Tucson's City Council Chambers were filled with businessmen in suits and activists in blue jeans, as business leaders and neighborhood leaders squared off on the topic of changes to Tucson's charter.
For more than a year, corporatists represented by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC) have been promoting changes to Tucson's Charter as a strategy to manipulate local government and circumvent elected officials. (This is the same group that got the failed Prop 200 charter change initiative on the ballot in the fall of 2009.)
This year, SALC is pushing the Tucson City Council to place a set of four proposed charter changes on the ballot. These changes would:
• Give the city manager greater hire-and-fire authority over some top city department heads and remove the City Council checks-and-balances authority.
• Increase the number of wards by two.
• Give the Mayor (who currently is just a figure head) more voting power.
• Change the Mayor and Council positions from part-time to full-time and increase their pay to put it in line with that of the Pima County Supervisors.
Businessmen representing SALC claim that these changes will make the city more efficient because it will strengthen the City Manager's position (and weaken the City Council, although they are not specifically saying that.)
Changing Tucson's of government to a strong City Manager system will further distance local government from the voters. In addition, consolidating power under the unelected City Manager could lead to cronyism.
This has grass roots activists and neighborhood associations up in arms. Former City Council member Steve Leal, several neighborhood association presidents, and other Tucson residents spoke against the charter changes. Former state legislator Tom Prezelski said that SALC members thought of themselves as "colonial overlords," since this relatively small special interest group is trying to bend policy in their favor, while usurping power of the voters and their elected officials.
Some charter-change opponents went further to call for a strong mayor system. A strong mayor system would give voters the power to hold elected officials accountable. With our current form of distributed governance, the City Manager, the City Council, and, to a lesser extent, the Mayor all hold some power. At the local level, there is no one elected official who is singularly accountable to the voters-- no one who has the authority to say, as former President Harry Truman did, "The buck stops here."
After dozens of mini-speeches during yesterday's study session and during the City Council meeting, the Mayor and Council voted unanimously to hold ward-wide public meetings on the charter changes and to delay the vote on whether or not to put the changes on the ballot until July 7, 2010.
Stay tuned for meeting announcements. As always, if you have an opinion on this, don't hesitate to call or e-mail your City Council member. If you want to watch Mayor and Council proceedings, check out Tucson Channel 12.
This article originally appeared in my Progressive Examiner column.