Tucson city council approves voting by mail, tackles pension and mini-dorms

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TUCSON, Ariz. -- The City of Tucson has about 5 months to consider and implement an all vote-by-mail election.  The city council approved a vote-by-mail proposal 5-2.

Council members Steve Kozachik and Paul Cunningham held the dissenting votes.

Councilman Kozachik tried to pass two substitute motions, one of which would have put the issue before voters in November.  But the city decided to move forward with it now.

It's being touted as cheaper and easier, with hopes to increase turnout. But is voting by mail safe? Tucson council approved the switch, but not without first listening to public opinion.

Can the city handle an entire vote by mail election?  Local officials say yes.

"60 to 90% of our voters are voting by mail already," said City Clerk Roger Randolph.

"This is not something new in the valley folks," said Pima County Recorder F. Ann. Rodriguez.

Cities like Sahuarita and Oro Valley already do it.  City of Tucson staff say it can save the city money, by eliminating the need for polling places and poll workers. Security would be tighter than ever too.

Forum attendees largely supported the initiative.

"Voting by mail is win win for everybody."

"It will increase civic participation and save you guys money."

"Its safe to assume that everyone knows where there mailbox is, they can go there, and have 30 days to fill it out. "

Council chambers were packed Tuesday night, with supporters, but also with those against vote-by-mail.  Including people who simply prefer the traditional way of voting.

"For those of us who enjoy going to the polls on election day, so that we can meet our neighbors, so we can see what the turnout is, so we can gauge the mood of the city, that right will be stripped away by this forever."

"The concerns of budget when it come to voting should be the last thing people considered." 

While those ballots are probably very secure in the Post Office care, they are not secure when they are in a mailbox on the street."

The city says it can handle the switch to an all vote by mail system.  Despite Tuesday night's decision, the question remains, will people embrace it.

There will still be one traditional polling place per ward.  And while the city is committed to vote-by-mail for 2011, if it doesn't work out, adjustments can be made.

Earlier in the day city council took on the issue of city pensions.

City staff presented council with a plan that would cut the pension benefit formula from 2.25%, to 1.75% for employees hired after June 30 of this year.  But council members are calling the cut a "draconian" measure, that will affect the talent applying to work for the City of Tucson.

"I think it will make it very difficult for the City of Tucson to compete with other jurisdictions, mainly Pima County and the state, because they have not turned to such a draconian benefit formula cut," said Councilwoman Regina Romero.

Council members asked city staff to bring back a 2% pension benefit scenario.  A vote on that isn't expected for several weeks.

And the mini-dorm controversy also stirred up some heated debate at council. 

Late last month, the zoning administrator ruled the housing which puts several students under one roof, violates city code.

Tuesday, council member Steve Kozachik grilled city staff on that decision.  Council member Karin Uhlich chimed in via phone, disagreeing with the tone and line of Kozachik's questioning.

"Certainly we have to know what it means.  If we don't know what it means, how is the community supposed to know what it means, so the line of questioning was absolutely appropriate.  The sad fact is we walk away from it knowing no more now than what we did before I started asking the questions," said Kozachik.

Developer Michael Goodman is expected to appeal the zoning administrator's decision.