Jan. 19, 2005 - Marana town officials say they plan to focus efforts this legislative session on changing Arizona laws that currently allow Marana citizens to counter the actions of their town council by collecting only a handful of petition signatures.
Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said Marana is among several governments supporting upcoming legislation that would allow smaller communities, with fewer than 50,000 residents, to select the election cycle determining the number of signatures required to place a referendum on a local ballot.
Currently, only 31 petition signatures - 10 percent of the whole number of voters who participated in the last Town Council election - are needed to take the actions of the Marana council to a popular vote, which Reuwsaat called "democracy by a few."
The small number can be attributed to the 306 people who participated in the March 2003 council primary election, accounting for 4.2 percent of 7,282 registered voters, according to Pima County's elections web site.
According to Arizona law, 10 percent of the whole number of votes cast in the most recent city or town election at which a mayor or council member is elected is used as the number of signatures required to file a referendum petition on legislation enacted by a council.
Based on Marana's numbers, until the next council election, 31 remains the magic number.
"The big problem with referendums is that, even if the referendum goes to the ballot and is shot down - the public decides to uphold the decision of the council - you've had to basically put that council action on hold until you're able to put that before the electorate," said Kevin Adam, legislative director for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
Adam said he's been in touch with Marana's lobbyists, and the league is onboard with the town's plan. The legislation is yet to be written and uncertain of a sponsor, he said, but "we expect it to be introduced very soon."
"This is something we're very much interested in and supporting," Adam said. "This has been a problem for small cities and towns throughout the state, particularly those cities with an election cycle that doesn't coincide with congressional and presidential elections where you get a very low turnout."
Reuwsaat said he'd prefer the law to allow smaller towns the option of basing the number of signatures needed on the turnout of larger-scale gubernatorial elections or the November general election. He said about 5,000 to 7,000 people in Marana vote in gubernatorial elections versus the 306 people who turned out for the last council election.
Adam said the league was behind legislation two years ago that sought to increase the percentage of voters required to place a referendum on a ballot. However, that bill passed though the Legislature only to be vetoed by the governor in May 2003.
"There's a concern out there you don't want to limit public's ability in the political process," he said. "But, at the same time, when you're talking about a handful of people able to block the action of a city council, that's not good."
Citizens increasingly have used the power of referendum in Marana in situations when the council has decided to rezone property or approve a development that doesn't sit well with some.
Kevin McHugh, treasurer of Taxpayers for Smarter Growth and former secretary of Citizen's For Responsible Growth In Marana, was behind recent referendums in which citizens opposed the town's approval of two developments - the Tortolita Vistas and Willow Ridge.
Opposition of the town's rezoning of 105 acres for the Willow Ridge development led to Proposition 400, which Marana citizens voted on in September during a special election that coincided with the Sept. 7 primary election.
According to Pima County's elections Web site, 3,677 Marana citizens, or 36.6 percent of 10,038 registered voters, participated in the vote on Proposition 400. If state law were re-written to base referendum guidelines on those numbers, 368 signatures would be needed to place a referendum on a ballot in Marana.
Pima County Elections Director Brad Nelson said the county's election statistics aren't broken down by municipality, so he couldn't determine the exact amount of Marana voters who turned out for the November general election.
McHugh said the current law "works extremely well throughout the state and all other communities and districts throughout the country. This is a problem that is almost unique to the town of Marana."
Whether the problem is the result of political apathy is uncertain, McHugh said. However, the reasons for a low voter turnout could be attributed to a lack of political activity happening in Marana, he said, adding that citizens don't bother to vote when town officials continually run unopposed.
A message on the front page of the town's Web site pleads for voter turnout in the upcoming Marana Council primary election, in which four seats will be filled. However, there is no opposition to any of the candidates running, all of whom are current town council members.
"It is important to vote because election results often determine more than just the election of council members," the site reads. "A percentage of votes in an election for a council member is used to calculate signatures required on referendum and initiative petitions for the next two years. The lower the voter turnout, the easier it is to place a ballot measure before the electorate."
McHugh said he doesn't think the state will buy Marana's effort to increase the hardships of getting a referendum on a ballot. His efforts that led to Proposition 400 required only 31 signatures, a number that would have increased more than tenfold if based on the number of people who voted Sept. 7.
"It would have been more difficult," he said. "When you take out a referendum, you have 30 days from the day you pull the petition until you turn them back in. In 30 days it would have been extremely difficult to do that."
Again, he said, it's a local problem that Marana is dealing with and it shouldn't require tampering with state law.
"I'm not sure I'm seeing the benefit of trying to increase the number of signatures I need on a petition," McHugh said, adding that it doesn't cost the town money to coincide a vote on an issue with an already-existing election.
Chet Oldakowski, a retired Oro Valley resident who battled his town's adoption of an economic development incentive agreement through means of referendum, also expressed his distaste for Marana's agenda.
"Marana's problem is that nobody voted last time around," he said. "Why go through changing the law because of a local problem? I would question whether it's necessary to change state law based on their unique situation."
Nelson agreed a better solution to Marana's problems would be increased contribution from the electorate, rather than tampering with state laws.
"I'm not certain if that's the way to go - to change that entirely throughout the state," he said. "It would seem to me, a different way to do it is try to increase the number of people who turn out in mayoral elections. The more contribution from the electorate, the better."
Nelson said many small towns historically have struggled with low voter turnout.
A growing trend that some municipalities have opted toward, is going the route of an all-mail election, which Nelson said helps increase voter turnout. Oro Valley and Sahuarita are two examples of those that have given their electorate the option of mail ballots in recent elections, he said.
According to the Pima County elections Web site, 7,200 people voted in the last Oro Valley Council election, which would require 720 signatures for getting a referendum placed on its ballot.
"They don't even have to show up at a polling place. A ballot is sent to them and mailed back in and it is counted," he said. "And that often brings out a 30 to 40 percent turnout. They've been very satisfied with it."
Nelson said school districts have that option available to them as well, which some districts in the state have exercised, seeing polling turnouts double or even triple. But that has yet to catch on in Pima County, he said.
Adam said the league plans to push forward with its legislation soon to pursue "a happy medium" that all sides can agree upon. Changing the percentage two years ago would have required a change to the state constitution, which he said probably isn't an avenue the league will attempt to take this session.
However, Adam noted, there are other routes to take, such as changing what the percentage is based on, or changing the definition of "qualified electors" from those who actually voted to those registered to vote, which is a much larger number in most cases.
Adam noted that changing the law on the whole might cause too much of a jump in the number of signatures required for a referendum in larger cities such as Phoenix. Those cities could be exempt possibly through bill language limiting the change in law to cities or towns with fewer than 50,000 residents, he said.
The legislation Marana has cooperated with the league on has yet to be written, but would call for smaller towns and cities to opt for the route of changing their own local systems through passing local ordinances, Adam said. Then, those towns or cities that chose to do so could select the election cycle used as a determinant for filing a referendum.
"The way the legislation would be written, the town or city would have to pass an ordinance, it would be their option," Adam said, "The concept that Marana is pursuing is they want to use the November general election, and, if there isn't a council election on that day, they want to capture the number of residents who voted in that election. That ought to increase the number."
If Marana had its way, the numbers would be based on the November presidential election in which 82 percent of county voters cast a ballot. If that figure held true for Marana and Oro Valley, referendum petition gatherers would need to obtain at least 824 signatures in Marana and 1,698 in Oro Valley.
Those numbers, though considerably larger, are based on the number of registered voters in Marana at the time of the September 2004 primary election and in Oro Valley at the time of the May 2004 general election. They do not account for the many who could have registered up until Oct. 4.