Police-State Politics

A Look At The Murky Mess That Is Tucson's Ward-Only Initiative.

By Chris Limberis

THE ISSUE OF how Tucson elects its City Council--at large or by ward--has been taken from voters and put in the hands of the Tucson Police Department.

Backers of the initiative to change the general election format, including Mayor George Miller, have little hope that police will free up their petitions in time for the issue to be placed on the November 3 general election ballot.

"I wish to hell I knew what was going on," Miller, a Democrat, said Monday. The Mayor's comment came one week after his pleas to get a public briefing on problems with the petitions fell on the deaf ears of five members of his Council--who chose instead to get the information in a backroom executive session. Freshman Republican Fred Ronstadt also favored public disclosure. He didn't attend the closed session.

Currents At issue is the integrity of the 11,817 signatures validated by the office of Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez.

Ward-only backers needed 10,609 valid signatures of city voters to place the measure to change the city's 69-year-old Charter on the November ballot.

City Clerk Kathleen Detrick has not certified the petitions, however. Duplicate signatures and other problems prompted her to seek an investigation by Tucson police for possible fraud.

At first the questions seemed routine, at least according to a confidential memo City Attorney Tom Berning wrote to Miller and the Council on July 29.

"Additional petition checks which the City Clerk routinely carries out on all petitions have revealed a potential issue of systematic signature irregularities, on what appears at this time to be a small number of petition pages," Berning told his bosses/clients.

Berning put the lid on public disclosure with the public election matter, ordering the Council to "keep confidential the specifics of the particular matters being investigated."

It's the secrecy, particularly the executive session last week, that's troubling Miller, who proposed the ward-only election change during his State of the City Address in January. The change is intended to lure residents of the Casas Adobes neighborhood as well as the Catalina Foothills into Tucson city limits. Miller sweetened this annexation ploy with a promise of an expanded council, with the two new seats to the annexation targets.

The following day, Miller called for Attorney General Grant Woods, a lame-duck Republican, to take over the investigation. Woods declined. Miller and other ward-only backers, including Ronstadt, who failed to carry his midtown Ward 6 last fall, and Rick Grinnell, a failed candidate for northeast side Ward 2 in 1995, also turned the spotlight on Detrick, who has run the clerk's office with stunning equanimity for eight years. Before that she served as city election director.

Miller and the others question Detrick's motives and say, given the validation of sufficient signatures by Rodriguez, a second-term Democrat, that they must wonder that "someone has gotten to Detrick," and that "someone is pressuring the clerk."

Detrick was appalled.

Later she would say that she understands that initiative supporters are passionate about their causes and work, but that she has an obligation to the public as the city clerk to make sure petitions are not fraudulent.

Councilman Steve Leal, a third-term Democrat and ward-only opponent, blasted Miller for not questioning Rodriguez's motives in light of her relationship with political activist Byron Howard, a founder of the ward-only movement.

Howard, once the director of the county sewer system, was paid $3,000 for his work on the ward-only campaign.

The Arizona Daily Star bit and spit out a front-page headline revealing the poorly kept secret that Rodriguez and Howard are an item. They are engaged. They also live together.

Rodriguez was appalled.

She called her mother to warn her of that day's headline. Her mother told her that Leal was reaching, or sinking, to the level of independent counsel Ken Starr.

At the least, Leal said, Rodriguez should have turned over the petition signature verification to someone else, perhaps a recorder from another county.

The focus then shifted from the Rodriguez's office in the Old County Courthouse to City Hall. The chorus discussed the fact that Detrick's husband, Brad, is the deputy city attorney. Some ward-only supporters suggested they were colluding to puncture the Mayor's ward-only dreams.

The Detricks were appalled.

Meanwhile, the Leal-Miller skirmish may have set the stage for a full showdown next year, if Miller decides to seek a third term and if Leal makes his move to ascend.

THE COUNTY RECORDER verifies petition signatures for the simple reason that it is the office with the records, voter-registration affidavits and other data.

And there's no doubt Rodriguez can be combative. Unsuccessful in the 1988 Democratic primary against Dick Kennedy, she came back to win the office in 1992, and promptly showed that she would not be bullied. She got in the face of Ed Moore and his Republican Board of Supervisors majority of Mike Boyd and Paul Marsh. She also did heated battle with that majority's clerk and elections director, who presided over one of the worst-run elections--in 1994--in memory.

Rodriguez is too fortified for some--like the time she sent appointed Supervisor Ray Carroll a response to his office's note about complaints and inquiries from a couple of voters. Rodriguez reminded Carroll that he was unelected.

But Rodriguez had nothing to do with verification of the ward-only signatures. In fact she was on vacation. Larry Bahill, a former county elections director and now Rodriguez's voter registrar, handled most of the oversight along with Rodriguez's chief deputy, Bob Jones.

The petitions in question could include up to 3,000 signatures. Some pages released by city officials indeed look suspicious.

There are four pages with repeat names in different styles of signatures or printing.

Bahill and petition organizers attribute that to error on the part of passers who were circulating petitions for a number of initiatives. Petitions for the same issue were mistakenly placed before signers, they claim.

But those signatures were stricken, Bahill and Rodriguez say. In all, 550 duplicates were discounted.

By comparison, the police "meet-and-confer" pay initiative last year contained 660 duplicates along with 3,403 invalid signatures. No investigation was ordered in that matter, Rodriguez points out.

This time around police have stumbled around petition co-ordinator Alexis Thompson, the veteran Tucson political consultant.

Three cops came calling with a subpoena for Thompson's records for a September 3 date with the Grand Jury.

Police also are on the trail of Erin Parker, a petition passer who, because of a complicated bureaucratic dilemma, at first denied she circulated petitions. Parker was not available to answer questions at her East Glenn Street apartment.

But Thompson maintains that Parker circulated and signed the petitions that bear her name. A look at her signature records at the Recorder's Office seems to confirms it.

TPD wheel-spinning has included demands to Thompson for addresses and telephone numbers for petition passers. Organizers, including Councilman Ronstadt, whose cousin Peter is a retired Tucson police chief, were stunned that the cops didn't simply go first to City Hall, where the evidence--the petitions--lay.

There even was talk that the city, and the police, found it wrong, maybe even illegal, that out-of-state hawkers encouraged petition signers. Organizers were left wondering if the First Amendment had vanished. TW

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