ... if we do annex, and I admit it is implied ... it will cut down on minority representation on the council. But who's to say about minorities? ... Is Ronstadt a minority?"

Asked by the Weekly if he considered himself a minority, Councilman Fred Ronstadt answered, "Well, I am a member of the Hispanic community. But I'm not sure it is a minority any more. I'm Hispanic on both sides of the family. My mother is Mexican and my father also has Hispanic in his background."

Ronstadt's comment regarding whether Hispanics are a minority is interesting. He, together with Steve Leal and Jose Ibarra, make up 50 percent of the Tucson City Council.

How minorities gain access to the political process is of particular interest to the U.S. Justice Department.

To advertise that new wards will be created for a particular geographic sector appears to bypass other traditional criteria used by the Justice Department in review of how political jurisdictions are determined--criteria such as race and ethnicity.

Johnston doesn't believe the minority issue will be of concern to the Justice Department. "Minority voting power will not be significantly impacted if we add another two council wards," said the former Marine lieutenant general. "We are going to push ahead," he said. "We don't think Justice will make this a war stopper."

Maybe not. But to ignore the minority issue could be a council career stopper.