New Arizona election law may lengthen some terms

by Lynh Bui – May. 26, 2012
The Arizona Republic

Phoenix residents: How do you feel about having Greg Stanton as your mayor for an extra year? Or going seven years before voting in a City Council election again?

These are just two examples of the unintended consequences Phoenix and other Arizona cities and towns could experience after Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law requiring that municipal elections be held in even-numbered years.

The law, aimed at boosting voter turnout and saving cities money, takes effect in 2014.

Many cities that traditionally have held elections in odd-numbered years are discovering that their mayor and many council members will have to serve months or even a year beyond their elected terms as they work out how to reset their election cycles to comply with the new law.

Some say the quirks are a small price to pay for increasing voter turnout in municipal elections. Others say the unintended consequences show why House Bill 2043 doesn’t make sense.

“The voters didn’t elect me for a five-year term,” said Stanton, who took office in January and has opposed the law.

In Phoenix, council members Bill Gates, Thelda Williams, Michael Nowakowski and Daniel Valenzuela would be the first who could potentially serve a year beyond their elected terms, assuming they stay in office for that long.

At least three sitting members of the Tempe City Council — Robin Arredondo-Savage, Shana Ellis and Onnie Shekerjian — could also serve beyond their elected terms.

The League of Arizona Cities and Towns lobbied against the bill, saying it strips governments of local authority.

Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League, said lengthening terms for officials would be the only option to comply with the new law because shortening terms could conflict with the Arizona Constitution.

Strobeck said depending on how cities and towns decide to reset their election cycles, some elected officials could serve anywhere from an additional six to 18 months beyond the terms for which they were elected.

Approximately 40 of 76 municipal governments in the state are expected to be impacted by the new consolidated-elections bill, and all of them will have to figure out what to do with the terms of sitting council members as they reset their election cycles, the League said.

Cities such as Peoria, Scottsdale and Chandler, which are already holding elections in even-numbered years, won’t be impacted by the law.

Phoenix Councilman Jim Waring, a Republican, said he isn’t thrilled with the idea that Stanton, a Democrat, could serve an extra year as the city’s top policy maker. But Waring said the benefits of holding city elections along with other major elections such as the presidential and gubernatorial races far outweigh the negatives.

“I completely understand that there are implications with this that may be considered negative, but jacking up voter turnout 80 percent far outweighs that,” Waring said.

The new law also creates an additional twist for Phoenix, which is in the process of redrawing its City Council district boundaries.

Depending on how residents get shifted into different districts, as Phoenix updates maps based on 2010 U.S. census data, it could be seven years before some residents vote for a new council member.

Phoenix currently staggers its council elections, holding council elections at different times to fill seats in odd-numbered vs. even-numbered districts.

The change would specifically impact residents currently living in even-numbered districts who could get redrawn into an odd-numbered district.

The last time residents in an even-numbered district voted for council was in 2009. Any of them who are moved into an odd-numbered district would have seen their next council election in 2015. But now that would be shifted to 2016 because of the consolidated-elections bill.

Phoenix City Clerk Cris Meyer said he wasn’t sure how many residents would have to wait seven years between council elections because the city is still in the middle of redrawing maps.

Meyer said the city will also have to clean up its City Charter in light of the new law, which also impacts when the city holds elections for home-rule issues, the term limits and salaries of elected officials, and the start and end of terms for the mayor and council.

Any changes to the City Charter to align city ordinances with the new law would need to go to voters for approval, Meyer said.

“But if they don’t approve it, then what do you do?” he added.

That’s one of the questions the Phoenix City Council plans to discuss in an executive session yet to be scheduled. The council will also decide whether or not to challenge the law and take the state to court, Stanton said.

But if Phoenix doesn’t pull the trigger, there may be another municipality willing to challenge the consolidated-elections mandate, Strobeck said.

“There is probably a better than 50 percent chance that there will be some legal action, but by who and on what basis, I don’t know yet,” Strobeck said.

Reporter Dianna M. Náñez contributed to this article.

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