Yuma citizens will decide whether to amend the city charter to align local elections with state law, after the City Council unanimously voted on June 17 to put the issue before voters in a Nov. 3 special election.

Although Councilwoman Ema Lea Shoop voted yes, she voiced apprehension with the proposed amendments. She previously told the Yuma Sun that she had concerns with losing local control by conforming city elections to new state law.

Right before her “aye” vote, Shoop said: “I still have a little bit of a problem with the fact that the wordage is so strong for the state Legislature to make decisions for home rule, but I will go along with it and vote for it because you took out some of the portions that were of concern.”

In 2012, the Legislature passed a law requiring all cities to hold their elections in even-numbered years. The Legislature also prohibited county elections officials from administering elections for cities and towns not meeting the statutory 25% thresholds. On Jan. 22, Yuma was informed the November 2019 municipal election did not meet the required voter turnout when compared with the 2018 general state election.

There are four Charter Review Committee recommended changes attributable to state election law changes:

Article IV, Sec. 4 - All primary and general elections held in accordance with state law. Currently, the charter calls for city elections to take place in odd-numbered years.

Article IV, Sec. 6 – Nomination petitions shall be presented to the City Clerk in accordance with state law rather than the existing City Charter window of “not earlier than one hundred twenty (120) days nor later than ninety (90) days” before the primary. Currently, A.R.S. § 16-311 requires such nomination petitions be turned in 30 days earlier than the City Charter would require.

Article VI, Sec. 2 – Mayor and council members elected in accordance with state law instead of odd-numbered years.

Article XI, Sec. 3 – Municipal Judge also to be elected in accordance with state law.

Initially, at the recommendation of the Charter Review Committee, the council introduced an ordinance calling for a special election on proposed amendments also related to the supervision of the city attorney, the city administrator’s severance pay and the compensation for the mayor and council members.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic repercussions, the council decided not to further burden citizens with a complicated ballot. Mayor Doug Nicholls asked that three of the seven initial recommended changes be struck, leaving only the proposed amendments that address the timing of elections to comply with new state law.

“When (the Charter Review Committee) began this endeavor, the world was semi-normal. Since they completed that endeavor, it’s gone upside down,” Nicholls previously said. “The people of Yuma and the businesses of Yuma are still struggling and pushing to get back to where we were prior, at least economically.”

Nicholls noted that the other proposed amendments could be left for when things go back to being “more regular.”

Only one citizen addressed the issue at the most recent council meeting. Connie Whitener, a Yuma resident for more than 40 years, requested that the council give voters the opportunity to give Nicholls additional compensation.

“Because of the extraordinary matter in which Mayor Douglas J. Nicholls has guided the city of Yuma through some extraordinary circumstances within the last year or so, I would like Mayor Nicholls to receive additional compensation for his excellent performance,” Whitener said.

She then cited examples of the mayor’s leadership in the last year, including dealing with the “flood” of immigrants to the city, going to Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue with President Trump and now dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the “possibility of riots.”

“The price tag on what this compensation should be is priceless as far as I am concerned, but alas, the citizenry of Yuma are not millionaires so to put an amount on the compensation that might be agreeable to the citizens of Yuma is a challenge.”

She suggested asking voters to consider giving Nicholls a bonus of $3,000, which is 25% of his annual pay as mayor.

“We have been the beneficiary of Mayor Nicholls extraordinary leadership and cool head this past year and I hope the good citizens of Yuma agree with me and vote to provide additional compensation to a remarkable public servant,” Whitener said.

Nicholls responded by saying that he’s flattered, but he explained “that right now the way this is being proposed is to wait on any sort of compensation change until the economy gets a little bit recovered, so that’s not currently up for consideration, but I do appreciate the consideration and nice words you provided.”

A lot of the previous discussion on the proposed charter amendments centered on the compensation for the mayor and council members. Currently, the mayor receives $12,000 annually and each council member gets $3,600 a year.

The committee proposed that the mayor be paid 60% and each council member 30% of the compensation provided to the Yuma County supervisors. At this time, the Arizona Legislature has set the salary for Yuma County supervisors at about $63,800.

The committee proposed tying it to the county supervisors’ compensation, which is set by the state Legislature. This way, if the Legislature changes the supervisors’ pay, then the compensation for the mayor and council would automatically change without having to amend the charter. The compensation for the mayor and council has not been adjusted in several decades.

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