Tucson’s Charter Review Committee Seeks Public Comment

Some folks reading this know that I serve on the Tucson Charter Review Committee, a body which has been meeting since August to hammer out a set of recommendations  for changes to Tucson’s 70+ year-old charter. I have been reluctant to write here about our deliberations, even though the meetings are open to the public, because we are trying to operate by consensus, and I did not want to risk being perceived as undermining the committees work by acting on my own.

The committee now has a set of recommendations and we are seeking public comments. There are two public hearings this week where members of the public may address the Committee directly regarding its recommendations:

March 10, 2015, 5 p.m. – El Pueblo Neighborhood Center, 101 W. Irvington Road

March 12, 2015, 5 p.m. – Morris K. Udall Regional Center, 7200 E. Tanque Verde Road

Written comments may be also submitted to the City Clerk’s Office by email sent to Cityclerk@tucsonaz.gov , or by surface mail to: City Clerk’s Office, P.O. Box 27210, Tucson, AZ 85726.

The public comment period ends on March 20.

The recommendations are as follows:

The Committee’s recommendations fall into the following three categories:

1. Recommendations to Define Responsibilities and Improve Accountability. Tucson’s Charter, contains an unusual and confusing patchwork that spreads accountability for executive functions diffusely among Mayor, Council, City Manager, and Department Directors. The Committee is recommending four changes to the Charter to better define responsibilities.  These changes are intended to make City Government more effective and allow Tucsonans to better hold City Government accountable.
2. Recommendations to Eliminate Unnecessary Fiscal Restrictions. Tucson’s Charter contains a number of inflexible restrictions on the City’s ability to manage its finances. The Committee is recommending two changes to the Charter that would modify or eliminate certain restrictions in the Charter that do not provide meaningful protections to taxpayers.
3. Recommendations to Address Important Omissions and Cleanup Issues.  The Committee observed important omissions and technical cleanup issues with Tucson’s Charter.  The Committee is recommending three changes to the Charter intended to reflect the Tucson community and its values, as well as changes in the lives of Tucsonans since the charter was first created in 1929.

Recommendations to Define Responsibilities and Improve Accountability.

A. Changes to the Mayor’s Responsibilities.
Under the current Charter, the Mayor is the elected chief executive of City Government and is responsible for setting the Council agenda and presiding at Council meetings. Despite having a vote to break ties on most issues before the Council, the Mayor does not count toward a Council quorum and cannot vote on several significant matters, including the removal of the City Manager, Police Chief or Fire Chief.  The Committee is seeking public comment on 2 alternative recommendations to change the Mayor’s responsibilities:

Alternative 1. Amend the Charter to grant the Mayor a full voice and vote on all matters before the Council and for the Mayor to count toward a council quorum.
Alternative 2. Amend the Charter to eliminate the Mayor’s vote, but give the Mayor the a vetoover  all actions passed by the City Council. Council could  override a mayoral veto with a supermajority (5 votes).

If Alternative 2 is recommended for referral to voters, the Committee is also considering recommending the addition of a seventh Council Member, elected from the City at large, to avoid tie votes and to make it easier for Council to override a Mayoral veto.

B. Changes to Council Elections.
The current Charter includes a unique election system for Council Members in which candidates for Council are nominated by their political party in ward-only primary elections and party nominees then compete in citywide general elections.

Recommendation: Retain the partisan elections but make the general elections ward-only for the six council seats.

C. Changes to Department Director Appointment and Removal Process.
The current Charter contains a confusing patchwork of responsibility for appointment and removal of Department Directors and an equally confusing patchwork that makes some Department Directors “at will” employees but grants others civil service protections.

Recommendation 1. Change appointment and removal procedures as follows:
*Council appoints and removes the City Manager, City Clerk, City Attorney, and Magistrates with a majority vote (under Alternative 1 the Mayor would vote, under Alternative 2 the Mayor could veto the Council’s decision subject to override by the Council);
*Granting the City Manager authority to appoint all other Department Directors with approval by a majority vote of the Council (under Alternative 1 the Mayor would vote, under Alternative 2 the Mayor could veto appointments subject to override by the Council);
*Granting City Manager sole authority to remove Department Directors.

Recommendation 2. Make all Department Directors “at will” employees exempt from Civil Service Protections, except that the Police Chief and Fire Chief will retain their limited advisory civil service appeal rights. No change would be made to the civil service protections of rank-and-file employees.

D. Mutual Respect for Council-Manager Form of Government.
The current Charter does not explicitly require the City Manager and Department Directors to respect Elected Officials’ policy setting and oversight. Nor does the current Charter require Elected Officials to respect the City Manager’s responsibility for implementing policies and delivering services. Mayor and Council adopted a Code of Ethics Ordinance in 2013 that contains this requirement.

Recommendation. The Committee recommends incorporating Code of Ethics Ordinance’s mutual respect and noninterference requirements into the Charter.

Recommendations to Eliminate Unnecessary Fiscal Restrictions
The current Charter contains inflexible restrictions on the City’s ability to manage its finances that do not provide meaningful protections to taxpayers.

A. Modify the Property Tax Cap.
The Charter currently imposes a combined cap on primary and secondly secondary property taxes of $1.75 per $100 of assessed value.

Recommendation. Modify this restriction to apply the $1.75 limit only to the primary property tax. This is not a tax increase.

B. Eliminate Prohibition on Pledging Sales Taxes.  The Charter currently prohibits Tucson from using sales tax revenue to secure bonds financing.

Recommendation. The Committee recommends that this restriction be eliminated from the Charter. This is not a tax increase.

Recommendations to Address Important Omissions and Cleanup Issues
The Committee observed important omissions and technical cleanup issues with the current Charter.

A. Preamble.
The current Charter does not contain a preamble.

Recommendation. Add a preamble to the Charter to encourage interpreting and implementing the Charter in a manner consistent with valuing Arts and Culture, the Environment, Diversity, Transparency, Prosperous Economy, and Equal Protection of all Tucsonans.

B. Enumerated Powers.
The current Charter includes two extensive lists of enumerated powers that are very specific. At times the Charter’s specificity is used to argue that the City lacks the authority to take certain actions. This problem has been emphasized to the Committee by the arts and culture community.

Recommendation. Add specific language to the enumerated powers that makes clear the City has express authority to undertake and fund arts and culture projects. The Committee is also considering adding express reference to the City’s authority to act to implement such additional values as improving the Tucson economy, improving the environment, improving Government transparency, and improving access to government.

C. Cleanup.
The Charter exclusively uses masculine pronouns, has several numbering mistakes, and refers to departments, positions and technologies that no longer exist (i.e. Transportation Director for Superintendent of Streets).

Recommendation. “Clean up” the Charter to be gender neutral, repair numbering, and identify correct titles and departments; modify problem enumerations of powers and duties topics that refer to technologies or practices that have changed or are likely to change over time.

Coming Soon To A High School Near You


Instructions: Please choose the answer that best completes the sentence and fill the corresponding bubble on the answer sheet with a number two pencil.

1. The first Spanish-speaking residents of what is now Arizona…

a.) …arrived by the middle of the 18th century and their descendants are still here.

b.) …overwhelmed the state after the 1986 amnesty.

c.) …were running drugs and taking jobs from good Americans.

d.) …keep speaking Spanish to each other within earshot of me. PLEASE MAKE THEM STOP!

2. The “rule of 31” is…

a.) …language in the State Constitution that defines a quorum in the House of Representatives as 31 members and requires 31 votes to pass a bill.

b.) …a pseudo-constitutional mandate that requires 31 votes from members of the majority party to pass a bill in the House.

c.) …a series of tax breaks and regulatory carve-outs to attract a Baskin-Robbins Megastore to the East Valley.

d.) …a reference to NASCAR driver Jeff Burton.

3. The first African-American in the Arizona State Senate…

a.) …was Cloves Campbell, Sr., Democrat of Maricopa County.

b.) …I dunno…that girl who just started working for the DOE…Lee something.

c.) …would be a Republican if he were alive today.

d.) …was Terry McMillan.

4. The branch of government that serves as the final word on constitutional matters is…

a.) …The judiciary.

b.) …The House Rules Committee.

c.) …The Speaker Pro-Tem of the House of Representatives.

d.) …The Goldwater Institute.

5. The only thing that the state legislature is required by the constitution to do every session is to…

a.) …pass a balanced state budget.

b.) …cut taxes.

c.) …secure the border.

d.) …bring God back into our schools.

6. Raúl Castro…

a.) …is the oldest living ex-governor in the United States and the only Mexican-American ever to serve in Arizona’s highest office.

b.) …is Fidel’s no-good brother.

c.) …is a Congressman from Tucson.

d.) …would be a Republican if he were alive today.

7. Arizona’s twenty-four Indian Tribes…

a.) …have a special government-to-government relationship with the State.

b.) …are subordinate to the State.

c.) …are fabulously wealthy and get too much free stuff.

d.) …what? Didn’t John Wayne kill them all?

8. Arizona’s “right to work” law…

a.) …bans the so-called “closed shop” which requires labor union membership as a condition of employment.

b.) …makes labor unions illegal.

c.) …means that everyone who really wants a job can get one if they just look hard enough.

d.) …means that legislators are entitled to lobby on the side.

9. Miranda v. Arizona refers to…

a.) …a landmark United States Supreme Court decision which requires law enforcement to notify an individual of his or her rights when being questioned.

b.) …a pain in the ass.

c.) …a floor speech given by State Senator Catherine Miranda, Democrat of Phoenix.

d.) …an unfortunate incident at Canyon Ranch involving Cynthia Nixon.

10. Arizona native César Chávez is best known…

a.) …for organizing farm workers in Arizona and California to fight for better working conditions.

b.) …as the greatest Mexican boxer of all time.

c.) …for leading the Mexican Revolution.

d.) …as someone who would be a Republican if he were alive today.

Scoring: If you answered “a” to all the questions, congratulations! You actually know what you are talking about. An answer of “b,” “c” or “d” to any question may be factually incorrect, but is acceptable if you can defend your position with a smug sense of self-assurance and call anyone who disagrees with you anti-business, soft on crime, or uncivil.

KOLD Jumps the Shark

The last few weeks have been tough on anyone who still believes that the media should have a serious role in the public dialogue in Tucson.

First, city staff proposed a budget that axed Access Tucson and left the city’s Channel 12 “restructured” and without a home, apparently so the building that houses both of them can be sold to a developer, leaving Tucson without a public-access cable station and severely limiting citizen access to City Council proceedings. Next came the news that the Tucson Weekly, which recently celebrated 30 years of independent journalism, has been sold to an out-of state firm with “a record of decimating publications they acquire.” (Here is where someone points out that the same outfit also acquired Inside Tucson Business, but, considering that ITB is little more than a Chamber of Commerce organ that has been giving schmucks like Lionel Waxman column space for years, its demise would be no great loss.) Finally, Arizona Public Media announced that Arizona Illustrated, a local institution since 1980, will be put “on hiatus” until June. This move will mean that our local public broadcasting system will be almost entirely without local public affairs content, with the exception of a few minutes of headlines at the beginning of NPR programming and, of course, whatever Arizona Spotlight can fit in-between self-indulgent essays and profiles of out-of-town artists during its weekly half-hour on the radio.

As if to remove any doubt that things are in a downward spiral in this regard, local CBS affiliate KOLD decided to observe the 2-year anniversary of the disappearance of Isabel Celis with a “special report” in which reporter Som Lisaius asked famed Phoenix-area psychic Allison DuBois for “insights” into the as-yet unsolved case.

Even someone who is not skeptical about psychic phenomena should question why DuBois is taken seriously. Her purported superhuman powers have thus far failed to lead to an arrest in a criminal case, and Phoenix police detectives have characterized her “insights” into the Baseline Killer and Serial Shooter cases as less-than-helpful. Her credibility moral authority reputation in this regard is due largely to the fact that she was played by Patricia Arquette in a successful and long-running television series. Essentially, KOLD brought her on board for the story not because she had a proven record of solving tough cases, but because a fictional character with the same name as her was seen busting the bad guys on teevee nearly every week. Lisaius would have done as well to interview Patrick Jane or Shawn Spencer.

miguel_sandoval(An aside here: I always had difficulty suspending my disbelief with regard to Medium. This was not because of DuBois’ psychic abilities, but because the Maricopa County Attorney, played by veteran character actor Miguel Sandoval, was portrayed as a Mexican-American. The show ran during the height of the Arpaio-Thomas reign of terror, and I always thought that the portrayal of Maricopa County government as a paradise of ethnic harmony strained credulity and made it clear that the writers really had no interest in portraying anything other than an imaginary and generic Phoenix.)

I guess it should be mentioned that the idea for this story seems to not have been entirely KOLD’s idea. The story mentions that the family contacted DuBois based on the suggestion of a Tucson Police Department detective. Clearly, on top of the other issues that the TPD has been facing lately, their officers have to answer for giving Celis’ distraught relatives some useless and terrible advice.

This, however, does not absolve KOLD from responsibility. They still ran with what amounted to a sensationalist celebrity story which exploited the grief of a local family and the community in general. More than this, the story lacked  depth and was otherwise irrelevant and stupid. Unfortunately, such irrelevance is increasingly the norm with regard to journalism in the Old Pueblo.


It Is Past Time To Look Beyond Tax Cuts As An Economic Development Strategy

It is actually an old story, but it has gained some currency due to the highly visible StartUpNY campaign out of the State of New York’s economic development office. We have all seen the ads. One of them features an outfit called Valutek, who recently  left Arizona for Upstate New York.

Valutek, a firm that manufactures products for the cleanrooms used in research and high-technology manufacturing, in moved their corporate headquarters from Phoenix to Albany three years ago, just as the current economic development initiative was starting in the Empire State. It was also a year after Arizona passed a budget that included the largest cuts to higher education in American history. The timing is not mere coincidence, as reported by the Albany Business Review:

Valutek, which has operations in China and Malaysia, decided to move to New York after Arizona State University, which it has worked with for several years, lost microelectronics funding, [Valutek CEO Greg] Heiland said.

The television spots tout tax breaks as a feature of New York’s aggressive economic development initiative, however, a look on StartUpNY’s web site makes it clear that this is just a part of a far more comprehensive strategy:

START-UP NY (SUNY Tax-free Areas to Revitalize and Transform Upstate NY) is Governor Cuomo’s initiative to transform SUNY campuses and other university communities across the state into tax-free communities for new and expanding businesses.

1. Business will be able to locate in these zones and operate 100% tax-free for 10 years.
2. Businesses will have access to resources of world-class higher education institutions, including industry experts and advanced research laboratories.
3. Universities and colleges will become tax-free communities that provide their students and teachers access to real-world, cutting edge business experiences.

Of course, legislative leaders in Arizona would look at this and say “See? Even in New York they are cutting taxes to attract business!” without bothering to see what they are actually doing. New York’s tax breaks are carefully targeted toward new businesses locating in “underutilized areas.” Functionally, this is the same as a landlord offering a prospective tenant a break on the rent in exchange for a promise to fix up a blighted storefront. In either case, it is an investment in improving the community. In Arizona, we cut taxes for the sake of cutting taxes because taxes are bad. Any pittance of economic development that results is a happy coincidence.

More than this, New York’s strategy recognizes the importance of partnering with higher education institutions, something that is only possible if those institutions are adequately funded. The trouble is, in Arizona they are not. The University of Arizona received a fraction of what was asked for in the budget that was passed this week, making it difficult for them to work effectively toward the state’s economic development.

We could call this penny-wise but pound-foolish, but this would imply that the reluctance to fund the Universities is simply a matter of frugality rather than the fact that the legislature generally has little appreciation for the mission of the University system and is sometimes ideologically opposed to the concept of higher education. This writer remembers a legislator, many years ago, getting up on the floor of the House of Representatives to oppose a biotech initiative for the Universities, saying that this industry would bring to our state “people who are opposed to the capitalist system,” That man is now our Superintendent of Public Instruction.

It would be unwise to exaggerate the impact of Valutek’s departure, or to assume that it is part of a larger trend. It is more a sign of lost opportunity. Arizona’s only economic development idea is cutting taxes. This has yielded some negligible results, but the net growth of new jobs here has lagged behind New York and most other states. At the very least, Valutek’s move shows that we could do much better.

Three Sonorans Might Actually Have A Point Here

So, anyway, last week, David “Three Sonorans” Morales posted this on his Facebook page:


At first, I saw this and wanted to respond by pointing out that David’s memory seems to be too short for him to recall the Democratic opposition to SB1070 and HB2281. But then, I realized that, though his comments about Democrats are unfair and not based in historical fact, he may have stumbled upon an ugly truth regarding the outrage over SB1062, the latest manifestation of ugly bigotry from the legislature.

First, we have to realize that, though bigotry is inherently evil, the way that this evil manifests itself against any given community is unique and rooted in a particular history. The bigotry against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans that drove SB1070 has its roots in, among other things, economic anxiety, misconceptions about this region’s history, a fear of the loss of political power and concerns about crime. The “facts” upon which these are based are often spurious, exaggerated or out of context, but at least there is some sort of negligible substance there to argue.

Bigotry against homosexuals, which is what is behind SB1062, is different. It is largely about squeamishness over what other people might be doing. There can be no pretense that this is about anything as important as preserving jobs for good Americans or combating brutal gangs because it clearly is not.

Anti-gay rhetoric is obsessed with sex. Though we certainly hear this less often than we did in the 1980s and 90s, conservatives still have a habit of making graphic, sometimes scatological references to what they imagine gays might be doing in the privacy of their bedrooms. During my time in the legislature, one Mesa Republican notoriously kept a stash of gay porn in her desk, ready to deploy as props during floor debate as an illustration of what she viewed as the depravity of homosexuality. Notwithstanding the number of ostensibly tough, macho dudes who live in fear of being buggered, its called homophobia for a reason, after all, even the most eloquent anti-gay activist is basically arguing, in the words of political philosopher Joe Bob Briggs, “we heard what you gays are doing, and we don’t like it.”

In other words, while the bigotry behind SB1070 was ignorant, the bigotry behind SB1062 is irrational. It can be argued that this is a distinction without a difference, and that it is not simply coincidental that movement conservatives embrace both, but it does begin to explain why the reaction to the two bills has been different.

Anti-gay bigotry is largely about what other people are doing, so it is easy to argue against legislation like SB1062 from a live and let live perspective, particularly in an age when gay culture is being mainstreamed and the case for legalized discrimination starts looking a little silly. In contrast, the case against sB1070 is in some ways harder to make. Anglo suburban anxiety about immigration is reenforced by largely stereotypical and negative portrayals of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the media, and cross-border crime is a very real problem, so the hate behind legislation like SB1070 becomes all too easy to rationalize.

Of course, this does not fully explain the differences between the reactions to the two bills. In 2010, the organized business community expressed misgivings about the substance of SB1070 and the bill’s possible negative effects on the political debate and Arizona’s image as a state, but were unwilling to press the issue any further. In contrast, most business organizations (with the notable exception, as of this writing, of The Tucson Metro Chamber) as well as many prominent Republicans, are calling for a veto of SB1062, and this seems an active possibility. Four years ago, Governor Brewer was facing what seemed to be a tough re-election fight, and the possibility that the Executive Tower would again be occupied by a Democrat seemed too much for the chambers and the Republican establishment to stomach, and dabbling in apartheid was seen as an acceptable price to keep her in office. Now, Brewer is not up for re-election, and everybody, still smarting from the bad press that SB1070 brought us, is concerned about the damage to Arizona’s image and the Republican “brand” that such clearly bigoted legislation will bring. Or perhaps, they have finally decided that this has all gone too far, in which case, this seems too little, too late.

But then again, if this were truly driven by a desire to turn the corner and shake our image as a haven for bigotry, one would suspect that they would be willing to do something to reverse the damage that SB1070 did to our state, but we have no such luck. An effort by Senator Steve Gallardo (D-Phoenix) to repeal SB1070 has received no support from Republicans or the business community, and has been met with the same dismissive ridicule from the press that the law’s opponents were subjected to four years ago, when the state’s major newspapers were more willing to rail against 1070’s critics than the bill itself. By the same token, the silence from these quarters regarding efforts to require taxpayers to pay the legal bills of SB1070’s sponsors seems to imply that they are still okay with the law.

There are welcome signs that SB1062 will vetoed. The widespread public outrage over this evil bill is heartening, and gives great hope to those of us who have been fighting for change for years. Unfortunately, there remain troublesome signs that some bigotry remains acceptable.

Help Britt Farbo Go To DC

Folks who have been active in Baja Arizona Democratic politics for a while probably remember Britt Farbo, the feisty badass from the Sulphur Springs Valley who made her mark on the Young Democrats back in the aughts. Since then, she has led a wandering life of adventure, including a stint in DC with EMILY’s List, studies in Norway, and work with an NGO in Afghanistan. Currently, she is doing NGO work for the advancement of women in Cambodia and is working on a degree in Phnom Pen.

Farbo is also active as an officer with Democrats Abroad, the arm of the Democratic Party that represents expatriate Democrats around the world. She is raising money so she can go to Washington DC to represent the Asia-Pacific Region in her capacity as a Regional Vice Chair at Democrats Abroad’s 50th Anniversary meeting at the end of February. In Farbo’s words:

My hope is that I can raise enough money to cover travel from Cambodia to the United States, in order to attend the Democrats Abroad 2014 Annual Meeting and 50th Anniversary as well as the DNC Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. (Febuaray 27th-March 5th, 2014) where I am looking forward to representing the Asia-Pacific Region and Cambodia.

At these meetings Americans abroad and Americans from all walks of life will meet with members of congress to advocate for fair applications of the law to Americans living abroad. Work hard with party leaders to understand our role better in the 2014 elections and pass ideas around. Democrats Abroad will also celebrate fifty years since our founding.

2014 is shaping up to be an interesting one political, economically and socially for the world and by extension the individual. For myself personally this year marks the half-way point in finishing my undergraduate degree, turning thirty and five years abroad. My hope is that through my life as a student trying to make it work, my continued participation in Democrats Abroad, and a different and emerging perspective that one day I might be a better change agent for my country and community.

Thanks for your support, patience, and encouragement over time.

In Solidarity,

Britt Farbo
Democratic Party Committee Abroad

Regional Vice Chair Asia-Pacific Region 2013-Present
Chair Democrats Abroad Cambodia 2012-Present
Frm. Secretary Democrats Abroad Afghanistan 2010-2011

Farbo is very close to her $2500 goal. Folks who want to help can contribute over at her site at gofundme.com.

Yes Day: Vote Early and Often

Voting in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Online Fan Poll lasts only a few more days.

For Tucsonans, two choices are obvious. First, we are going to vote for Linda Ronstadt. Second, we are going to vote for guitar demigod and one-time Tucsonan Link Wray. Wray had a special place in his heart for the Old Pueblo and played here frequently, often sharing the stage with local great Al Perry. I am not sure if there is any truth to the persistent rumor that Wray’s “Tucson, Arizona” was written in the Tap Room at the Hotel Congress, but it is a good story nonetheless.

As for me, my third vote goes to Yes. I loved Yes in high school, then drifted away for them as I discovered punk rock and what came to be called “alternative.” By my college years, I was embarrassed to admit that I had all their albums on now-obsolete vinyl. This story is pretty common, actually, but in more recent years, their profound impact has been acknowledged, with artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Pearl Jam, ?uestlove and The Red Hot Chili Peppers admitting to their influence.

Yes’ nomination to the Hall has gotten some unusual attention, in large part because there is an unprecedented campaign being waged on their behalf, which started with a chance meeting of political consultants at a Yes show. I assume that this happened in the men’s room between sets. One dark secret of politics is how much business gets done standing at urinals, something which should change as more women achieve prominence.

These consultants, one a Democrat and the other a Republican formed a group called Voices for Yes, which is applying political tactics to promote the band’s candidacy, including talking points, press releases and an elaborate social media strategy. In the end, win or lose, they plan to release a documentary chronicling the effort.

The band, in true rock-and-roll fashion, does not really care whether they get inducted or not, but it nonetheless seems an interesting experiment, and will probably be a case study for folks in who work in marketing. What is not clear is if the effort, even if successful, will have much impact. The Hall’s process remains murky, with many observers believing that the process is controlled largely by notorious snob Jann Wenner, who rewards artists based on his personal tastes and political views. And of course, there is the persistent accusation that the process is subject to commercial pressure.

The fundamental problem is the balloting process which makes the Electoral College look like a triumph for direct Democracy. The campaign seems to focus on the “fan poll,” whose results count as 1 (one) of over six hundred ballots. Effectively, this means that the more votes there are, the less impact each individual vote has. Don’t tell Michelle Reagan about this. It might give her ideas.

This said, it means that the real effort will have to focus on those six hundred or so electors. It will be interesting to see what strategy these high-powered DC political consultants will be using to win those votes.

It is not an important story, but an interesting one nonetheless.

La Ironía Es Un Plato Que Se Sirve Frío

For a blogger, discussing foreign affairs is strictly an academic exercise, sort of like complaining about our summer heat in Tucson. Nonetheless, sometimes, the irony of a situation is so rich that one must indulge his inner nerd and comment.

Last week, the news came that Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo y Marfil, using terms like “decolonization,” has stated his government’s support for Argentina in its never ending dispute with the United Kingdom over Las Islas Malvinas the Falkland Islands. Margallo’s comments may have been an expression of Panhispanismo, a political movement which seeks to promote ties between Spain and its former colonies. More likely, they were part of an effort to secure international support in the ongoing dispute over Gibraltar, which has heated up recently.

British sovereignty over Gibraltar, as some may recall, has been contested by Spain for over three centuries, resulting in about a dozen battles and sieges, the most recent of which was the largest battle in the War of American Independence.

It would be easy to say that Spain’s position is ironic given the kingdom’s own history of conquest and colonization. Margallo’s own namesake and ancestor, General Juan García y Margallo became a national hero by being killed while enforcing Spanish colonial claims in Morocco in 1893. That is him in the picture at right, taking a bullet from an angry local tribesman. But it would be unfair to hold modern Spaniards responsible for things that happened decades or centuries ago, though they, and all of us have to cope with their legacy. It is especially unfair to do so in light of the fact that other nations, including Britain and even the United States, also have a problematic history in this regard.

No, Margallo’s comments are ironic because of Spain’s current situation.

Spain remains the only European power on the African continent. The Spanish flag flies over handful of plazas de soberanía (“Places of Sovereignty”), consisting of islands and coastal enclaves, and the kingdom’s last two presidios: the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, all along the Mediterranean coast of Morocco . Spain’s claim to these areas dates back to the waning days of the Reconquista, the eight century war (711-1492) to end Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula, and has been cause for dispute ever since. Back in 2002, Morocco landed a dozen troops on the uninhabited island of Tura Perejil, a contested rock in the Strait of Gibraltar, and raised a flag, prompting a brief diplomatic crisis which resolved nothing.

Spain argues against Morocco’s claims by arguing that, after 500 years, residents of these territories consider themselves Spaniards, and opinion polls support this position. When Spain’s economy was booming several years ago, there was talk that Moroccan immigration, much of it illegal, would make Spaniards in a minority in Ceuta and Melilla, there seemed a possibility that this might change, but this trend has reversed somewhat more recently as Spanish immigrants have crossed the Mediterranean from their economically troubled homeland to seek opportunity in Morocco. It could be argued that the presidios have been safety valve in this regard for both nations.

This being said, the nearly 3000 residents of the Falkland Islands, who are famously outnumbered by over fifteen to one by sheep, consider themselves British and want no part of Argentina. A referendum back in March confirms this. There is no indigenous population clamoring for foreign intervention to protect their sovereignty, nor is there an oppressed Argentine minority there calling for self-determination. Similarly, Gibraltar’s population is proudly and defiantly British.

In short, the United Kingdom’s arguments regarding the Falklands and Gibraltar and sound remarkably like the case for continued Spanish rule over its territories in Africa.

Ironic, dontcha think?

None of this is said to dismiss any of the very serious issues, or the centuries of historical baggage, that are playing out in these disputes. The pettiness and lack of seriousness with which we conduct our own foreign policy debates gives us as Americans little room to criticize others.

Trolls on Auto-Pilot

Online comment sections are generally regarded as a miasma of ignorance, malice, and outright lies which makes one wonder why so many publications think it necessary to have them. They may have started as a noble experiment, but the forums quickly degenerated into a platform for socially inept malcontents whose rantings are too poorly sourced or too badly articulated to meet editorial standards. In some cases, publications like the Arizona Daily Star have made too-little-too-late moves to rein in the excesses, but editors generally seem reluctant to take responsibility for providing a respectable platform for hate speech and personal attacks.

The Tucson Weekly actually does a pretty respectable job of policing its online comment section (In the interests of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that I am a paid occasional contributor to the Weekly). In some cases the editorial staff takes the time to respond to the posts, particularly when the comments become personal. The exchanges between editor Dan Gibson and a local cosplayer who calls himself “Colt Cassidy,” for example, are sometimes interesting.

A recent article by Linda Ray generated an interesting post from the cryptically named “Ronsonit” which illustrates another problem with online comments:

Only those who comply with Immigration Law should be given consideration when the discussion on Immigration Reform takes place. Anyone knowingly commiting a crime in the process of attempting to “Immigrate” will select and choose the laws they will obey as Permanent Residents and make Lousy Citizens. Get in the back of the Line of people scrambling to join US. You have no “Birthright” other than to contribute to earn your position in this Society.

All right, so this guy definitely needs to go back to grade school and revisit his lessons about capitalization, and his post is basically boilerplate anti-immigration reform rhetoric, but at least he is clear and articulate, and he never makes vaguely racist remarks about local elected officials, which is more than can be said for too much of what we see online. The real problem is that the comment is not in response to an article about immigration reform, but to a review of the Polyphonic Spree’s recent show at Club Congress. As near as can be figured, the writer saw the word “immigration” in the article (and perhaps the word “dreamer,” even though this term did not even refer to the DREAM Act in this context) and his anti-immigrant gland started producing the hormone that made him write this generic response before he even read the piece.

A more likely, and somewhat disturbing, possibility is that such comments are the result of so-called “sock puppets” who mindlessly post canned rhetoric in response to web alerts about certain keywords appearing somewhere or another. These may even be generated by software rather than actual human beings.

Defenders of online comment sections say that they provide an important forum for discussion, but as the response to Linda’s article shows, there is a real possibility that they can become dominated by automated bots, cynical political operatives or trolling cranks rather than concerned citizens with a real stake in the community, which makes their value in this regard questionable.