At Thursday's combined Wards 1 and 5 public hearing, the message was loud and clear: The city should take more time and include more stakeholders in the process to change the city's charter.
Approximately 50 community residents and neighborhood leaders attended the hearing hosted by City Council members Regina Romero (Ward 1) and Richard Fimbres (Ward 5). Although she hosted her own public hearing earlier in the week, City Councilwoman Shirley Scott (Ward 4) also came to listen to south and west side residents.
The evening began with presentations by Pima County Democratic Party chair Jeff Rogers (above), who talked about forms of government and the need to update Tucson's charter; Southern Arizona Leadership Council consultant Jim Kaiser, who reviewed SALC's proposed changes to the charter; and City Attorney Mike Rankin, who reviewed the specific charter text changes.
Following these formal presentations, several neighborhood leaders, political activists, and residents took to the microphone.
Former City Councilman Steve Leal led the public comment portion of the evening by admonishing the current City Council to retain the system of checks and balances in city government and not relinquish their power to the city manager. Among other things, SALC's proposed charter changes would strengthen the role of the unelected city manager by eliminating civil service protection for several upper-level city positions and giving the city manager the power to hire and fire key personnel without the consent of the City Council.
Leal warned that concentrating power under an unelected manager would weaken the city's elected government and distance it from the voters.
Who holds the power of government, dissatisfaction with the lack of inclusiveness in the charter change process, and a general distrust of the business leaders who comprise SALC were three themes that echoed throughout the evening.
"This whole thing is about power-- who has it, who doesn't, and who wants it," said Angie Quiroz, president of the Santa Rita Park neighborhood.
"This is not about governance. It's about the balance of power," said Mark Mayer, Ward 6 resident. Mayer and several other Ward 6 citizens attended the Ward 1-5 meeting because Ward 6's Steve Kozachik, the City Council's sole Republican, decided not to hold public hearings on the charter changes.
"We know the relationship that the SALC business leaders have with their workers and the unions," remarked Jim Hannley, president of the El Rio Neighborhood and political activist. "And they wonder why we don't trust them?"
"Be careful that we are not privatizing city government through the back door," warned community activist Delores Grayam, who likened this process to the gradual privatization of education in Arizona.
"We're spending an enormous about of money [to put this on the ballot], and the question is: Is this going to improve the city?" asked Ward 6 resident Bob Clark. He and others suggested having the charter change to increase the mayor and council's salaries and the proposed 1/2 cent hike in city sales tax on the ballot together could torpedo both measures. Even though the salary increases are budget neutral, voters may think the two initiatives are linked and vote both down.
Repeatedly speakers told the City Council to slow the process down, gather more community input, and delay the charter changes beyond the November 2010 election. Unbundling the four charter changes also was suggested several times by residents and by Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez, who manages the local election process.
Rodriguez warned that if voters don't like one item in the bundle, they will vote "no" on the group of charter changes. Indeed, this was evident in last night's public testimony; people liked some suggestions but not others. For example, most speakers acknowledged that the mayor and council positions should be full-time and earn full-time pay, but many disliked giving the city manager more power. The pros and cons of a strong mayor vs strong city manager form of government also was discussed.
According to the Arizona Daily Star, the Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Ulich heard much the same messages at her charter change public hearing the night before.
For a recap of the Ward 1-5 hearing, check Tucson Channel 12 who interviewed community residents and taped the public event.
On Wednesday, July 7 the Tucson City Council will decide whether to put the City Charter changes on the November 2010 ballot.
This article originally appeared in my Progressive Examiner column.