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Tim Steller, columnist at the Arizona Daily Star.

Now the Democrats of the Tucson City Council have the mandate they needed.

And by mandate, I mean “excuse.”

The committee they formed to review the city charter and recommend changes tied 7-7 Wednesday in its most difficult vote — on whether to ask the council to put ward-only elections on the next ballot.

That bailed them out.

That’s because Tucson’s citywide general-election system is simultaneously undemocratic and pro-Democratic. As you probably know, the city’s unusual system limits voting in council primary elections to the voters in each ward. But it allows all the city’s voters to cast ballots in the general election for every ward, giving the biggest political faction the power to determine who will be on the council.

Of the city’s registered voters, 42 percent are Democrats, 24 percent are Republicans and 34 percent are independents or members of smaller parties. Hence the council we have now, made up of six Democrats and a Democratic mayor.

That’s despite the fact that Ward 4 has more Republicans than Democrats — 34 percent to 31 percent, with 35 percent independents — and Ward 2 has near-parity in party registration. The current council members in both wards, Shirley Scott in Ward 4 and Paul Cunningham in Ward 2, lost the vote within their wards but won on a citywide basis.

That just shouldn’t be allowed — a ward’s voters should be able to pick their own representative.

Up until Wednesday night, it appeared the council’s Democrats would be forced to consider giving up that advantage. In February, the charter review committee voted 11-4, before holding two public hearings, to recommend changing our system to ward-only in combination with giving the mayor parity in council votes.

At the one public hearing I attended, March 12 at the Morris K. Udall Regional Center, residents repeatedly asked the committee to recommend that the council put ward-only general elections on its final list.

“Right now the way that our ward elections are run, we have a City Council that does not represent the people that live in the different wards,” said Kenneth Miller, a Ward 2 resident. “And right now we have a disproportionate representation of one party on the council that can shoot this down, just plain and simple.”

As it turned out, the council didn’t need to shoot it down. On Wednesday, enough votes changed — and one committee member was forced by a medical condition to be absent — to result in the tie vote.

Before the vote was taken, four council members told me they did not favor ward-only elections or declined to take a position.

When I asked Councilwoman Regina Romero her position on ward-only elections, she said she’d rather see less-controversial changes on the ballot this year, given the many failures of proposed charter changes in the past. Indeed, that is what the charter review committee has recommended putting on the ballot — a slight increase in the mayor’s voting power, slight expansions in the city’s ability to impose sales and property taxes, and adding a preamble to the charter, for a few examples.

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“I don’t think we have enough time to have a thorough discussion of the bigger changes that some want to see,” she said. “I think we need to have a few simple wins before we head to the hair-on-fire discussion.”

Council members Scott, Steve Kozachik and Richard Fimbres all told me they would defer to the committee’s recommendations.

So for now we remain stuck with the original system, which is purported to encourage council members to think about the good of the entire city, rather than just concerning themselves with the parochial needs of their wards, since they’re elected by the entire city’s voters.

In practice, I don’t see that it makes a lot of difference. Pima County’s supervisors are elected only by the voters in their districts, and they are somewhat parochial in looking out for their districts, but they’re not much less concerned with the county as a whole than City Council members are with the city as a whole.

Besides, the City Council has a tradition of deference to the wishes of council members in each ward on matters that pertain to that ward. So, for example, in 2013, when Councilwoman Romero reversed her position on the proposal by Grand Canyon University to build a campus on the site of El Rio Golf Course, the other council members deferred to her opinion and let the proposal go.

Before the committee made its recommendation, Pima County Republican Chairman Bill Beard gave me a pessimistic prediction that turned out to be right.

“The only way I see them putting the ward-only election on the ballot is if it’s lumped with other things,” he said. “I don’t see this group of leaders doing any leading for the city of Tucson.”

The 15-member charter review committee’s work has been both arduous and open. But it’s not surprising that, in the end, the members — all appointed by City Council members or the City Manager’s Office — came to a decision that puts no pressure on them and preserves their partisan advantages.

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


Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.