What do Joel Valdez, Tom Wilson, Mike Brown, Luis Gutierrez, James Keene, Mike Hein and Mike Letcher all have in common?
They are the Tucson city managers since 1990 (There also have been three interim city managers in that time, including the current interim, Richard Miranda).
Only Valdez and Gutierrez left on their own terms, the rest were fired or quit before the council could fire them.
Almost all of their terms were marred by scandal, whether it was covering up leaking underground fuel tanks, turning city water brown with CAP water or the 12-year nightmare that is Rio Nuevo.
The city council has now embarked on yet another national search for a new city manager. Does anyone really think the new manager’s tenure will last longer than the average four years, or not end in either resignation or termination?
Clearly, there’s something wrong with the way the city of Tucson is managed and governed.
It’s easy to blame the council for the city’s troubles but it is really a symptom of a larger disease plaguing Tucson – the city charter.
When city voters adopted the charter in 1929 the city’s population was roughly 32,000. The weak-council, strong-manager form of government made sense then. A group of volunteer council members approved the budget and set policy and the city manager oversaw the running of a small, remote Western city.
And that worked until the explosive growth after World War II turned Tucson from a cool place for Hollywood to make a Western to a burgeoning metropolis with Tucson at its bulging core.
A city of a half-million can’t be run by amateur, part-time politicians and a single, supposedly powerful city manager. The two are constantly at odds, mostly to the detriment of the city manager.
The city charter needs massive revision. Those changes likely won’t come from the council. It will take a revolt of citizens to bring sanity and competence back to city government.
First and foremost, the city needs a more stable funding system, namely a property tax to pay for the so-called core services – police, fire, parks and roads. Then a small sales tax, perhaps a half-percent or 1 percent to pay for everything else.
That way, the city budget is not subject to the volatile nature of retail sales taxes that pour in when economic times are good and trickle in when they’re bad.
Moreover, it relieves the council of pressure to approve as many homes as possible and the retail strip malls that follow them because retail sales are the only way the city makes money.
With a property tax, all growth benefits the city’s budget, not just housing and retail growth.
Next, the council needs more council members. When the city was small, the ward system worked well because just a few thousand residents had representation on the council. The last major changes to the charter came in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the city’s population was about 250,000. That worked out to about 42,000 people per ward.
Now the city’s population is more than 520,000, or about 87,000 people per ward.
The result has been that council members have become more powerful while their constituents have lost power. As the city continues to grow, that power shift will continue.
More wards will give residents more representative government. What’s more, it will make gerrymandering harder, giving Republicans a greater chance to break through Democratic dominance of the city. In other words, east side Republicans could finally get some representation on the council.
At the least there should be two more wards, but optimally six more.
To balance that expansion of council members, the mayor needs to be made the chief executive of the city in charge of running the city bureaucracy with veto power over council decisions (and, of course, the council should have the power to override any mayoral vetoes).
The mayor hires all the department heads but those hirings would be subject to council confirmation.
With a strong mayor running the city bureaucracy, the council can’t meddle in city management and they can’t fire the mayor, only the voters can.
All of these checks and balances will force cooperation and compromise on the council, preventing any single ruling coalition or political ideology to run roughshod over the city.
It empowers the council, the mayor and the voters and it gives protection to city staff from council shenanigans.
And finally, to make sure we get the best possible candidates for mayor and council we need to pay these people reasonable wages for their sacrifice and hard work for the greater good. The mayor needs to be paid at least $150,000 and the council members $75,000 a year.
The city is broken. We can keep waiting around for the council to hire some superman (or superwoman) manager to magically fix all that’s wrong with city management while getting hugs and kisses from the council.
Or, we can look at the past 20 years and recognize the pattern of dysfunction, discord and mismanagement.
The council and other city power brokers have tried to make changes to the charter to fix these problems but any charter change requires a vote and voters have repeatedly rejected changes to give the mayor more power, pay the council better and to give more protection to the city manager from council meddling.
So maybe the problem, ultimately, is not the charter.
Will we do something about it? Or will we continue to let the council fire city manager after city manager while the city goes nowhere?