You might have heard that when the update to our Community Plan is drafted a couple years from now, it will be approved or rejected only by City Council, not by a public vote as it has been for decades. And if you found that news upsetting, you might be surprised to learn that your City Council was just as unhappy about it.
But there's good news on this front. It now appears hopeful that efforts by your City Council, City Attorney, and the League of Arizona Cities and Towns can change state law to allow a public vote after all. The story, even to this point, is not a quick and simple one. But I'm going to tell it for two reasons. First, it's important in this local election season to counter the claim that your current city leadership does not care about the residents. And second, it's an example of how behind-the-scenes work on behalf of residents goes on all the time, even though it can be complicated, time consuming, and resource intensive. So here goes.
Sometime in the previous millennium, our state government decreed that every city and town larger than 2500 residents must have a General Plan, which it must update every 10 years. They further decreed that cities that had at least 10,000 residents or were growing rapidly had to get approval of their Plan through a public vote. All of that was fine, but the Legislature apparently assumed that cities and towns would always grow, so the decree said nothing about what a city should do if was once larger than 10,000 but lost enough population to fall under that limit.
Sedona's General Plan (we usually refer to it as our Community Plan) and its updates have always been approved by the residents in a public vote. But the 2020 census revealed that our population had dipped under that 10,000 resident threshold. So, even as our Community Plan Work Group was being formed and began meeting to plan the next update, word began to spread that according to state law, City Council no longer had to submit the plan to the voters, they would just be approving or rejecting the plan themselves.
The Push Back
If Sedona were a city where the elected leaders were disrespectful of the public and interested only in securing more power for themselves, this development would have come as very welcome news. No more hassle with an election or educating the voters or even the need for involving the public extensively in developing the Plan. No more worry that what Council approved in draft form might be shot down by the public. In fact, Council could downplay the importance of the Plan, then shape it into whatever form and content they wanted, and finally approve it without regard to any public input at all.
But the opposite happened. Councilors quickly consulted with the City Attorney, Kurt Christianson (I'm paraphrasing here):
Q: We can still voluntarily refer approval to a public vote, can't we?
A: No, the statute does not specifically allow that, so Council must decide.
Q: But can't we even have an advisory vote of the public, and then Council could approve or reject the Plan according to that vote?
A: Nope, can't do that either.
Q: So you're saying that we'd have to change state law? Can we do that?
A: Well, that's always possible, but because this provision is in the State Constitution, it would likely take a constitutional amendment to change it, and that's a big ask of the Legislature for a procedural matter that affects just Sedona.
This would have been a convenient place to give up. After all, it wasn't the first time that a state statute had interfered with how Sedona wanted to govern itself (can you say "short-term rentals?"). So Council could have easily thrown up their collective hands, blamed the state for once again causing our grief, and just moved on. After all, the public was only losing a once per decade opportunity to voice their preference, and hey, Council now basically had the power to set the city's long-term direction however they wanted.
The Long Shot
The League of Arizona Cities and Towns (LACT) was organized and is funded by the 91 incorporated municipalities, to act essentially as a lobbyist at the State Legislature for their collective interests. Each spring they begin a process of collecting the cities' wants and needs for changes at the Capitol, which then becomes their priority list for advocacy at the following year's legislative session. The Sedona City Council meets in advance of this process to discuss what issues, if any, should be pitched to the LACT for inclusion in their priority list.
When Council met to consider this in April of this year, we agreed on two new issues to add to the ones already on the LACT's list from prior years. But as the discussion was about to close, Vice Mayor Jablow suggested that maybe we should add an additional request: to ask the Legislature to allow cities and towns under 10,000 to voluntarily refer adoption or rejection of a draft General Plan update to a public vote. Even though every member of Council was already aware that this was going to be a long shot, especially since a constitutional amendment would likely be necessary, there was unanimous consensus that we should try it. That is, we were all in agreement that our Community Plan ought to be up to the residents to decide, and that even a slim chance of restoring that resident authority was better than none. I volunteered to draft the proposal, with Kurt's legal help, because I was the liaison to the LACT policy committee that would be reviewing proposals having to do with elections.
When that policy committee met in early May, I drove to the LACT office in Phoenix to present the proposal. The committee, which comprised mayors and councilors from several Arizona cities and towns, was sympathetic to our request, but the attorney for the LACT had a different reading than Kurt did of state statutes pertaining to this issue. So the committee deferred approval, asking that the attorneys try to resolve those differences before the next meeting.
After discussing their legal points of view and exchanging a couple draft wordings, the two attorneys came up with a recommended addition to the relevant statute that covered the request as thoroughly and unambiguously as possible. But their collaboration produced another very interesting angle on the issue as well.
What they realized was that another state statute had something to say about voter vs. elected official approvals, which had a direct bearing on the situation Sedona was in. This statute says that a vote of the people can be reversed only by another vote of the people, not by a vote of their elected officials. And since a vote by a City Council to adopt or reject a new General Plan update would have the effect of nullifying the existing General Plan, the City Council could not do that if the existing Plan had been approved by the voters.
I know, that's a mind bender. But simply put, current state statutes have Sedona in a catch-22 (in 2022, no less!). One statute says that we have to update our General Plan every ten years and that, based on our current population, only the City Council can approve or reject a new update. But because our last update was approved by the voters, another statute forbids the City Council from approving or rejecting a new update: only another vote of the public can do that.
Of course, the irony of this new realization is that Sedona's proposal now is not just a request for some additional authority, which the State Legislature could easily ignore. Instead, the proposal is a way out of a box that current statutes have us in, because the Legislature itself failed to anticipate a potential consequence of their actions. So the urgency of a cure by the Legislature has now been jacked up several notches.
So Now What?
At their second and final meeting yesterday, the LACT policy committee heard the solution the lawyers had drafted, and they voted unanimously to recommend approval of our proposed change. This means it will be forwarded to a committee of mayors at the annual LACT convention in September. This committee of mayors reviews all the recommended proposals from the various LACT policy committees and is the final say on what actions the LACT will advocate for on our behalf. Mayor Sandy will be there to summarize the need for approval of our proposal and answer any questions. Acceptance is likely.
Then the work begins of translating the proposal into a formal Bill, working out any issues the Legislature's attorney might have with its wording, finding state senators and representatives to sponsor it, educating the members of both houses on the necessity of it's passage, and following it through the legislative process to ensure that it doesn't get stuck in committee or lost in the shuffle. That work falls to the LACT, as well as to our City Attorney Kurt Christianson and our Deputy City Manager Joanne Keene, who carefully monitor and report to Council regularly on all bills of interest to us during each legislative session.
Is There a Moral to This Story?
If there is a moral, we might have to wait for it until the story ends. Because even though it looks like the chances of a positive outcome are good, "there's many a slip from the cup to the lip."
But morals aside, I hope the story has illustrated well the two objectives that I set at the beginning. First, to demonstrate that your current City Council and city staff, contrary to what you may hear from some candidates during this campaign season, are deeply resident-focused. If we won't give up on trying to win back your ability to vote on the Community Plan update, even though it means more work and the loss of our own authority, how can anyone possibly believe that we aren't working even harder to solve the immediate and long-term issues that are front-of-mind for residents? And second, even relatively "minor" work like this is often complex, time consuming, and resource intensive. So much of it goes on out of public view, daily and unappreciated, but rarely if ever followed by complaint.
When we have the chance to pick our leaders every two years, I hope we all will evaluate the choices based on how well they can emulate the positive and determined work ethic that has helped make our city the envy of so many others and can lead us through our current challenges to even greater success in the future.
Photo by Manny Becerra on Unsplash.