Party Favors

Blue Ribbon Committee Proposes City Charter Changes.

The City Hall chasm parting 6,000 employees from partisan politics could be bridged if several charter and personnel rules changes survive City Council review and, in the case of charter amendments, are approved by voters.

City employees, in the most sweeping change, would be free to make cash contributions to candidates for mayor or the six council seats and could participate fully in those campaigns, raising money, serving as campaign officers, hanging signs and knocking on doors.

The city's Blue Ribbon Charter Committee recently voted narrowly to recommend that strict limits on employee political activity in the City Charter and personnel code provisions be lifted. They also voted to prohibit the City Council and city manager from installing any new restrictions on employee political activity in personnel rules within the city code.

That recommendation, along with others to increase mayoral power, add two seats to the council, boost council pay and end staggered terms will be presented this summer to the council for possible placement on future ballots.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar, a Republican in her first term in North Side Ward 3, is preparing a more moderate change.

Dunbar would leave the City Charter provision that prohibits employees from giving money to or raising money for candidates for city office and doing any work for city candidates on city time.

But the Dunbar plan would lift the strict ban on political activity in the accompanying city code. Her proposal would allow city employees to become members of national, state, or local committees of political parties, including the elected position of precinct committeeman. It would still bar political activity during working hours or while in uniform.

The issue is being discussed as the city deploys its full-court press to seek voter approval on May 21 of a half-cent sales tax increase to finance road and transportation improvements. The city has bombarded voters and organizations with materials that tout the benefits of the tax and transportation plan. But beyond using city transportation officials to sell it, which critics had expected, police and firefighters are campaigning for the tax through their unions.

Dunbar's aim has appeal with a council majority.

Senior member Steve Leal, a southside Democrat, favors giving employees the ability to do more work for political parties.

The strict bans, Leal said, "seem to have come from some acute paranoia and acute fearfulness. I think they are so repressive that they violate people's civil rights."

For years, city elections were in stark contrast to Pima County, where the campaigns for the more than two dozen elected offices were freewheeling affairs where employees willingly or forcibly gave money and time. Abuses were frequent and the Board of Supervisors, in 1992, finally banned cash contributions from employees to candidates for county offices.

"I'd like ours to be comparable to the county ordinance," said Leal, in city office since 1989 and a mid-level jail administrator for Democratic Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.

Vice Mayor Carol West, a Democrat who represents North East Ward 2, also wants to keep employee money out of city campaigns but favors loosening restrictions to allow employees a place in political parties, including as precinct leaders.

Republican Mayor Robert Walkup agrees, according to his top aide, Andrew Greenhill.

But there is more that Greenhill and Walkup want. They are pressing for revisions to the 1929 charter that oddly assigned disparate weight to the mayor in various charter sections. The mayor is the chief executive of the city, but is sidelined on votes to terminate the manager, attorney and clerk. And while a council majority can dump a police or fire chief or the directors of finance, human resources or parks, the mayor has no vote.

The biggest burr for Walkup was the charter's failure to count the mayor as a part of the four-person quorum required for City Council meetings, something dramatically introduced to him in January 2000 as he tried to push through El Con Mall redevelopment. Leal, West Side Democrat Jose Ibarra and Jerry Anderson, the Democrat then representing Ward 3, bolted, stranding Walkup with just West, Republican Fred Ronstadt and Democrat Shirley Scott.

Walkup and his pro-development backers in the Southern Arizona Leadership Council used that issue to force changes onto the ballot last year. Community and council resistance stopped the drive and the Blue Ribbon Committee took over the work.

Greenhill has breathed down the committee's neck, showing at nearly every meeting and sometimes presenting his own overhead projection shows. He has attempted to link Walkup's plan as well as those from other groups, including an obscure charter-change plan from the Sierra Club in 1991

The Sierra Club plan received scant notice and was not among the three plans, including one placed on the ballot by a petition drive by the Tucson Business Coalition, that were presented to voters. All failed at the polls.

But Walkup's council expansion has advanced. The Blue Ribbon Committee voted 7-5 last week to recommend two new council seats.

Ray Figueroa, a longtime representative for the local American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees, was one of two union members of the committee to dissent.

The city, struggling with budget deficits and possible layoffs and service cuts, was in no position to add two new council offices that in addition to the $24,000-a-year council salary could jack up costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff, cars, office and office equipment, Figueroa said. New allocations to the city Back to Basics Program, which distributes $825,000 to each council ward, also would be required, he said.

Committee member Mike Boyd, a Republican who served two terms of the Board of Supervisors, also won approval to tie mayoral and council pay to supervisors' pay. Supervisors, whose pay is set by state law, now make $54,600 a year. The mayor is now paid $42,000 a year.