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Amendment to end home rule in Arizona cities defeated

Sponsor has plans to adjust measure to overcome concerns


PHOENIX — A bid to kill home rule in 19 cities was defeated Tuesday when two Republican senators who represent some of those areas refused to go along.

But Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, who has been leading the charge because she is unhappy with Tucson’s system of electing council members, told Capitol Media Services she already is working on changes she believes will overcome their objections. And it would do it in a way that her SCR 1023 would be narrowed to save their home cities from losing their charters — and then affect only two largely Democratic cities.

That, in turn, would provide the necessary 16 votes — all Republican — to have the measure clear the Senate.

As crafted, her proposal seeks to repeal a section of the Arizona Constitution dating to the first days of statehood that allows voters in cities to adopt their own charters. These essentially are mini-constitutions, setting out how they are set up and allowing the city councils and voters to adopt their own laws on matters of local concern.

One of those local laws that the Arizona Supreme Court has held is within the sole purview of charter cities is how to elect council members.

Tucson, acting under that authority, has created a “modified ward” system, where candidates are nominated by each party from each of the six districts. But the general election determines who gets to serve.

More to the objection of Wadsack and many Republicans, that means that Tucson, with its 2-1 Democrat edge, ends up with a council composed only of Democrats. In fact, the current council has no Republicans.

Eliminating the city’s charter would leave Tucson and all cities with one of two options: elect all council members on an at-large basis or have a district system where only residents of that district get the last word on who is elected.

But when the measure came up on the Senate floor Tuesday, Wadsack found herself two votes short.

Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Casa Grande, told Capitol Media Services he could not support a measure that would open the door to voters statewide abolishing charter cities. And he said it has to do with the area he represents.

“Casa Grande, being a charter city, is something I believe they have a right to do,” he said. And Shope said  residents there are doing the things they believe are in the best interests of the community.

“They just exercised their rights as a charter city to institute term limits on the city council as well as adjusting the term length of the mayor,” he said.

But Shope said his mind — and his vote — could be changed if smaller cities like Casa Grande got to keep their charters.

That would mean imposing some sort of population figure, having the measure void charters only in the largest cities. And Wadsack said she is looking at using 500,000 as the dividing line.

Shope said he sees nothing inherently wrong with treating cities differently based on the number of people who live there.

“We have population thresholds for all sorts of things,” he said.

Wadsack said this isn’t political. She said other cities could grow to that size and forfeit their charters.

“Mesa will be there shortly,” she said.

The other Republican who voted against the measure is Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, whose city also has a charter.

Bennett did not comment on his decision. But Wadsack said she is drafting her change “so Bennett agrees” with what would be the final bill.

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, said putting SCR 1023 on the ballot in 2024 — it has to get approval as a constitutional amendment — “is asking the voters to make a direct attack on local control.”

“This undermines the ability of citizens to establish their own form of local government,” she said. “This is an attempt to ensure when the Legislature passes state preemptions and repressive policies that they apply to every single charter city.”

No date has been set to resurrect and reconsider the measure.

If it is approved in the Senate it still needs approval of the Republican-controlled House before being placed on the ballot. As a constitutional amendment the governor has no say.