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PUTTING MERIT IN THE MERIT COMMISSION

Now that all is said and done--except for Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall's petulance over losing two decisions at the Merit Commission in cases stemming from conduct of her staff after the Oct. 5 murder of Dr. David Brian Stidham--it must be noted that the county's civil service panel performed exceptionally well.

Credit goes out to Georgia Brousseau, the retired TUSD principal who chairs the commission, Mike Mincheff and Richard Huff (despite his unflinching loyalty to LaWall). Each was extraordinarily attentive, though we still scratch our heads over their decision to uphold the firing of Paul Skitzki, the once-star prosecutor who now is an assistant public defender.

To rule that Skitzki deserved to go, the commission had to believe Lourdes Lopez, the former lover of Dr. Brad Schwartz, in jail on first-degree murder charges for allegedly hiring Ronald Bigger for the Stidham hit. Schwartz and Bigger say they are innocent. Lopez says she told Skitzki that Schwartz habitually ranted about wanting to have Stidham killed. Skitzki denies that and says Lopez told him such only days after the murder. He says he compelled Lopez to go to police, which she did on Oct. 8.

The commission also had to buy into LaWall's other reason to can Skitzki: his supposed messy, "unprofessional personal life" in which he was said to have lied to two women in the office. If that's the case, then the Merit System Rules need revisions and amendments to include the personal lives of county employees. Won't that be fun?

The commission met for most of 14 days over six weeks. It dealt with three appellants, two of whom had lawyers, a mountain of exhibits and multi-page transcripts, and 20 witnesses, 16 of whom are lawyers, including LaWall and her chief criminal deputy David Berkman.

If you listen closely, you can still hear Berkman rephrasing questions as he drowns the room with his mere presence. The commission was focused when it could have been diverted by the tragedy of the murder as well as the titillating tragidrama of self-destruction by Schwartz and Lopez, who demonstrated that she was bereft of judgment--hanging onto Schwartz even after his threats and after she got busted on federal charges in his bogus prescription scam.

The final and biggest credit must be given to Linda Henderson, the county employment rights coordinator who managed the schedule, the exhibits, records and notices while tolerating and accommodating--with amazing skill--the media. This show could have easily spun out of control. It didn't, because Henderson is a pro.


DRIVE JIVE

To hear the Texas Transportation Institute tell it, the highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.

Every year, the Texas folks release their annual survey of traffic conditions across the USA--and we chime in skeptically that it even if they're right, it doesn't sound like a crisis to us.

Keep in mind that the survey is based on estimated cars on the road, lane miles and other variables, all of which may not sketch an accurate portrait of Tucson's road conditions.

But even assuming the numbers bear some relation to reality, the report says the average Tucsonan "wastes" 36 hours a year held up in traffic--that is, 36 hours more than they'd have to if there were no waits at stoplights.

Do the math: Assuming you work 48 weeks a year, and commute five days a week, that comes out to 4 1/2 extra minutes per drive at rush hour.

We're not going to argue that traffic is getting any better in this town. We could do a lot more to patch up and widen our streets if we had more money. But an extra five minutes at rush hour just doesn't outrage us. Maybe it's because we just crank up the AC, sit back and listen to our Guy Atchley motivational CDs.


RONSTADT VS. RONSTADT

As The Skinny predicted in February, Linda Ronstadt has waded into the this year's City Council race with the intent of taking down cousin Fred Ronstadt, who is seeking a third term in midtown Ward 6.

Ronstadt announced her support of Nina Trasoff, the former TV news anchorwoman who has worked as a flack-for-hire for the last 17 years.

Before she can take on Fred, Trasoff has to get past artist Steve Farley in September's Democratic primary. The race promises to be a lively affair, with the candidates having already met in a debate earlier this month.

Both Trasoff and Farley have cleared a major hurdle in city campaigns: They've already turned in the paperwork to participate for the city's publicly supported campaign program, which provides a dollar-for-dollar match for candidates who agree to limit campaign spending to about $80,000. To qualify, candidates have to raise a minimum of 200 contributions of $10 or more from city residents.

Ronstadt and fellow Republican Kathleen Dunbar announced earlier this year that their campaigns would not be participating in the matching-funds program, which the Democrats have seized on as an example of how the Republican incumbents sold out to the highest bidder. Voters will decide that for themselves, but it's been our experience that complaints about the campaign-funding program haven't done Democrats a lot of good so far in city elections.

Speaking of campaign funds, Peter Hormel, a lawyer in the county's Legal Defender's Office and a lefty political activist, announced he would be chairing Tucsonans for Accountable Government, an independent campaign committee that will be going on the attack against Ronstadt and Dunbar. We smell union money involved with this one.

Hormel promised TAG would be reminding voters that Ronstadt and Dunbar trimmed funding for afterschool programs, supported the city's new $14-a-month garbage fee and cut job-training programs.

TAG is a sign Democrats are getting more savvy about city campaigns following several years of watching the Growth Lobby run independent campaigns to aid Ronstadt, Dunbar and Mayor Bob Walkup.


HELLON VS. HUFFMAN

Big battle brewing? At a recent GOP confab, state Sen. Toni Hellon, a moderate Republican who represents District 26 on the northwest side, announced she'd be seeking re-election in 2006.

We hear that Rep. Steve Huffman, the wonky Republican whose term limit is up next year, is ready to rumble against Hellon in the GOP primary.

Sounds like fun to us!

We're also told that Republican Carol Somers, who served one term in the House before a redistricting wrinkle rubbed her out, wants Huffman's House seat.


GARBAGE IN, CASH OUT

City Manager Mike Hein is guiding the City Council through a trimmed, nearly $1 billion budget for approval in advance of the 2005-06 fiscal year that begins July 1. The fiscally sane should can the money-losing commercial garbage division. The city has enough difficulty wrestling with its troubled residential garbage section and its controversial $14-a-month collection fee that is not charged to thousands of customers. That is not unlike the commercial division, which has failed to collect from numerous accounts.

Even on its best day, the commercial trash division is a money-loser. It charges less than what it should. Brokers and salesmen who pitch the city's service are still signing up accounts at below-market and below-city rates. Jack up the rates, and the city will still lose money. It doesn't take an Enron financial forensics specialist to see how the city loses on commercial garbage. It sends out a fleet of high-maintenance, expensive trucks driven by well-paid (but no overtime) workers to pick up garbage at fast-food restaurants, banks, Walgreens, apartment complexes and the like, including those well outside the city limits. Then it transports the garbage to city landfills. But the price the city charges is not enough to cover the costs, including the loss the city incurs by not being able to charge a private hauler, carting the same commercial load, for the right to dump in a city landfill.

The city should own and control its landfills, if only to protect us from out-of-state garbage and stop us from becoming New Jersey or New York's Fresh Kills dump. But it is simple to understand that the city would be better off letting private haulers collect commercial trash and then charge them for dumping at city landfills.


PICK-UP LINE

Congressman Jim Kolbe last week delivered a triumphant press release touting the million bucks he secured to help with border cleanup. Kolbe boasted that he'd gotten million-dollar appropriations for the fourth year in a row.

What he didn't mention was that in the first year, that million bucks shrank down to $695,000, with $410,000 reaching the Tucson field office.

In the second year, the million bucks ended up being $790,000, with the Tucson field office getting $332,000.

What do you bet it'll fall short this year again?

Even if the million bucks comes through, it's not enough to make a dent. A multi-agency federal report commissioned by Kolbe said mitigating the environmental impact of illegal immigration would cost $23 million and require 90 new full-time employees in the first year. The estimated five-year cost: $62.9 million.


A PLUS?

Like weeds in a well-watered garden, illegal A-frame signs started popping up all over town in the early '90s. To clear the clutter, the City Council eventually passed tough regs. Today, there are just 23 approved A-frames in all of Tucson. Given how many we see when we're out shopping, we're betting a lot of businesses are cheating. Naughty, naughty!

With so many businesses flaunting the law--and perhaps sensing a new revenue source for cash-strapped Tucson--the Citizen Sign Code Committee recently suggested loosening up the A-frame ordinance.

The biggest change: Allowing businesses that already have signs on their buildings to put up A-frames. In exchange, the city gets a higher annual license fee.

The City Council is scheduled to decide the changes next month.

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