It’s Time for the Old Pueblo to Refresh its Constitution

November 20, 2014 |
City of Tucson. Photo by David Olsen

City of Tucson. Photo by David Olsen

In 1929, when Tucson’s voter-approved City Charter came into effect, there were approximately 30,000 people living here. The Fox Theatre opened that year and the Valley National Bank Building – Tucson’s first skyscraper – had just been built for the staggering cost of $1 million. We had the first library in the state, the first University, and UA football fans had already been whitewashing the “A” on Sentinel Peak for nearly 15 years. We were the first City in Arizona to become “chartered” – which built upon the initiative, referendum and recall powers of our state constitution. The people of the Old Pueblo stepped up to help craft a government by and for the people –with unique Tucson characteristics. Even then, we did not want to be managed by the Arizona State Legislature.

Fast forward to 2014 – we have a City of 525,000 in a metropolitan area of 1 million, and for the most part, nothing has changed in our government structure. We still have six council members and a weak mayor structure. Our elected officials still only receive $24,000 a year – not a livable wage. New high-rises now cost $200 million. Can you imagine our nation’s constitution without any amendments?

Earlier this year, Tucson’s Mayor and Council recognized the opportunity to revitalize our aging form of government, and created a 15 member charter review commission. It’s made up of two appointees from each of the six wards, two from the Mayor and one from the City Manager. Our task? To study our past in anticipation of the future. Do “we the people” have the tools necessary to realize our potential and position our community for a prosperous future?

What does a prosperous future look like? Does it make sense to have a council-manager form of government, or should it be strong mayor and council? Why do we have six different permutations on how to hire and fire Department directors? Why does the City Manager get fired on average every 2.5 years, but other Mayor and Council appointments stay for decades? Does it still make sense to have limited bonding authority at a time when our infrastructure needs fixing? Should we strengthen the role of the arts? Require multi-modal transportation systems?

Tucson’s Mayor and Council have defended our “local” constitution through the courts many times. The Legislature has tried to intervene in voters’ wishes as enumerated in the Charter, but voters’ wishes from the early 1900s have prevailed. Tucson is the only City to have partisan elections, and the only to have ward-only elections in the Primary and citywide in the General Election. We recently fought off a state requirement to hold our elections at the same time as the State.

Voters have approved charter changes. One of the most popular and successful charter amendments is our Clean Elections System, placed on the ballot by Mayor Tom Volgy and passed by voters in 1986.  It is no easy task to amend. An effort in 2011 to increase Council salaries, increase powers of the mayor and limit civil service for department directors did not pass, even though portions of the amendment were widely accepted.  All changes approved by the charter review commission must be placed on the ballot by Mayor and Council, or through a citizen’s initiative, and all must be approved by voters. Our challenge as civic leaders and Tucsonans is to find common ground to move forward.

Dr. Raphael J. Sonenshein, a consultant with expertise in reviewing and amending local government constitutions, has been hired to assist Tucson’s efforts. Features of good Charters include a balance of power, accountability, transparency and celebrating our unique characteristics. No two cities are alike.

Public comments are encouraged at all meetings of the Charter Review Committee – meeting twice monthly now through April. Written comments can be emailed to the City Clerk’s Office – All meetings are held in the 1st Floor Conference Room at City Hall, 255 W. Alameda.  Visit

Upcoming Public Meetings (City Hall, 255 W. Alameda, 1st floor):

Thursday Nov. 20, 2014, 4 p.m.

Monday Dec. 15, 2014, 4 p.m.

Thursday Jan 8., 2015, 4 p.m.

Tuesday Jan. 20, 2015, 4 p.m.

Monday Feb. 9, 2015, 4 p.m.

Thursday Feb. 19, 2015, 4 p.m.

Category: Community, DOWNTOWN / UNIVERSITY / 4TH AVE, The Scoop