Steller: Let's get rid of city wards — just kidding (sort of)

2013-10-20T00:00:00Z 2013-10-21T08:32:05Z Steller: Let's get rid of city wards — just kidding (sort of)Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

With city election ballots landing in mailboxes, perhaps now would be a good time to throw out some endorsements.

Two City Council candidates jumped out at me as the most convincing during Thursday’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce forum at the Doubletree Hotel.

They are Republican Ben Buehler-Garcia and Democratic incumbent Karin Uhlich.

What’s that you say — they’re running against each other for the Ward 3 seat? Well yes, but in a city with as screwy an election system as Tucson’s, perhaps we could fix that problem.

In Tucson, as you may know, primary voters in each ward pick the candidates who will run in the general election to represent their wards. Then all the voters in the city may vote in the general election for the council members representing all six wards.

This system, part of the 1929 charter, has never made sense to me, but the idea is that council members chosen by the citywide electorate will better represent the interests of the city as a whole rather than just their individual wards. Of course, that means that council members are regularly elected despite losing the election within their wards.

So, maybe rather than fighting the system, we should take the citywide idea to a new level. Let’s eliminate the ward concept in elections and just adopt an approval voting system, whereby voters check off a box next to a council candidate if they approve of them as possible council members. In a given election, the top two or three candidates approved by city voters, depending on the number of open seats, could be placed on the council, without regard to party or ward.

That way I could hope to get both Uhlich and Buehler-Garcia on the council, and maybe throw in Steve Kozachik, who didn’t join in Thursday’s forum but is running unopposed in Ward 6.

(Democratic incumbent Richard Fimbres is being challenged by Republican Mike Polak in Ward 5.)

However, considering their track record, Tucson voters are unlikely to approve my admittedly radical and, yes, facetious proposal. They rejected proposals to change our voting system from citywide to ward-only for council members in 1975, 1991 and 1993. In 1998, when then-Mayor George Miller mounted a new push for the change, the effort failed to reach the ballot because of forged signatures marring the petition process.

Additional efforts have occurred through the years, notably in 2005, and efforts to change other parts of the City Charter have failed as recently as 2010.

It’s too bad Tucson voters have been so resistant to change, because citywide voting for council members is, in my mind, clearly and fundamentally unfair. It gives the city’s majority power over the minority, whatever that minority may be — ethnic, partisan, neighborhood, you name it. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the majority of Tucson voters have voted to continue to retain their power over the council’s makeup.

Three of today’s council members, Paul Cunningham in Ward 2, Shirley Scott in Ward 4, and Kozachik in Ward 6, lost their wards but won the city vote. I voted for Cunningham in my ward, and my candidate might have lost without the rest of the city’s voters, but I still feel the rest of the city should have no say.

Miller, who was mayor from 1991 to 1999, argues that beyond fairness issues, there is an economic reason to support ward-only elections. It’s hard to persuade residents of neighboring, unincorporated areas to accept being annexed by Tucson when they know their preferences — likely more Republican than in other areas of Tucson — will be diluted by voters in the rest of the city.

“People on the edge of the city didn’t want to come in unless they could have ward-only elections,” Miller said of his experience attempting annexations. “They wanted to be sure there was someone on the council directly responsible to them.”

Even council members who have lost their wards but been elected citywide aren’t necessarily opposed to the change. Cunningham, a Democrat, told me Friday it would just change the way City Council candidates campaign, and he might have won his ward if the election were run that way.

“If I would have campaigned specific to ward only, done a whole bunch of mailings in my ward, it becomes a completely different campaign,” he said.

Former Councilman Fred Ronstadt, a Republican, also lost his midtown ward but won the city.

“I just think that people should elect the person who represents them in a specific area,” he said.

The problem of parochialism — council members working only for their ward’s interest — could crop up, he said, but that would be as much due to the character of the individual council members as the system. Better council members form coalitions to push for the greater good, no matter the election system, he argued.

Bruce Beach, who spearheaded the 2010 charter-change effort for the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, noted that many cities better governed than Tucson vote on a ward-only basis. In fact, many people consider Pima County a better-operated government than Tucson, and we elect our supervisors on a district-only, not countywide basis, though of course other factors come into play.

“I don’t see us as overly parochial,” longtime Republican Supervisor Ray Carroll told me. “But I still think the rule of protocol should be respected, of priority for the supervisors in their own district, to be able to lead a discussion and make a motion” on issues within their district.

But we’re Tucson — we’ve chosen to be different. So if we’re not going to let each ward’s voters choose their representative, maybe it’s time to go whole hog and eliminate ward-based candidacy altogether.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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