Reforming City Council

Our mayor and city council are quite simply out-of-touch with the residents’ needs and perspective.

I believe there are a number of factors that cause this including:

Problem: At-large elections. Too many candidates in election campaign debates reduces the exchanges to sound bites. There’s no way for the voters to make an informed decision.

Solution: City Council Districts would make an individual council member a representative for a smaller number of residents who live close by. They could get to know council candidates better before the elections, and they could make the council member elected from their area pay the price for political treason via recall election…which is all but impossible now because of the shift from spring to fall elections has so inflated the number of signatures required on recall petitions.

Problem: Dysfunctional boards and commissions. General appointments wipe out lines of communication and accountability between individual council members and appointees serving on boards and commissions.

And in order to get enough votes, appointees must have support from a majority of council members. That means each board or commission winds up looking like the council majority, and thus eliminating constructive debate at that level.

Without this debate, controversial items sail through board and commission review, most times with 7-0 votes. Then there’s a huge fight at City Council on the exact same item, and the meetings run until midnight…ending with a 4-3 or 3-4 vote. The boards and commissions have become a rubber stamp and most residents don’t even bother to attempt to engage at that level.

Solution: Direct Appointments. Give each council member a direct appointment to each board or commission. The residents will know who to hold accountable for a bad board member or commissioner, and the council member can appoint someone they trust to not only represent him or her and the residents, but also to communicate effectively about issues on the way up to the Council.

Problem: Full-time work for part-time pay. The current council salaries are $18,000 per year. This number was established decades ago when being on city council was envisioned to be a part-time job…and when $18,000 was considerably north of the poverty level. Now, there’s so much on each city council agenda, and reams of paper in each agenda packet, that council members can’t keep track of all of it.

The six council members share two secretaries, and none of them have staff dedicated to them individually. Therefore, many of them are glad to have whatever “help” they get with “understanding” the information, from the Chamber of Commerce, zoning attorneys, and whichever lobbyist happens to be in the Kiva that day.

To make matters worse, the only folks who can afford to be on the council are those who don’t have to support themselves or their families. So, as a group they are pretty out of touch with the vast majority of residents.

Solution: Increase salaries (for FUTURE councils) to $36,000/year for the council and $49,000/year for the mayor. Combined with direct appointments, mentioned above, this could allow the council members to spend more time understanding the issues and speaking with residents.

The council members could build a de facto “staff” by directly appointing their own personal representative to each board and commission. The council member would be better informed about issues working their way up to council.

Implementation: The current mayor and city council could implement these reforms immediately. However, the council majority (including the mayor) seem to be pretty happy with the status quo, in spite of the growing divide and disharmony between city government and the residents.

Because of the extreme change in the number of signatures required to advance a citizen initiative, it is likely we will never see another citizen initiative in Scottsdale. The change is due to the shift from spring elections to fall mandated by the State Legislature in 2006. SB (“Senate Bill”) 1041 required  candidate elections in at-large cities with 175,000 or more residents to be held during the fall election cycle, to coincide with state-wide elections.

This was offered as a cost-saving measure, but in reality I believe it is a power grab to take advantage of overwhelming numbers of voters registered with one party. These voters turn out strongly in the heavily partisan state and federal elections, but not as often in off-cycle spring elections because they are less likely to be attentive to local issues.

HB (“House Bill”) 2048 capped the number of signatures required for nominating candidates in 2009, but did not address the referendum, recall, and initiative signature requirements.

Perhaps we can get incremental implementation of reforms in the campaigning leading up to the elections next year, and after we (hopefully) put on a couple of more resident-focused council members.