It's wise to have a grievance panel such as the Pima County Merit Commission to allow mistreated employees a chance to appeal if they're victimized by political or other petty payback in county government.
But the Merit Commission has steered way outside appropriate lines in the case of Michael Canizales, a Pima County sheriff's deputy who is facing sexual-assault charges in Pima County Superior Court.
This is a complicated case, and Canizales, who has denied the charges, remains innocent until proven guilty. Here's the basic background, according to reports: Canizales got drunk at a bar in January and contacted an old acquaintance, who brought him back to her place. The victim says Canizales made a sexual advance; she rebuffed him, and then he forced himself on her. After the victim went to the hospital a few days later and related the story to doctors, Tucson police were contacted.
When Canizales was first identified as a sexual-assault suspect in January, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik put him on administrative leave with pay. When Canizales was indicted in June, Dupnik took the additional step of stripping him of his pay.
This is a case that's got all kinds of messy internal politics, beginning with a Pima County prosecutor pressing charges against a Pima County sheriff's deputy, even though the Tucson Police Department officers who investigated expressed doubts about whether there was enough evidence to pursue a case.
Those politics are playing out with the Merit Commission, which voted to overturn Dupnik's decision to strip Canizales of his pay in a hearing last month.
On the advice of attorneys, Dupnik wouldn't speak with The Skinny, but in a letter to the Pima County Attorney's Office, Dupnik said he was "deeply troubled" by that decision.
"While it is crystal clear to me that a law enforcement officer in Deputy Canizales' position has no business being on the job, it is equally repugnant to me that the same indicted officer should remain on leave with pay sitting at home—collecting a paycheck and benefits," Dupnik wrote.
Earlier this week, the commission was set to revisit the case, to determine whether Canizales should get back pay from the month that he went without a paycheck. In his defense, Canizales planned to call more than a dozen witnesses, including the Tucson police officers who investigated the case—and even the victim herself.
Eliciting that kind of testimony in an employment hearing could easily poison the prosecution of the criminal case. The Pima County Attorney's Office filed a motion that the Merit Commission lacked jurisdiction in the case, but that motion was rejected.
That left Dupnik facing what he called in his letter an "untenable choice": Either agree to pay Canizales, or fight the Merit Commission ruling and "potentially jeopardize the success of the criminal trial and expose the victim to the anguish of telling her story to a lay panel in an employment setting."
Given that situation, Dupnik decided to give Canizales his pay.
"It is evident to me that 30 days of pay to Deputy Canizales is a less venal alternative than forcing the victim to give her testimony—not before the Superior Court criminal judge assigned to the case, but the lay three-person panel of the Merit Council," Dupnik wrote.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry isn't happy with the decision, either.
He wrote his own letter to the members of the Merit Commission, urging them to reconsider their decision. He said their decision to overrule Dupnik "fails to recognize the primary principle in the use of public funds, that they should be conserved, especially during these present times of local and state fiscal stress. Continuing to pay Deputy Canizales could be construed as an illegal and unconstitutional gift of public money."
Huckelberry also suggested a change for future appeals.
"I would also ask you to develop rules that would preclude civil merit-system hearings from occurring until after a criminal-justice proceeding has been concluded, particularly if the merit hearing is directly or remotely connected to the criminal matter," Huckelberry wrote. "Such would preserve due process rights for all parties."
We'd suggest the Board of Supervisors get to work on making those changes.
As of press time, the Arizona Legislature still hadn't come up with a budget, despite being six weeks into the new fiscal year.
After the Senate was unable to corral enough votes to put a sales-tax referral on the ballot, the House of Representatives was preparing to vote on a budget package that was nearly identical to the spending plan that Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed on July 1. Brewer has said she'll continue to reject any package that doesn't include a chance for voters to approve a temporary sales-tax increase.
Will Brewer blink? Or will lawmakers come up with some kind of sweetener to persuade her to sign the budget?
Each week of delay brings new problems, besides the obvious issue that the state is spending more money than it has—and is on the way to going broke.
Last week, the deadline passed to put a sales-tax referral on the November ballot, so now, Dec. 8 is the soonest an election can be held—and if it gets much later than that, we're into the holiday season, which screws up political calculations.
This week, lawmakers passed the deadline to permanently repeal a statewide property tax that's been suspended for three years.
Most of the media focus has been on how the taxes will be going back up as a result of the inability of Brewer and state lawmakers to make a budget deal. But we think the tax, which raises $250 million annually, ought to remain in place. The state desperately needs the money; last week, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee released a report that showed the state facing shortfalls of $2 billion to $3 billion in each of the upcoming years.
The impact of the tax on most households is relatively minor. The average homeowners will pay less than $100 a year in additional taxes, which comes out to about $10 a month. While every little bit counts in these hard times, it's a small price to pay to help balance the state's books and prevent more cuts to social programs, universities, state parks and everything else that's on the chopping block.
The real winners if the tax goes away permanently: big commercial property owners like Wal-Mart and utilities like Southwest Gas.
Nonetheless, a permanent elimination of the tax is a priority of GOP leaders, who sent out a letter last week assuring county officials responsible for sending out tax bills that they intended to do away with the tax, and urging them to delay the printing of tax bills for as long as possible.
Former Tucson Citizen associate editor Mark Kimble is joining the communications staff of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. We think Gabby should put him in charge of organizing town halls for the tea-partiers.
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