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Monday, May. 29, 2006 at 9:16 AM
End the fiefdoms in obscure state offices
May. 28, 2006 12:00 AM
Nearly 100 years ago, when Arizonans began crafting a constitution in anticipation of statehood, citizens were determined to reclaim the territory from the big, out-of-state railroads and mining companies they felt had long controlled politics.
For those angry populists and egalitarian reformers, the solution was to write a constitution that put as many offices as possible under the direct control of voters. Assessors . . . sheriffs . . . treasurers . . . county schools superintendents . . . the works. The Arizona constitutionalists wanted them all elected.
But with a statewide voting population exceeding 2.6 million today, some elected officials with big budgets and responsibilities are hiding in plain sight. Polls consistently find that only a tiny fraction of voters are aware of the existence of such offices as county schools superintendent and state mine inspector.
What's more, important offices such as state treasurer that should be run by competent professionals are instead going to the guy with the biggest name ID. As a result, obscure offices have evolved into fiefdoms for elected officials whom voters rarely see, and who never get turned out of office, almost regardless of how bad they act.
Recently, controversy has enmeshed three offices run by elected officials whose positions, by rights, should be appointed. There are very good reasons for the state treasurer and state mine inspector to be appointed by either the Legislature or the governor, and for Maricopa County's school superintendent to be appointed by the Board of Supervisors or by an independent school board.
The Arizona Republic strongly recommends that the Legislature present voters with constitutional amendments to see that these reforms happen.
Scandals tend to breed best in dark corners
A common thread links the offices of state treasurer, state mine inspector and Maricopa County schools superintendent. It provides plenty of grist for abolishing these positions and turning their duties over to appointed professionals.
Might that thread be scandal? No. Not precisely, although each of the three people holding these offices stands accused in recent months of embarrassing financial and personnel mismanagement.
Rather, the offices of state mine inspector, state treasurer and Maricopa County schools superintendent should be folded into the annals of Arizona history because they have lost their relevance as elective positions. They are obscure. And obscurity has provided the yeast for their scandals. Consider:
• Since early this year, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has been investigating the office of County Schools Superintendent Sandra Dowling over suspicions of office mismanagement. At the same time, the county supervisors have been wrangling, with limited success, with Dowling to straighten out a multiyear operating deficit of more than million.
• In February, the state attorney general launched an investigation into the administration of state Treasurer David Petersen, seizing records as well as Petersen's computer. Reports of Petersen's alleged abuses - using the official resources of his office for his personal interests - follow harrowing tales of former employees who quit, complaining of Petersen's oppressive, micro-managing regime. Petersen rarely sets foot in his office these days.
• The latest scandal brewing, involving state
Mine Inspector Doug Martin, is like a photocopy of the first two. Like Dowling, Martin is being audited for lax spending habits, including leasing 16 vehicles for his 10 employees. And, like Petersen, the mine inspector is accused of running roughshod over disfavored employees.
Many details have yet to be sorted out in all these investigations. And none of these officers has been found guilty of anything.
But in at least two of these cases, and perhaps all three, the undeniable invisibility of these elective offices has contributed to the conditions that make scandal possible. Virtually autonomous and almost entirely out of the public eye, Dowling and Martin have held their offices for a combined 34 years. If they have come to view their public offices as fiefdoms, their astonishing tenure seems a pretty good reason why.
Political machinery needs recalibrating
Term limits won't help. According to Phoenix pollster Earl de Berge, fewer than 2 percent of voters can correctly name their county schools superintendent or the state mine inspector. Perhaps more to the point, de Berge's polls consistently have found that less than 7 percent of voters even know those offices exist.
This invisibility powerfully counters the argument for the continued existence of these offices: that elected officials are responsible to voters while appointed professional managers are not.
Hardly anyone watches these elected officers. They perform mostly managerial functions, such as supervising the operations of schools and overseeing the investments of the state. Important duties, yes. But usually we hire school superintendents and finance directors to do such work.
As for the state mine inspector, Arizona is the only state in the Union to elect such a position, which has become largely dependent on the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration within the U.S. Department of Labor.
It is time for Arizona voters to reorganize, to recalibrate their political machinery.
We would not be setting any precedents. Arizona would be far from the first state, for example, to take its complicated finances out of the hands of a politician and turn them over to a skilled professional. Indeed, we wouldn't be setting any Arizona precedents, either.
As we'll demonstrate in a series of editorials over the next several days, Arizona has made significant changes in its elected offices over the years.
These are just the ones that, until now, got away.
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