Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon is supposed to leave office in January 2012. Okay, not just "supposed to" — he has to. At that point, the four-year term we elected him to will be over. Because Phoenix has term limits and this is his second term, he's barred from running again.
But a plan now in the works wouldn't just allow Gordon to hang onto his seat a little longer. It would essentially hand him another two years, without the pesky business of actually facing an opponent.
Never mind that we elected him to a four-year term. This plan would retroactively make it six years, instead. It would do the same for a trio of newbie council members: Maria Baier, Thelda Williams, and Michael Nowakowski, along with veteran Claude Mattox, who is also set to be forcibly retired by term limits.
Mayor Phil Gordon
I've been talking to people about this for the past few days. (City Hall began buzzing last week about the proposal, and I broke the news on our Valley Fever blog on January 16.)
What I keep hearing in response is this: "They can't do that, can they?"
As it turns out, no, they can't, not outside of Castro's Cuba anyway. But we the voters can. And I'm predicting this now: We'll be bombarded with propaganda begging us to do so and, ultimately, we probably will.
To change up elections in Phoenix, I'm told, the powers-that-be have to submit a charter amendment to the voters. But the people pushing this idea have a great selling point: Skipping the 2011 election would save the city $1 million.
Who needs democracy during a financial crisis?
The news of this particular plan couldn't have come to my attention at a worse time. We had a three-day weekend, followed by the grand pageantry of Barack Obama's inauguration. Suffice it to say very few politicians were sitting around waiting to take my phone call.
But here's what I managed to piece together. The "election consolidation" plan — and yes, they really have given it that Pravda-esque name — has been discussed for a while among the sort of civic types who discuss these things. Currently, council terms in Phoenix are staggered, with some members up for re-election at the end of this year, and the others (including the mayor) due to face the music in 2011. The new idea is that Phoenix could save money by putting every seat up for the vote at the same time. Since the city's financial woes have been big news lately, backers thought the timing was right for a charter amendment on the fall ballot.
The backers insist that they aren't doing this to hand Mayor Gordon an uncontested two-year bonus. Jay Thorne, a political consultant who's serving as the group's volunteer spokesman, said the issues are saving the city money and cleaning up an inefficient system. (Thorne, of course, is a longtime Gordon ally, as are the committee's likely co-chairs, former councilman Tom Milton and Roosevelt Row activist Greg Esser.)
"Look, if the mayor wanted another term, he'd say, let's change the charter to let the mayor serve 12 years, like everybody else, instead of eight," Thorne says. "That's not the goal here."
Thorne also claims that the consolidated plan would make it easier for grassroots groups to gain influence. "If there's an issue on the table, neighborhood groups can take it on when everybody's running and everybody's focused," he says.
No offense to Thorne, but I can see this plan working just the opposite.
The city changed to district elections in 1982 to make it, in part, easier for neighborhood voices to be heard. When council members were elected citywide, it was all too easy for the Phoenix 40 to line up several pro-business candidates and run 'em as a slate.
Despite what Thorne told me, I think that could be a very real outcome of consolidation. Just look at what happened in District Seven last year, when the city's entire "in crowd" lined up to support Laura Pastor, a political neophyte whose dad just happens to be a congressman. Michael Nowakowski, a far superior candidate and (not coincidentally) the choice of the district's neighborhood activists, was badly outspent — but Nowakowski managed to squeak into a runoff. At that point, the mayoral race had already been decided, and Nowakowski managed to win on the strength of his superior get-out-the-vote effort.
Mark my words: That kind of genuinely grassroots campaign will be much, much harder if all seven council members plus the mayor are running at the same time. Instead, we'll see Donald Trump types doing mass mailings for a group that likes higher density. We'll see a much bigger role for the Chamber of Commerce. Forget firefighters going door to door; in a race in which everyone runs at once, it will be about money far more than personal contact.
But that's not the biggest problem with this plan.
Six years is too long to run things without accountability. I voted for Gordon last time around and, without term limits, I'd probably vote for him again. But I'm not sure the rest of the city feels the same way.
At the time Gordon was re-elected, he didn't have any real opposition. His challenger was a guy who'd never held elected office and didn't raise one dime. The status quo was working nicely for all but the angriest gadflies.
That just isn't true anymore.
In the 12 months since Gordon was sworn in for his second term, everything in Phoenix has gone a little haywire. The police union has become publicly, and virulently, hostile toward Gordon and his police chief. The city did a 180 on its carefully drafted plan for illegal immigrants who commit crimes — and now asks drivers at routine traffic stops about their immigration status. Gordon came out against Sheriff Joe Arpaio. And the city's financial stability has been badly shaken, even as the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the massive $97 million subsidy Gordon and the council handed to a Chicago-based developer. This is not the time to assume we have consensus!
I don't think the "consolidation plan" gurus necessarily have an awful idea. But I do think there are two keys to implementing this "plan," should we make any pretense to believing in democracy.
One, we should hold the election in 2011, as scheduled. The mayor and council members elected at that point could simply get an abbreviated two-year term, putting everybody on schedule for 2013. We elected Gordon, Baier, Nowakowski, Mattox, and Williams to four-year terms — no matter how bad the economy, that's all they should get.
Two, the question of whether this plan goes on the fall ballot should be in the hands of the city's voters, not the council itself. City Clerk Mario Paniagua tells me that charter amendments make it to the ballot by one of two ways: Backers must either gather signatures from roughly 15,000 registered voters or persuade the council to make a referral.
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Jay Thorne tells me that backers of this plan are "going to start by getting signatures." That sounds to me as if they're going to make a nominal effort and then hope the council steps in to save them from what's sure to be an onerous task.
And that would be bullshit.
The majority of council members would be affected by the plan. They'd get two extra years without having to raise money, hold off challengers, and actually convince voters they're doing a good job. For a politician, that's like getting a new Beemer for Christmas.
And that's why it's essential that they not be allowed to give the gift to themselves. It's our vote and our democracy. If we want to forget about elections for a while, fine — but please, can that at least be our decision?