Ward 5 City Councilman Steve Leal Has Usurped George Miller's Role As The Big Kahuna.
By Ed Cuestas
TUCSON'S NEXT mayoral election isn't until November of 1999, but Steve Leal has decided he doesn't want to wait that long. Rather than bothering with that pesky electoral process, Leal has taken over the reins of city government by fiat--determining what will go on the Council agenda, dominating the meetings and now, in the latest flap with his fellow Council members, creating a park for his own southside Ward 5 by circumventing the process and pillaging other wards' projects for the money.
How did this happen? First, Mayor George Miller, who really should perform the ultimate public service and retire, only ran in 1995 because it galled him to think that Bruce Wheeler was going to sit in His Chair on the 10th floor.
Wheeler's faults aside for a moment (and granted, that's a long moment), Miller has proven the recent finding that the male aging process involves a shrinking brain and a heavy dose of grumpiness. Yeah, sure, he likes to appear to be kindly ol' Grandpa George, but he has a vindictive streak the width of his broad back, a trait shared by his staff, who persistently referred to Wheeler in private as "that criminal."
With the campaign focused on beating Wheeler into the ground and basking in the admiration of those voters who pumped him up as he went door to door, Miller lost sight of what was sneaking up behind him--Proposition 200 and Steve Leal.
Leal is the ultimate politician, his index finger aloft not in righteous indignation, but moistened to see which way the wind is blowing.
He had his eyes on the prize and saw that Prop 200 was likely to pass--and if it didn't, the only enmity he risked was that of Tucson Water's own Kent McClain, hardly a threat. And once it did pass and he began to waver, he got pulled out of a Council study session by Myra Jones, a Prop 200 activist, and told in no uncertain terms that if he didn't toe the line, the Prop 200 folks would marshal their forces and mount his recall.
Leal's former strength was to be the consummate fence straddler. Did you catch the insipid taxpayer-financed newspaper piece about the Council members in December where they chirped about their favorite foods and movies? Typical Leal response: He likes "all kinds of foods." But sensing Miller's loosening grip on the reins of the city, Leal has got down off the fence, climbed up alongside Miller on the Old Pueblo's lead coach and grabbed the reins.
How could Miller let this happen? Perhaps because he was so focused on issues of vital importance to the city like Sister Cities, U.S.S. Tucson and ridding City Hall of those uncomfortable residents--the homeless and Molly McKasson?
Leal is vice-mayor, a position intended to fill in for the Mayor as chair of the Council meetings in Miller's absence, or to act as his substitute in all those important ribbon cuttings that consume the Mayor's energies. But the Vice-mayor has also become the chair of the Agenda Committee meetings, held weekly to review scheduled items or placement of new ones. These weekly meetings were formerly collegial gatherings headed by Janet Marcus (motto: Let's all try to get along) with eloquent readings of imminent topics by Kathy Detrick and occasional requests for ceremonial items interspersed with banter among the staff and those Council aides present. Now, the mood of the Agenda Committee has taken on a tense and hostile tone as Vice-mayor Leal controls what the Council will get to consider.
It doesn't matter that a fellow Council member requested an item be discussed during the regular session; the day after the Monday meeting that item is suddenly found at the end of a long list on that fateful page marked "Future Agendas." (Read: When I'm good and ready to give it a date). Requests in the agenda meetings to move items up for discussion are dismissed by the Vice-mayor for a variety of reasons, such as an already over-long meeting (so stop talking so much), or the staff not being ready (What? City Manager Michael Brown's staff can crank out pages on any topic overnight) or we're not ready to discuss it yet. In the latter instance, the item is relegated to a subcommittee, which, with the exception of Marcus' Environmental Subcommittee or McKasson's Community Services Subcommittee, never meet.
How did the Vice-mayor's position get so powerful? It's anyone's guess. According to the Council's own rules and regulations and administrative directives, the Agenda Committee is made up of "elected officials appointed by the governing body," various necessary staff and a chair appointed by the Mayor. Nowhere does it state the Vice-mayor is chair.
And while the chair does have the power to place items or delete them from the agenda, that decision can be overridden by a vote of four members present. Scarcely any other Council members show up for the meetings, instead sending their aides. And good luck getting an override vote from the bunch of sheep who pose as Council aides. Some of their bosses are getting steamed about Leal's high-handedness, but, true to form, no one has spoken up publicly, none of them attend the Agenda Committee and they'll probably continue to take it until Leal's term is up.
One recent flap concerns Freedom Park, a recreational facility that Leal wants for Ward 5. Part of his enthusiasm comes from the politician's natural need for pork for his ward, another comes from the issues Leal's ward has historically faced, though whether a park will fix these is problematic. The biggest driving force for Freedom Park has come from the Pima County Interfaith Council (PCIC), who want it, and Leal is doing everything in his power to appease this very influential group who could get him elected in a heartbeat. In his sycophantic zeal to placate PCIC, Leal had the Council vote on Freedom Park (illegally as it turns out, because it wasn't even on the agenda), put it back on the agenda despite protests from Councilman Mike Crawford, who wanted to discuss funding his own Ward's projects, and complaints from McKasson that there is no existing Council policy on placement of parks.
Funding for Freedom Park is another interesting matter where Leal is ahead of the pack. First, he raided money slated for Shirley Scott's ward, and she rolled over in the face of a confrontation with him. Then, he set his sights on the Community Development Block Grant money that is annually awarded to social service agencies. Now, he is toying with the idea of sacking the City's re-investment funds that accrue from annexations. His ingenious idea is to apportion the money to the adjacent ward. And what do you know? Ward 5 would haul in $640,000 next year alone, with the next nearest ward getting $102,000. Ward 3 at least gets $78,000 to play with, while wards 2 and 4 max out at $12,000 and $6,000 respectively. Oh, so sorry, Ward 6. Mid-town doesn't have anything to annex, and so it won't be getting any of this pot.
Will the Council lay down and be a carpet for the rampant ambitions of Steve Leal? If their ineffectual protestations to his manipulation of the process are the extent of the opposition, Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce our next mayor, Steve Leal.
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