The Feldman Neighborhood, which has a reputation for fiery politics, hosted the most polite community forum ever last night. Was it the gentle ambiance of the historic but hard-to-find St. Luke's Chapel, built by Josias Joesler. Or the lack of suits?
About a dozen citizens gathered in the chapel to discuss the pros and cons of Prop 401, the proposed changes to the Tucson City Charter. Local lawyer, environmentalist, and Tucson Charter Change Coalition (TC3) executive committee member, Mitch Coker spoke in favor of Prop 401. Political gadfly and former blogger, Luke Knipe represented Protect Local Control, the No on 401 committee.
The free-form, unstructured forum was dotted with controversy and consensus. There was major discussion of what the charter changes would fix, deceptive advertising by Prop 401 supporters, government accountability, the impact of shifting the election cycle, the pros and cons a stronger city manager, and the pay raises for politicians.
When asked what city government problems the charter changes would fix, neither Coker nor Shirley Kiser (one of the architects of Prop 401, along with her husband Jim Kiser) could answer the question. They waffled around what the charter changes would do but couldn't name any problems they would fix. I asked a follow-up question but still no specifics.
My point to them was that the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC) has raised almost $50,000, talked with hundreds of people, and spent thousands of dollars on yard signs and a giant "Fix city government" billboard at the gateway to downtown. And they can't tell us what they want to "fix"?
Finally, since they couldn't come up with an answer, I said that I believe SALC is trying to "fix" the City Council. The proposed charter changes would dramatically weaken the City Council's power and influence over decision-making. Here's how: 1) electing the entire city government in one election (instead of stagger elections, as they are now) would allow moneyed forces (like SALC) to a sweep the entire Mayor and Council out in the same year; 2) the charter changes would take the City Council out of many hiring and firing decisions and give all authority to the unelected city manager; and 3) giving more power to the Mayor weakens the City Council.
Taking power away from the elected City Council reduces government accountability. Repeatedly Coker and Kiser gave examples of strong city manager cities that are "well run". The examples they gave were cities that had had the same unelected city manager for 10-20 years. It dawned on my later that the corporatists want an iron-clad impervious leader for the city; they want the City of Tucson to be run by a despot-- a CEO!
Unfortunately for them, we live in a democracy, and democracy is messy.