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A seemingly clear city ordinance regarding 'A' Mountain sparks tortured explanations

This Iraq mess spawns whoppers like a hog farm breeds flies. Consider "mission accomplished." Or those WMDs. Or that radioactive gunk from Africa called yellowcake. In fact, it's not even from Africa, although President George W. Bush said it was.

Sometimes, these whoppers even hit close to home. A few years back, when the Tucson City Council voted to paint the "A" on "A" Mountain in the colors of Old Glory, flag-wavers pledged to keep the huge vowel forever sparkling in its patriotic glory.

Four years later, those weekend patriots are nowhere to be found.

When the City Council voted in 2003 for the patriotic repainting, the stated intent was to honor the troops. But spend an hour in any parking lot in town, and half the folks you chat up will swear those colors are aimed at supporting the war.

And finally, take a gander at the ordinance itself, forged in snarky City Council meetings stretching over a weekend. When it was done, the council had voted for the repainting, but it was to be a strictly volunteer affair. And if those volunteers turned flaky, the city was to repaint that "A" white.

On this point, the 2003 ordinance is frank. It lists procedures for permitting volunteer groups to spruce up the "A," such as notifying the parks director beforehand, and signing waivers for liability, in case they happen to get wounded-in-painting.

According to the ordinance, volunteer groups are to continue repainting the "A" at their own expense until the "current conflict in the Middle East is resolved."

If those groups bail, the parks department then issues a press release seeking other volunteers to step up to the plate. If there are no takers, the ordinance has a prescription for that, too. And it reads thusly:

"Should no community group be granted a permit with(in) 72 hours of the press release, then current city policy should be enforced and the 'A' should be repainted white."

Seems pretty cut-and-dried, right? Think again.

Start asking city officials, and they'll tell you that sentence means exactly the opposite of what it says it means. Or something like that. The upshot: Contrary to the ordinance, the city is now repainting the "A" red, white and blue on the taxpayer's dime. That runs upwards of $5,000 a pop.

So what gives? To find out, we contacted Fred Gray, head of the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees "A" Mountain. Gray came to his post in 2004, long after that tense City Council vote. "But in talking to my staff," he says, "it was pretty clear to me--based on the information they have witnessed and heard and understood at the council meeting--that it was the intention to keep (the 'A') red, white and blue until the council directed otherwise. I know that's a little conflicting with what the policy says."

Well, yes, one might say that. However, City Attorney Mike Rankin contends that Gray is right on the money. "I think staff's interpretation of the motion is reasonable," he says. "It's going to be status quo until the council gives additional direction."

The same answer comes from Assistant City Manager Liz Miller, who says the colors remain "until the council addresses the issue." When it's suggested that the council has already been there and done that--and in no uncertain terms--Miller gets ornery. "I'm not going to argue with you about it," she says.

Since this all seems so darned baffling, we decided to ask a Tucson Unified School District fifth-grader to clear things up for us. School confidentiality rules keep us from using the young fellow's real name. So we'll refer to him as The Amazing Karnak. After reading through the ordinance a couple of times, The Amazing Karnak was ready to opine. "This means that, if volunteer groups fail to get a permit and do the maintenance work," he says, "then the city will repaint it white."

We then canvassed Mayor Bob Walkup and various council members to find out why this ordinance wasn't being followed. Mayor Walkup didn't return a month's worth of calls from the Tucson Weekly. But his wife, Beth Walkup, did answer the phone--and offered a ready opinion. "I think there was lot of confusion, and there are a lot of different things in (the ordinance)," she says. "But I think the council intended for the 'A' to remain red, white and blue."

Back in 2003, Ward One Councilman José Ibarra had been a flip-flopper regarding his vote for the "A." Perhaps Ibarra is avoiding a rerun; neither the councilman nor his aide, Maritza Broce, returned several calls from the Weekly.

However, Ward 4 Councilwoman Shirley Scott quickly sniffed out the ordinance's weasel word. "If you're going to get down to wordsmithing," she explains, "it says if people can't maintain (the 'A'), then it 'should' be returned to white."

Put another way, "should" is just one notch above a dainty suggestion. "I don't think there's a mandate in there one way or another to change what we put in place," Scott says.

This mess raises a question: Do city staffers have their own "A" agenda, or are they just trying to protect council members from another ugly "A" Mountain dust-up?

That raises a wry chuckle from Ward Five Councilman Steve Leal. "You could change the subject matter," he says, "and have those be two of three possible choices for understanding any issue in the city."

Still, change may loom on the horizon. Democrats are holding President Bush's feet to the fire. And according to Ward Two Councilwoman Carol West, the "A" may yet get another look.

Not that she savors replaying that ugly weekend in 2003. "It was one of the nastiest things I've even been through," she says. "There were two votes. On the first one, I voted to keep the 'A' white. I can remember people following me out of the council chambers, yelling and screaming and waving things at me. No one hit me, but they came close.

"So when (the council) had a reconsideration, I held my nose and just went ahead and voted for the red, white and blue, even though I hated it."

Calling herself "a traditionalist," West says she'd like to see the "A" back in its original color, which is no color at all. "Maybe the next time somebody goes up and paints it, and we ask them to repaint and they don't do it, we just repaint it white."

Imagine that.

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