Low turnout has Marana looking to state: Town supporting bill that would allow it to pick election with high turnout - The Explorer: Import

Low turnout has Marana looking to state: Town supporting bill that would allow it to pick election with high turnout

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Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2005 12:00 am | Updated: 7:49 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

March 16, 2005 - Only 5 percent of Marana's 12,164 registered voters came out for the March 8 primary election in which four council members - Patti Comerford, Tim Escobedo, Vice Mayor Herb Kai and Carol McGorray - retained their seats in an uncontested election.

And unless a piece of legislation backed by Marana makes its way across the governor's desk, 62 is the town's magic number for the next two years.

That's the new number of petition signatures required to place a referendum on a town ballot, after 614 people voted in the council primary.

It's a small jump up from 31 - the previous number of signatures required to let voters second-guess the actions of the Town Council, said Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat.

"It's double, so they're going to have to work a little bit harder," he said. But Marana still is counting on House Bill 2053 becoming law, which would make it even harder for citizens to refer the council's decisions to a public vote.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Nelson, R-Glendale, would allow cities or towns with 50,000 or fewer people to adopt an alternate basis for computing the number of signatures required to file a referendum petition.

Arizona law states that the number of petition signatures must be equal to 10 percent of the whole number of voters who participated in the last mayoral or council election.

Nelson's bill would allow towns like Marana to base that percentage on the number of people who voted in the last statewide election for president or governor. Town officials estimate anywhere between 6,000 and 8,000 Marana citizens voted in the November presidential election.

Though more than 600 people voted this year, up from the 306 who voted in the 2003 council election, not much has changed percentage-wise, said Town Clerk Jocelyn Bronson. In 2003, 4.2 percent of 7,282 registered voters cast a ballot, just 0.8 percent less than this last week's turnout.

"It's still a fairly low turnout," Bronson said. "But it was about where I thought it would be, given the historical voting record of registered voters in the area."

Depending on which precinct they lived in, Marana voters had the option of four polling locations on March 8: Heritage Highlands Clubhouse, Marana Town Hall, Sunflower Clubhouse and Lord of Grace Lutheran Church.

At about 2 p.m., a crew of seven contracted election workers at Lord of Grace Lutheran Church discussed the election while waiting for the next voter to show up. The polls were open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

"We think they're all going to win," quipped Mary Schagel, an election judge, referring to the four candidates running unopposed.

Marana resident Bernard L. Minetti, a retired Navy veteran, was the 32nd voter to cast a ballot at the church after eight hours of the polls being open. He said the lack of a choice between candidates didn't bother him - he was exercising his democratic right.

"What did we fight for back in 1776? It's what we're supposed to do," said Minetti, a former helicopter pilot who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. "As far as I'm concerned, whoever's running this town is doing a fantastic job, and they're going to get my vote."

A short while later, Bob Seppey cast his ballot along with his wife, Debby. "I'm registered. I may as well," he said.

Even with four votes to cast and four candidates to choose from, almost one-third of all voters under-voted, meaning they did not give every candidate their support.

Given that there were no write-in candidates, election results indicate many voters preferred leaving a blank space next to certain candidates' names to casting a ballot in their favor.

While the spread wasn't large, Escobedo received the least support with 546 votes. Kai received 553, Comerford 562, and McGorray received the most with 579.

Reuwsaat said McGorray's vote count is reflective of her hard work and interaction with constituents.

"She is a full-time council person," Reuwsaat said. "It's really Carol's job."

McGorray expressed optimism after election results showed a jump in participation from two years ago.

"We almost doubled the number of voters in an unopposed election, so that shows good things for the future," she said.

Reuwsaat said the town will continue to advocate for House Bill 2053, which also has support from the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

"It's received pretty good support statewide," Reuwsaat said. "It's not a Marana issue, but pretty much a statewide issue. If you look at Oro Valley and Sahaurita … all of us would benefit from the measure."

The bill passed through the House Committee of the Whole on March 9 after making its way through the Counties, Municipalities and Military Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Nelson.

After a third reading and a formal recorded vote, it could be headed to the Senate as early as this week, said Marana's lobbyist Michael Racy, who has been hard at work convincing state legislators to pass the bill.

"It's always been a challenging issue," said Racy, who has been present during past attempts to pass similar legislation. "It's been an issue that's been around for many years, but we've gotten many compliments that this is the best approach to it this year."

Past attempts called for basing the number of petition signatures on the whole number of registered voters, which opponents said was too high and wasn't reflective of actual voter participation.

Racy said he's been careful to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place to allow the bill's passage this year. Current language in the bill requires that a town must pass an ordinance to allow using the statewide election as a determinant.

However, there's one ironic twist: The town ordinance required to adopt the alternate computing method would be subject to a referendum, itself.

Language in the bill restricts municipalities from enacting the ordinance as an emergency measure. There were talks earlier this session of expanding the bill to give all municipalities the option of using the statewide election as a determinant, but proponents were wary about tampering with legislation already garnering support.

"This is a good compromised version on a statewide basis and one that we think the governor's office would support and sign," Reuwsaat said.

Proponents of the legislation say the higher signature requirement would ensure there is valid support for a referendum before a town goes to the expense of putting it on a ballot.

Opponents of the legislation argue that a referendum is a basic constitutional right, and Marana shouldn't be tampering with state law. The most vocal opponents of the bill have been the Sierra Club and residents of Cave Creek, where it currently takes 106 signatures to put a referendum on a ballot, which could double under Nelson's bill.

"People should absolutely be able to refer things; it's a critical part of our system," Racy said. "But it should be a reasonable number."

Pima County elections director Brad Nelson said in January that his office doesn't categorize the November general election turnout according to municipality, so it's unknown how many Marana citizens voted.

Based on the full vote counts by precinct, Reuwsaat estimates that about 6,000 to 8,000 Marana residents voted. Using those numbers, Marana could require citizens to collect between 600 and 800 signatures to file a referendum petition.

In other news, the March 8 election caused a slight mishap for Marana when town staff discovered they inadvertently scheduled a Town Center planning meeting for the same day as the election at Marana Middle School.

That meeting and two other Town Center planning meetings last week were canceled as a result. Town policy is to not hold public meetings on election days, said Jim Mazzocco, the Development Services administrator.

"There was just a misunderstanding between the two scheduling parties, and once we figured it out, we decided to cancel that meeting," Mazzocco said. "And once we canceled that meeting, we decided to cancel the other two and hold all three of them at the same time."

Mazzocco said the meetings, which are intended to gather input from Marana residents on the future vision for development surrounding the Marana Municipal Complex, are being rescheduled for a later date.

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