Deference among City Council members may not break the law, but it could hurt Tucson.
That’s the conclusion I drew after I read an Open Meetings Law complaint that Tucson resident Christina Pacheco has made to the Arizona Attorney General against the City Council.
The AG’s office will investigate, at least preliminarily. But having read the complaint and looked at the law, I can’t imagine it going anywhere.
One of Pacheco’s main points is that an email trail among council members shows that a city staff member served as a go-between, gauging council support for the proposed sale of El Rio Golf Course for a new Grand Canyon University campus.
On Feb. 28, the city’s economic-initiatives director, Chris Kaselemis, wrote to Councilwoman Regina Romero: “I have spoken to all Council Members and told them about the possibility of the El Rio site for Grand Canyon University. They were interested and did not offer any objections. Most asked your position and said they would take your lead.”
The argument seems to be that the council was telling Romero, through Kaselemis, that they would vote the way she wanted. I don’t read it that way, in part because there was never any proposal to vote on.
Pacheco also complains that an executive session on the proposal was too broad a discussion to be held behind closed doors. That argument is better.
But the deference argument goes to a central difficulty on the council. Its members historically defer to the council member representing a given ward on issues that pertain directly to that ward. In this case, they let Romero “take the lead” on the Grand Canyon University proposal.
After some west-side residents objected loudly to the proposal, Romero dropped her support, and the university eventually stopped looking at Tucson, choosing to build in Mesa instead.
Former Councilman and Mayor Tom Volgy told me turf and deference were big issues when he served in City Hall, from 1977 to 1991. Not only that, he said, they’re built into the city’s form of governance.
Under Tucson’s charter, voters across the city cast ballots in all of the different council elections, not just in their own ward. The argument for this system is that it forces council members to look at concerns from a citywide perspective, not just their own ward’s perspective.
But after the election, each council member is to represent his or her own ward. The problem is that council members who must answer to the whole city’s electorate feel obligated, and politically inclined, to get involved with the residents and issues of other wards.
“It was one of the single most difficult issues we dealt with on the City Council,” Volgy said. “We were placed in a position of built-in conflict.”
Councilwoman Karin Uhlich told me deference usually works this way: The council lets the member with a project or issue in his or her ward prepare the motion on that subject that the council deals with in its meetings. Otherwise, she said, council members would have to become experts in all the individual issues across the city, rather than focusing their attention on their own wards.
“It makes sense to me that there’s deference to the council member to formulate the motion,” she said. “We don’t necessarily defer when it comes to casting our individual votes.”
Most of the time, Councilman Paul Cunningham added, “when the ward takes the lead, they’ve got the right information and are making the most informed decision anyway.”
Volgy said deferring on procedural matters, but not on substantial issues, usually works and helps avoid explosions of conflict.
“Deferring on procedure is not going to cost you anything, but not deferring can cost you a lot,” he said. “The problem arises when the council member in that ward doesn’t bring up the topic.”
That brings us back to the Grand Canyon debacle.
Ben Buehler-Garcia, who is challenging Uhlich in this year’s election, said too much deference means an important project, like GCU, can wither unnecessarily.
“Certainly I understand the tradition of deference to a council member in whose ward a project or issue lies. In certain occasions, it’s appropriate,” he said. “But having said that, when you have an issue that’s so regional in its impact, the idea that because one council member decides against it, the whole project comes to a screeching halt, shows a lack of leadership.”
Not only that, but the tradition of deference can leave one council member carrying the political burden alone on a controversial issue. When neighborhood opposition arose to the Grand Canyon University proposal, Romero held up for a while but eventually folded.
It would have helped her, and Tucson, if she had received more political support and less deference.