Busted sewer lines, leaky roofs, and debris in the road are all emergencies. Apartment complexes have hotlines for emergency maintenance, which residents can call even on a Sunday afternoon or in the middle of the night. Cities have a process for emergencies too. Councilmembers can convene on short notice and approve urgent action, and the normal city rules for getting competitive bids and providing public notice of a hearing are waived. For public emergencies, whatever action a government takes is effective immediately because there is no time to wait 30 days for citizens to take out a referendum on what the council approves.
What about renewing an annual subsidy program for solar electricity? Or signing a 20-year lease for a sports arena after three years of negotiations? Cities across the state from Tucson to Glendale have proposed measures like these as “emergencies.” However, it’s a far stretch to call these proposals “necessary to preserve the public health or safety,” which is what state and local laws generally require before emergency action can be taken.
Cities sometimes propose measures declaring an emergency as a matter of routine. They may do so to prevent citizens from taking out a referendum on an unpopular or controversial action that they don’t want reversed, like a tax increase, or they may do so to speed up the effective date for a project that the council should have considered and approved before, like an important contract that wasn’t negotiated on time. The only requirement is that a supermajority of councilmembers – typically three-fourths – vote in favor.
Supermajority vote or not, taking away the citizen’s voice in local matters and rushing projects through the legislative process should be a rare exception to the norm. Cities should use the emergency clause only during real emergencies when the risk to the public health or safety is high. For everything else, cities should follow the normal process for doing public business.
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Arizona Constitution: Article IV, Part 1, Section 1