Citizen Staff Writer
City Council budget talks derailed Tuesday amid allegations of a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
In proposing a plan to cut spending to nonprofit groups and other jurisdictions that could save the city $1 million, Councilwoman Nina Trasoff described meeting with her colleagues “in twos or in threes.”
The descriptions raised questions for at least one council member who was not included, as three of his colleagues were. A meeting of four council members represents a quorum and makes public notice necessary under the law.
After listening to Trasoff’s explanation of her proposal and how she came to it, Councilman Steve Leal said: “That’s really a violation of the Open Meetings Law. That violates transparency.”
He said he was rebuked in the 1990s for similar action.
Trasoff said later that she met separately with council members Regina Romero, Karin Uhlich and Shirley Scott “to get their input on some of the things I was thinking.”
She said what she proposed integrated her colleagues’ suggestions, so she felt that she could not alone take credit for the savings plan.
“But it doesn’t represent an agreement,” she said. “And we didn’t vote. I’m not even sure that my colleagues would vote for it.”
Trasoff denied that her meetings were inappropriate.
“There was no rotation (of speaking with other council members),” she said. “There was no collusion.”
At least one legal expert said Trasoff’s chain of meetings was an example of “polling the public body” and a violation of the law.
“If she’s meeting with them separately and trying to achieve consensus, it’s a violation,” said Dan Barr, a lawyer who specializes in media law with Perkins Coie Brown and Bain in Phoenix. “Why is she meeting with a quorum if not to achieve a level of consensus?”
Barr said that if a court was to find that there was a violation, it would nullify legal action related to the illegal discussion.
In this case, that means the city budget and its most politically sensitive bits.
Trasoff said her motivation in identifying the savings was to avoid instituting a tax on residential rental properties, a proposal hundreds of Tucsonans have protested at public hearings.
Protesters have highlighted the city’s $12.7 million allocation to so-called “outside agencies” such as Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Tucson Pima Arts Council as a place to cut spending and thus avoid the $17.4 million in proposed tax increases in a $1.3 billion budget.
That funding, however, has historically gone to organizations that function as key sources of political support and to groups that officials view as complementary to their policy aims.
Before the acrimony broke out, City Manager Mike Letcher tried to make clear what those policy aims are in the context of the budget.
“One of the things we need to explore is ultimately, what kind of community do we want in the future?” he said. “. . . $68 million (in expected sales tax revenue) is gone, and that’s serious.”
Marie Nemerguth, assistant to the city manager, said that under the proposed budget, residents can expect stable public safety staffing and a cut of 8.6 percent to the allocation to outside agencies from the year before.
She described how the city has eliminated 400 positions, cut department budgets by more than 7 percent and public safety allocations by 2.5 percent, as well as forcing employees to take what amounts to a 2 percent pay cut and benefits cutback.
Trasoff portrays her proposal as a way to face the issue head-on.
She suggests funding two job training programs that began under Pima County Interfaith Council, a group with substantial political clout, for six months and then requiring JobPath and School Plus Jobs to submit to a competitive process.
She recommends cuts to the amounts Letcher recommended the council give to Tucson Gem and Mineral Society and other groups but adding funding to Tucson Botanical Gardens, Tucson Children’s Museum, Tucson Museum of Art and the Critical Path Institute.
“It’s just a concept,” she said, after running through the changes.
Scott and Romero backed Trasoff up, at least about the appropriateness of the meetings.
Scott bristled at Leal’s suggestion that the talks were out of line, pointing out that she sometimes has lunch with him.
Romero said she thought Leal took the meetings out of context.
“I have to have the opportunity to speak to my colleagues, of course without breaking the law,” she said. “I really appreciate (Trasoff) wanting to build some consensus in the group.”
Romero also said she disagreed with the central point of Trasoff’s plan – deciding which outside agency gets what – preferring instead “an across-the-board, depoliticized cut” based on this fiscal year’s allocations.
Uhlich, who listened to the meeting by phone, didn’t enter the debate and focused on her proposal: to increase the utility tax by 2 percent instead of 1 percent to replace the rental tax.
After the study session, City Attorney Mike Rankin said, “There was no violation of the Open Meetings Law today.”
As to whether Trasoff’s string of meetings constituted a violation, he said, “From what I heard today, no comment.”