The Fix Ain't In

Much work remains before various interest groups can reform the city charter.

Nothing like an election to bring cries for reform. Democrats and their labor and neighborhood activist allies, battered by early votes, swamped by waves of opposition money and stung by eastside voters, failed to win the two contested City Council races, midtown Ward 6 and northside Ward 3, on November 6.

Now they want to change the rules and their pleas have a forum: the Citizens Blue Ribbon Charter Advisory Committee that began work in July after an overhaul--proposed by the business- and developer-heavy Southern Arizona Leadership Council--of Tucson's 72-year-old charter was scrapped.

The 15-member committee, headed by former two-term Democratic Councilmember Brent Davis, has set out the familiar--ward expansion, non-partisan elections, mayoral power, ward-only elections, campaign finance--and the insider's stuff including council agenda reform, technical tax changes and lifting the ban on political activity by city employees.

Labor is using the charter talk to push for other issues, including bans on privatization and city contracting, while others want full city elections on everything from certain city telecommunications agreements to annexations.

Blue-ribbon committees are not new for charter reform. The last major effort in 1982 produced recommendations that were snuffed before they could even reach the ballot.

Times and positions change.

George Miller, the retired painting contractor who served four and a half terms on the City Council in Ward 3 before serving eight years as mayor ending in 1999, enjoyed carrying weak candidates into office who could bolster his majority. He was happy to have Janet Marcus as a Democratic ally when he won the mayor's office--though he failed to get a majority vote--in 1991 when Marcus could not carry her northeast-side Ward 2.

Marcus continued the trend she set with her first surprising win in 1987 and in her election for her final term, which coincided with Miller's re-election--by majority--in 1995.

Yet when Miller approached the charter committee last week at the Tucson Convention Center, introducing himself in his characteristic sly humility as a "former city employee," he called for an end to Tucson's odd system of party nomination by ward and election at large.

City government has operated, Miller lamented, under a charter that was adopted in 1929 (he was 7). Split into just two wards for its 32,000 people and 7.1 square miles, Tucson as a municipal government was then 52 years old. It is time for the city, now covering nearly 160 square miles and with 410,000 people, to have two more council wards, Miller said.

But with some, including Republican Mayor Bob Walkup, using council expansion as a lure for foothills annexation, others said to look elsewhere.

"Don't forget about us," said Jorge Garcia, whose southwest neighborhood in unincorporated Pima County has annexation potential.

On at-large elections, Miller noted that Ward 2 has not been represented by the person it has actually chosen in 22 years.

"I feel that's very unfair," Miller said.

While Miller didn't complain about that during or after elections in 1995 or 1991, he points out now that neither Republican Fred Ronstadt nor Republican Kathleen Dunbar won their wards of 6 and 3.

Indeed, they failed to win their own neighborhood precincts and instead were plucked from defeat by eastside voters among whom Republicans outworked, outspent and out-raced flat- footed Democrats to grab mostly in early voting.

Two losers Miller supported, Democrats Paula Aboud in his home ward and Gayle Hartmann in Ward 6, also urged the committee to draft sweeping changes to city election laws.

Hartmann began her low-key address with the understatement that she was "recently involved in an election." She conceded, as a loser, that her remarks could be taken as "sour grapes," but nonetheless said the city had an elections "system that isn't working."

Half the council seats are filled by those (Ronstadt, Dunbar and Democrat Carol West in Ward 2) who didn't win their wards, Hartmann said.

"That seems to be somewhat haywire," she said.

Perhaps more troubling was what she and other Democrats and their friends, including the Green Party, said was the perversion of the once-model city campaign finance program that provides matching funds, nearly all from taxpayers, to candidates who agree to expenditure limits.

Aboud said she was "confined" to a ward primary, then in the citywide general election faced opponents who could raise and spend the same amount of money as her campaign bank.

"That's fair," Aboud said.

What was "totally unfair" were the independent campaigns through which the GOP and a builder-heavy group unleashed more than $100,000 to lift Ronstadt to his second term and Dunbar, a former one-term state representative, to her first council term.

Bonnie Poulos, a member of city committees and an activist against numerous growth proposals, complained that the independent committee spending "diluted" the money she and other Tucsonans put into the campaign account.

She and others complaining about the independent committees' cash have had a receptive and learned ear in charter committee member Tom Volgy, the University of Arizona political science professor and former Democratic mayor and councilmember. An expert in campaign finance, Volgy was the key architect of the city's matching fund program that began in 1987, the same year he was elected mayor.

Volgy's time on the committee is likely over. He was appointed by Democrat Jerry Anderson, Dunbar's predecessor. But Dunbar kept Anderson's other appointment, Karin Uhlich, of Primavera.

SOME CITY WORKERS and members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees want the city's mini-Hatch Act to be repealed. They cried to be "un-Hatched" and to be allowed to both work on city campaigns and to be allowed to contribute money to the campaigns of candidates for city office.

Their portrayal of second-class status, however, made it sound as if they cannot vote in city elections.

One need only look at the Tucson Unified School District and the river of money its employees pump into TUSD board races, in addition to the campaigning on school time, to see the value of the Hatch Act.

Others are pushing for Saturday elections and elections in which voters rank candidates, a move that advocates say will reduce negative campaigning.

Unions also want charter amendments to halt privatization or to put strict limits on contractors.

The committee also has explored removing the lid on a portion of the city's property tax, which the charter caps at $1.75 per $100 of assessed value or $175 for a $100,000 home. Secondary taxes, used to pay off voter-approved debt, would not be segregated. City primary and secondary taxes now total $1.12 per $100 or $112 for a $100,000 home.

And although the city regularly gets voter approval to modify the charter on "housekeeping" finance and other internal matters, city officials have dragged their feet in cleaning up the sexist language in the charter (see "Male Order," June 21). It calls for men to be mayor, city council members, city manager, city attorney, city clerk, magistrates, police and fire chiefs, parks director, finance director, engineer and superintendent of streets.

Volgy said the committee is keenly aware of the need to update the "arcane" language. City lawyers urge caution, however, saying that the sexism can't be eliminated by a single vote. Each item would have to be on the ballot, making it unwieldy and increasing the likelihood of defeat.

The committee has until April 25 to issue recommendations. Forums and meeting schedules are available at the city Web site at