Questioning Authorities

Is Pima County drifting toward unrepresentative regional government?

On May 16, Pima County voters approved the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA)'s plan. In the not-so-distant future, Pima County residents may find themselves being asked to consider addressing yet another dilemma with yet another authority. This consolidation will deal with the granddaddy of all local issues--water and wastewater.

"Based on the present view of the Board (of Supervisors)," County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry wrote Tucson City Manager Mike Hein in February, "such an authority would be operational countywide where, hopefully, all water or wastewater assets of all jurisdictions within Pima County would be combined into a single entity, and quite probably under the direction of an independently elected board of directors."

Huckelberry expands on this proposal in an interview with the Tucson Weekly: "What Tucson needs is a real regional authority, like San Diego County or the Orange County Water District. It would be a separate body with the power to make decisions that are legally binding, to bond, all that. It would, of course, be operated by elected officials--one man/one vote."

The Pima County Board of Supervisors has approved spending $150,000 to study the issue. Huckelberry has asked City Hall to match the county's allocation, and Hein, who worked for the county administrator before being named city manager, says he is inclined to support the request.

In a fiery meeting on Sept. 6, the city's Citizens' Water Advisory Committee (CWAC) discussed Huckelberry's controversial proposal. After being told by a Tucson Water staff member that "there isn't interest among a majority of the City Council to pursue consolidation" into a regional authority, some committee members requested a vote in support of the county's proposition anyway.

In response, other CWAC members insisted the item wasn't listed on the agenda for a vote, and was thus out of order. In frustration at this apparent procedural stonewalling, one committee member stormed out of the room, calling the process "total fraud."

In the end, CWAC decided to vote at its next meeting on a proposed motion by member Jim Barry--who, before his retirement, was Huckelberry's chief assistant.

Barry, whom Hein nominated to the CWAC, has a draft motion that supports a city contribution of $150,000 for the water/wastewater consolidation study. It also calls for establishing a seven-member "independent feasibility study commission," with three members to be appointed by Hein; the chair would be jointly selected by Hein and Huckelberry.

According to Kathy Chavez, Pima County water policy manager, the water/wastewater authority study has several goals. "First, what are the institutional issues?" she says. "Then, what are the financial impacts, and how would (the authority) be organized and funded? Finally, what are the legal concerns about wholesaling water where there may have been prior commitments for the same water, like transferring water rights or Central Arizona Project (CAP) water allocations or (wastewater) effluent?"

Huckelberry has also asked the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC) to "take a lead role in managing preliminary studies to determine the feasibility of regional water and wastewater consolidation." The council, a group of prominent politicians and businesspeople, was instrumental in backing passage of the RTA plan.

"They're a group with a long-term community vision," Huckelberry says of the SALC. "They're ready to go to work on this kind of issue. People tend to mistrust when government brings this sort of idea forward."

If this effort to implement one regional water/wastewater agency ever comes to fruition, it would result in monumental change. Pima County would give up its sewage treatment responsibilities; Tucson Water and several other smaller water companies would be disbanded.

More than 30 years ago, there was another attempt at cooperative decision-making concerning wastewater in Tucson. The Metropolitan Utilities Management Agency was created by the city and county, but only lasted two years, and eventually, Pima County took full control of the region's sewers.

Given that history, the county's proposal to now combine both water and sewer services into one super-agency overseen by a separately elected body is an interesting proposition. That is particularly true in light of the role Tucson Water plays locally.

As its critics often point out, Tucson Water itself is far from democratically managed by the City Council: 40 percent of the utility's customers live outside the city limits; since they can't vote in municipal elections, they have no direct say in how the utility is operated.

Despite that, Tucson Water officials seem interested in at least some parts of Huckelberry's proposal. "I think right now, it's at the talking stage," says David Modeer, director of the city utility. "The intent is to seriously explore how some sort of authority would have a positive impact for water and wastewater consumers in the community."

At the same time, both Modeer and Tucson Water public information officer Mitch Basefsky argue that it is vital to move forward on the general idea of a regional authority.

Basefsky says Tucson Water doesn't want to look like a "bully" in working out a solution, and also believes whatever comes of the discussions won't address the contentious issue of ever-increasing population growth.

"Creating a water authority in the region that deals with how water is managed, how this is related to growth--an authority that regulates the use of water--that would be a very different thing," Basefsky says. "That authority is never going to happen here.

"The voting is the hitch. The city does not want to lose all decision-making ability. Weighted voting is the big, unresolved issue."

While the county's consolidation proposal is being contemplated, water officials from across the metropolitan area are also looking at another option--a cooperative authority--which focuses primarily on obtaining more CAP water for the region. This could be done by acquiring rights to water from either the Tohono O'odham nation, farmers along the Colorado River or other sources.

Modeer says it might take several years to find a resolution to the water authority issue, while acknowledging there could be pitfalls. "We're also exploring the negatives, the obstacles of such an idea. The main obstacle is the governance issue. It's always difficult when you bring together smaller players with large entities like Tucson Water and Pima County Wastewater."

Speaking for one of those smaller companies, general manager Mark Stratton of the Metro Water District, on Tucson's northwest side, says of forming a unified regional water authority: "It creates problems, because you have many different water companies and different jurisdictions who want to remain in control of their decision-making. ... There is some talk among the small (water) providers of creating their own regional planning group."

Sounding more optimistic, director of the Marana Water Department, Brad DeSpain, says: "There are about 10 (water companies) interested, and we just keep trying to keep the cats together, as they say. We're hoping to have something in place in a year and a half."

The possibility of a cooperative water-buying authority was discussed by the City Council last month. Councilwoman Karin Uhlich placed an item on the agenda to talk about a proposal from the Southern Arizona Water Users Association (SAWUA). The group's membership consists of 13 water companies and large users, including Tucson Water, Pima County, Metro Water and Marana.

SAWUA is suggesting that some of its members want to "form a new, cooperative organization to pursue additional renewable water resources for the region." This proposal was sent to the City Council's Environment, Planning and Resource Management Subcommittee, which Uhlich chairs, for additional review.

Complicating the matter further, the elected governing board which controls the Central Arizona Project canal has recently expressed interest in becoming the agency which seeks to acquire additional water. This significant shift in securing more supply may eventually negate SAWUA's cooperative approach.

Councilman Steve Leal says of the general idea of a water authority: "How the city is represented is the most important issue. Any kind of authority must have weighted voting for the city to be fairly represented."

That is similar to the model followed by the San Diego County Water Authority. It has a 34-member board, 10 selected by the mayor of San Diego. The others represent 22 different local water agencies.

According to public affairs representative Craig Balben, the authority only deals in providing wholesale water to its members and does not set local water policy. He concedes, however, they do have an impact on those decisions.

"Our member agencies do retail water," Balben says, "and have individual ordinances to deal with water policy. ... We (do) have some sway, because we are a strong voice out there for all kinds of issues revolving around water."

Back at Tucson Water, Basefsky says of SAWUA's water buying proposal: "What we're looking at now is a regional cooperative where all the (companies) sign in and operate cooperatively to bring in new CAP water together. ... The feeling is, rather than Tucson saying, 'We want water,' if we all work together, we can compete with others in Arizona who are seeking water, like Scottsdale."

To achieve that goal, Modeer thinks the city needs more information on the pros and cons of the various governing possibilities. He believes the most efficient alternative is an authority which is no longer owned by either public or private interests. "The least attractive option is to form something like the RTA, where you have the cooperation, but not very much authority to get things done."

The Regional Transportation Authority is governed by a nine-member board of directors made up of one official from each of Pima County's eight political jurisdictions, as well as a representative of the Arizona Department of Transportation. Each of these members has one vote, and by utilizing the half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in May, the board will oversee implementation of a 20-year transportation plan.

In many places across the United States, autonomous regional authorities such as the RTA have taken over responsibilities initially chartered directly to elected city councils and county boards. The Southern California megalopolis could not have happened without them. One such entity, the San Diego County Water Authority, was formed in 1934 solely for the purpose of importing massive amounts of water to catalyze growth.

As regional authorities have proliferated, they have brought with them a shift in governmental operations. In the name of organizational efficiency and cost savings, control by often unelected bodies has become the norm.

Because of that trend, some people in Tucson are asking: Is Pima County headed in the direction of government by authority? If we are, what does that mean for the old-fashioned concept of one person/one vote?

Critics already accuse the RTA governing body of vastly underrepresenting the interests of residents of the city of Tucson and unincorporated Pima County. "Sahuarita has the same vote as Tucson," complains RTA opponent Ken O'Day. "We have a developocracy, or government for and by the developers. Regional government sounds nice, but (the RTA provides) disproportionate influence on big decisions by small communities where development is going on."

Former Tucson mayor Tom Volgy--a long-time champion of consolidated metropolitan government, is skeptical about the direction being taken with authorities in Pima County.

"These authorities are kind of a single-shot deal that is added on to city and county operations like another layer of government, making it harder for any citizen to understand how things operate. It never works, (especially) if you want any balance of priorities," Volgy says.

Going on to explain how an authority can distort a community's budget process, Volgy says: "Single-issue authorities are not a good idea. ... If we're going this route, then every area of government service would need its own authority. I'm being facetious, but in effect, if transportation and water become authorities, housing or solid waste, for example, will need to become authorities to compete for funding."

Volgy is especially concerned about the loss of representative government under authorities. "If you want a regional approach that maintains the integrity of representational government, you should opt for regional government, an elected authority, like a metro government."

That, in general, is what the people of Portland, Ore., and surrounding communities have had for many years. Formed in 1979 and chartered by the voters 13 years later, METRO provides services to three counties and 24 cities in the Portland region.

Governed by a seven-member elected council, METRO has more than 900 full-time employees and between 600 and 800 part-time workers. They deal with transportation and land-use planning, parks, open space and the Oregon Zoo, along with recycling and garbage disposal.

Karen Kane, media relations manager for METRO, says requests periodically are made for the organization to expand its services. Kane says METRO considers the ideas, but "we haven't taken on any new issues."

Kane points out that METRO is unique in the United States. Since the regional government movement began in earnest after World War II, the idea of having a layer of government deal directly with regional issues has usually not resulted in true representational systems.

Stephen Percy, director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Center for Urban Initiatives and Research, has extensively studied regional governments around the country. "Regional authorities tend to be appointed bodies. Thus, they have low visibility, and it's hard to know how the public voice has a role. They tend to be a little more under the radar, because they're not elected."

While a few central cities and their suburbs have opted for merging into one elected regional government, many more have chosen a hybrid approach similar to Pima County's RTA. That was basically the route selected two decades ago by Phoenix and the other cities of Maricopa County to deal with transportation issues.

The Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) is controlled by a 29-member board made up of representatives of 25 municipalities and the county, along with three Indian tribes. For transportation issues only, they are joined by two representatives of the Arizona Department of Transportation, along with one citizen.

Unlike the local RTA, the MAG board allows for weighted voting based on the population of its members. Thus, while Phoenix has 43 out of a total of 117 weighted votes, Scottsdale has 7, and Goodyear has 1.

"It's been used very infrequently," says Kelly Taft, communications director for MAG, of weighted voting, "and can only be used to block measures."

Why wasn't a similar system put in place in Pima County with the RTA? Why don't the city of Tucson and Pima County at least have veto power over RTA decisions?

Gary Hayes, executive director of the RTA--who wasn't here when those decisions were made a few years ago--explains: "When the RTA picked up (political) steam in late 2003, it became clear that if the county didn't give up veto power, the other (communities) wouldn't come to the plate. ... The city of Tucson would be the gorilla in the room with a one person/one vote system"

Hayes says of the lack of control by those representing the vast majority of Pima County's population has not been a problem so far. "Until we have a crisis, it's fine. They're working well together now."

O'Day finds that opinion incredulous. "That's kind of like George W. Bush saying the United States didn't have problems the day after our troops rolled into Baghdad. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what will happen."

Opponents of the RTA contend the plan's projects are underfunded, and that roadways in smaller communities and unincorporated parts of Pima County will be built first. As sales-tax money paying for these improvements begins to dwindle, opponents fear that cuts will have to be made to later projects, many of which are inside the city. And the majority of the board members voting on those cuts will be representatives of the region's smaller governments.

Hayes disputes that scenario, believing there are numerous ways to be creative in securing additional funds to cover any financial shortfalls. But he admits, "It's inevitable there will be problems."

Volgy sees the lack of representational government on the transportation authority as a major stumbling block. "The RTA is a nice idea," he says, "but it's not going to work in the long run, because the city and unincorporated Pima County residents should've had more clout based on their numbers. They have been minimized."

O'Day concurs. "President James Madison was a lot smarter than these local politicians, and he knew you need to set up institutions to balance competing interests. Instead, (with the RTA), the cards are stacked against the majority of people."

RTA backers counter that the adopted ballot measure places strict guidelines on how much money can be spent on each of the 51 designated projects and severely limits what changes can be made to them. Plus, they continue to stress that the cooperative approach to transportation planning has worked well so far.

But after years of political experience, Volgy remains skeptical. "Authorities are not democratic, because there's never any direct accountability," he says. "What you end up with is another layer of government that nobody knows about or really understands. It becomes possible for a small sector of the community to gain much more power than it rightfully should have."

Looking at the water/wastewater issue, Councilwoman Uhlich acknowledges she has heard praise for the RTA governing model. But she adds that a similar model may not be satisfactory for a regional water authority.

"Representation is a concern that comes up repeatedly," Uhlich says of a proposed authority. "Some say we need to look at how well the RTA is working."

For his part, City Manager Hein believes that a balance can be struck. "We're not getting away from representative government. For water and wastewater, I don't see a model without direct public involvement."

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment