Old West Legacy Elections

Phoenix Magazine – December 2016

Mike O’Neil


We just had an election where people were elected to some very important offices and where there were serious policy differences between candidates.  I’d like to discuss some offices for which voting is nutty as a fruitcake.

In most City Governments, there is a middle management position called City Clerk. All of our city managers hire a competent person to keep city records.  But on the state level, we call this job SECRETARY OF STATE, and we elect them.  Is there a Democratic or a Republican way of keeping records?

The Secretary of State has a second function: serving as the state’s Chief Election Officer. This seems to be an inherent conflict for someone elected to office in a partisan election. (Remember Florida 2000?  The Florida Secretary of State was also the chair of the Florida George W. Bush campaign committee. Any one cringing at that?)  And in Arizona there is a logical alternative structure in already in place.  Let the Chief Election Officer be hired (and fired) based on competence by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, an appointed body in which no party has a majority. (Note: I interviewed current Secretary of State Michele Reagan on my radio show: she acknowledged that the idea that the Chief Elections Officer of the state should not be elected had merit).

Or, here’s a doozy: State Mine Inspector.  Do you even know his name?  I don’t.  Some years ago, we had one who got in trouble for the way he spent funds.  But he couldn’t be fired, because he was elected.  Most of this job was assumed by the Federal Government years ago. If there is ANY real role left, how about the Governor appoint someone with professional qualifications in mine safety – and get rid of them if they screw up?

Or State Treasurer. They manage a huge pile of our money.  Shouldn’t we hire a professional money manager and hold them accountable rather than elect a political hack just because we can remember his name?

19th Century Legacies

Many of the local positions are legacies from the 19th Century when the townsfolk chose the meanest hombre in town to chase out the outlaws.

Our County Sheriff runs the jail and what is, in effect, the County Police Department for unincorporated areas.  Why are we voting for this position instead of hiring them the same way we hire the Phoenix Chief of Police, the head of the State Dept of Public Safety or the head of the Dept of Corrections? And this is not just about Sheriff Joe.  One of his predecessor’s previous job was selling lawn mowers.

Or Constable?  Does anyone know what they do?  Can you name anyone who is running for this position?  Here’s a thought.  If you look at a ballot and don’t recognize any of the names on the ballot for Constable, I suggest you write in a name.  How about Wyatt Earp?

Finally let me tell you the nuttiest of them all: Justice of the Peace.  These are Judges.  Now let me read you the minimum qualification to be elected a Judge at this level in Arizona is “anyone over 18 who can read and write English”.   I’m not lying, that is it.

I’ve got a really funny idea.  I’d like my doctor to have gone to medical school, my dentist to have gone to dental school.  And if I go to any court, I’d like to stand in front of a judge who knows something about the law.

Now here’s the real reason why these positions exist.  They are favorites for legislators who are looking to fatten their retirement benefits.  Legislators are paid a measly $24 thousand dollars a year.  But JPs get six figure salaries.  Politicians’ retirement pay is based on highest three years of employment in an elected position.  (Quick scan of partial JP list and I recognized former legislators Bee, Jayne, McComish, Ash and Williams based on just a cursory look.)

So work as a JP for three years, and you more than quadruple your retirement pay.  Good deal, huh?  Well, it is for them.

Middle managers and persons who will fill jobs requiring very specific technical skills should be hired for those skills, not elected.

We should focus on ELECTING Governors, Attorneys General, and legislators who set policy on important issues.

Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.