July 20, 2005 - A former Marana councilman who disappeared from town politics after losing an election to former Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. six years ago has returned with a word of advice for current council members.
"This council has much potential, however, it has a major flaw which needs to be addressed," David Morales wrote in a recent evaluation of the town council, claiming that the town's governing body suffers from a phenomenon known as "groupthink," in which it almost always votes unanimously and rarely debates issues.
This continuance of "rubber-stamping town policy," he said, will result in large problems for the town in future years if its practices do not change.
"The council has seven members, hence seven minds, seven voices, seven votes," Morales wrote. "It is the nature of politics to debate and have different points of view, beliefs and opinions. Today, this council is of only one mind, one voice, one vote."
Morales, who sat on the dais from 1987 to 1991, was among 16 candidates seeking a vacancy on the town council last week when council members voted unanimously to appoint Planning and Zoning Commissioner Bob Allen to the seat. The candidates were given two minutes each to state why they thought they should be considered for the position.
While most used the full allotment, and most offered praise to the council, Morales simply approached the dais, handed his evaluation to the town clerk and politely asked that council members give his opinions their sincere consideration.
"I can appreciate what was in that letter, but you also have to appreciate what we've done and what we continue to do," Councilman Tim Escobedo said. "A lot of people do understand what this council does, but, unfortunately, there are some out there that don't."
Escobedo said discussions at meetings can be minimal and votes are often unanimous because "all of us have learned to do our homework prior to getting on the dais."
Five days before the Tuesday night council meetings, council members are given a thick packet of information containing details of all agenda items to be discussed and voted on, giving them a full weekend to review and suggest changes.
"If there are issues, we direct them to staff," Escobedo said, adding that most concerns are addressed before the council steps onto the dais. "That's why one might get the presumption that 'Wow, it's only one voice, one vote, etc.' But each council member has a voice and, believe me, we hear those voices."
Morales, who has attended various town meetings recently, said he reviewed meeting minutes dating back to January. With the current council makeup, he expected there should have been much debate and plenty of split-vote decisions, but he said he found neither.
"When the political minds that are entrusted to conduct town business do not debate and constantly vote unanimously, they are suffering from a phenomenon known as groupthink," Morales said. "There have been numerous studies done on groupthink. All have stated groupthink will lead to disaster for an organization or a political institution such as Marana."
Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because its members ignore alternative choices and take irrational actions. Janis wrote that a group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background and when the group is insulated from outside opinions.
Bodies experiencing groupthink desire unanimity at the expense of quality decisions, Morales said, adding that it's "a phenomenon wherein people seek unanimous agreement in spite of contrary facts pointing to another conclusion."
Throughout the dozens of council meetings and more than 100 agenda items voted on in the past year, there have been five instances in which council members did not unanimously vote in agreement, according to a review by the EXPLORER of meeting minutes maintained on the town's Web site.
Councilwoman Patti Comerford and her father, Councilman Jim Blake, account for most of the dissenting votes dating back more than a year. All of the decisions the father and daughter pair said "nay" on involved developments happening along Silverbell Road near their Continental Ranch neighborhood.
€ Jan. 4: Comerford and Blake, along with Vice Mayor Herb Kai, dissented in a 4-3 vote to approve plans for an eight-building urgent care facility along a busy Silverbell Road. Comerford said she didn't disagree with the project, only its location.
€ Jan. 4: Escobedo was the lone dissenter in a 6-1 vote to approve a lower-density specific plan for Cottonwood Properties' Tortolita Vistas development. Ed Honea also said he wasn't happy with the developers but still voted in agreement.
€ Jan. 18: Comerford was the lone dissenter in a 6-1 vote to approve continuance of a rezoning for a veterinary clinic on Silverbell Road. Comerford pointed out its location across from the proposed medical complex and said she'd rather the area remain residential.
€ Feb. 15: Comerford and Blake dissented in a 3-2 vote to approve ratifying recommendations by the town's Design Review Committee regarding a 21,600-square-foot commercial center near the intersection of Wade and Silverbell roads. Neither gave reasons for their objection.
€ April 19: Comerford, again, dissented in a 5-1 vote to approve rezoning for the veterinary clinic on Silverbell Road.
Comerford and Blake did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
"I think our unanimous voting is mostly because all issues have been resolved and everyone's happy with what's going through," said Kai, who pointed out that he was the lone dissenter in a 6-1 vote in 2002 when the council approved relocating a gravel operation at The Pines Golf Club, which he said he adamantly opposed.
Town Attorney Frank Cassidy, who previously worked as an attorney in both Tucson and Pima County, said he's experienced governing bodies with varying styles: some that almost always vote unanimously and Tucson, which rarely voted unanimously.
"It really depends on the government," he said. "At Pima County, when I first started there in the early days, there were a lot of unanimous votes even though it was sharply divided on the political spectrum."
He said county officials often resolved issues before stepping onto the dais, much like Marana does today. Marana often holds study sessions when council members have concerns about larger issues like the adoption of new design standards or the creation of a new community facilities district, he said.
"I don't think there's anything illegal about that approach," he said.
"Everyday, governments and other institutions of believers spend large amounts of resources to protect and promote their groupthink," Morales wrote in his evaluation. "The waste of resources and the destruction in this regard are immense."
Morales said Marana has experienced euphoric growth in recent years, "a sensation that all is well and not anything can go wrong," but he said something bad will happen if council members don't think more about the decisions they make.
Citing the consequences of groupthink, Morales highlighted the escalation of the Vietnam War, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Bush Administration's conclusion that "weapons of mass destruction" were being harbored in Iraq.
"Rumsfeld, Bush, they were all saying it," Morales said. "It was groupthink."
Not since Morales lost to Sutton in the town's 1999 mayoral election had there been a contest in Marana politics until 16 Maranans sought the vacancy stemming from Sutton's resignation. Sutton was indicted on federal charges of conspiracy and attempted extortion in April for allegedly trying to extort money from Waste Management. Honea stepped in as mayor shortly after Sutton resigned.
Four days after the announcement of Sutton's indictment, council members called a special meeting during which they voted unanimously to pay his legal fees pending his acquittal. Council members each offered a statement in support of Sutton before casting their votes.
Former Councilwoman Roxanne Ziegler, who was often the lone dissenter in many 6-1 votes when she served on the dais from 1997 to 2001, recalled being a pain to town officials, including Sutton, who encouraged her to vote in harmony with the rest of the council.
"Bobby told me that 'We never have any arguments and we're very agreeable. We almost always vote together,'" Ziegler said. "I said, 'Yeah, Bobby, I notice that.' I guess Bobby thought of it as a good thing and I think of it as not such a good thing."
Ziegler said it's been a practice of Marana town managers to ask council members to "champion" projects that other council members might need convincing on. She said she wasn't exactly "coached" on how to vote but there were times when she was strongly encouraged to vote "yes" on some proposals.
"They do a lot of things behind the scenes," she said. "Nothing is surprising on that council. There is no doubt ever on how these people are going to vote when they get up there."