Is Tucson ready for a strong mayor to guide it?

Move to alter city government is attracting surprising allies
2010-02-21T00:00:00Z Is Tucson ready for a strong mayor to guide it?Rhonda Bodfield Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 21, 2010 12:00 am  • 

With the city rocked by perceptions that it's badly run and unresponsive, there's a move under way to ask Tucsonans if they want a strong-mayor form of government.

And it's attracting surprising allies, including the head of the county Democratic Party and a local Tea Party organizer.

Under that system, the mayor would operate in much the same way a governor does. Since you wouldn't expect Barack Obama to implement a vision with George W. Bush appointees, the mayor would appoint department directors and propose a city budget. The mayor would also have some form of veto authority.

Currently, while the mayor ostensibly has a bully pulpit, he's just one vote of seven. And he has no say at all in firing the city manager, who acts as the city's chief executive.

While some say the problem is with the current personalities, others believe it's the structure itself that prevents the incumbents from being fully effective.

Jeff Rogers, the Pima County Democratic chairman, said he hopes council members will put a plan on the November ballot.

"Lovable Bob Walkup is a wonderful ribbon cutter and he's good at being the face of Tucson - because that's what the job entails - but he's not the chief executive of the city." Insisting it's a system designed for the mayor and council to be figureheads, Rogers added it's "just anti-democratic" that voters have no say in the person who actually runs day-to-day operations.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party sent out a survey asking its members about moving to a strong-mayor system.

Tea Party organizer Trent Humphries contends the existing system is "why this city is so dysfunctional."

Humphries acknowledges one of the reasons a council-manager system evolved in the first place was to clamp down on Chicago-style political machines. But it's not like the current system has been a boon, he said. "And at least city voters would have a chance to really change things up."

The concept isn't new. It was discussed in 1982 but never made it to the ballot. Voters in 1991 rejected dueling propositions that would have chucked the city's council-manager system, although backers chalked the loss up to confusion between the two choices.

There is some risk that could happen again, with the Southern Arizona Leadership Council shopping around a different package of charter changes for the November election that re-define powers without totally overhauling the system.

Among their changes: full-time mayor and council, eliminating staggered terms, combining the city election with state and national elections, expanding the number of wards and modifying the manager's powers.

The leadership council President Ron Shoopman said there were discussions about a strong-mayor system. "That comes with good and bad, but changing to strong mayor is a major, radical departure from what we have now. Our thinking was, we understand the system we have and if we can just adjust it to be more effective, that might be the best place to start."

But Shoopman said he does think voters should be asked for one charter-change package. "Anything's on the table and we're open to sitting down with other groups, but it's a busy ballot already statewide, and we could end up negating two efforts and not getting anything."

Don't look for guidance from Tucson mayors.

Tom Volgy, a former Democratic mayor who teaches political science at the University of Arizona, said he's all for it. "It's the equivalent of voting for president and then separately for Congress. We would never allow Congress to pick our president, but we allow a council to pick the most powerful person in the city."

He said the big worry he's heard is that voters will elect a mayor without the qualifications to run the city. "But that doesn't make much sense if you'll then trust the public to elect a City Council who then appoint a city manager."

But former Mayor George Miller, also a Democrat, is on the other side. "The mayor right now has the power to lead. The common word you hear now about the city as well as the state Legislature, is that it's 'dysfunctional.' I understand that, but it's not the way government is set up. It's who's governing."

The council is at fault, he said, for letting the manager usurp too much power or not giving the manager clear direction. "If they can't get four votes to tell him what they want, then the city manager has to tell them. From talking to a couple of them, I get the impression they don't even talk to each other."

Walkup, the incumbent Republican, meanwhile, said he's worried a strong mayor would center too much power in one place. He'd be interested in exploring a hybrid - more of a strong mayor, strong city manager working together.

Looking for guidance from the outside is a bit of a jumble. Although a majority of the biggest 100 cities in the U.S. have embraced strong mayor, Arizona hasn't followed that lead.

Adrian Kwiatkowski, who heads the California-based Strong Mayor-Council Institute, said that's not surprising, since newer, West Coast cities adopted a city-manager form of government to try to limit the corruption that had taken hold in their more established sisters in the East.

He said the average voter thinks the mayor is in charge. "But what you've got in Tucson is an unelected official who's not answerable to the voters, and what that means is no one is held directly accountable. Everyone's in charge, and no one's in charge. Everyone's accountable, but no one's accountable."

Kwiatkowski, who was heavily involved in the 2004 effort that pushed San Diego to a strong-mayor system, said city managers are more likely to cut backroom deals in an effort to maintain their positions. Managers are usually not from the community, only stay a few years, and almost always make more money than mayors.

Kwiatkowski said San Diego, previously rocked by management scandals, works better under the new system, which was passed for a five-year trial period that voters are now being asked to make permanent.

But Norma Damashek, chapter president of the League of Women Voters in San Diego, said she needs more time to decide. "It's a double-edged sword," she said. The mayor rarely attends council meetings now, and is less accessible to the public, while business interests continue to have access.

And she said the system is set up to allow the mayor to play hardball with his Democratic council. Since he controls the departments, she said, there's nothing to say he can't shift a particular district project down the priority list, or slow down the information when a council member asks for a report.

"A city manager has to please everybody. The mayor does not have to please the City Council," she said.

The tanking economy hasn't allowed city voters to see how it would work under normal conditions, she said, so she's pushing to continue the trial period.

Larry Hecker, an attorney active in downtown Tucson politics, said even though a similar change failed before, it might be worth exploring again. On the one hand, he said, a strong executive branch works well at other levels. On the other hand, he said, "I'd hate to discourage a mayoral candidate from running because he or she doesn't have the administrative or managerial skills to be a good bureaucrat."

After pondering whether "good bureaucrat" is an oxymoron, he continued, "I honestly don't know where I am on the issue, but I look forward to hearing the arguments."

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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