Moot Suit

A Last-Ditch Legal Effort By The Amphi Board's Ruling Majority Can't Forestall The Recall.

THERE ARE THOSE among the nearly 63,000 voters in the Amphitheater Unified School District who believed it was time for school board election.

Members of Amphi's powerful and stubborn ruling majority were not among them.

Their dread manifest itself again Monday in a last-minute, last-ditch and ultimately hopeless effort in court to deny the public's right to vote in a May 16 recall election in which they are targeted for removal.

Judge John F. Kelly of Pima County Superior Court rejected the attempt by Bruce Heurlin, a lawyer for Amphi Board President Gary Woodard and longtime Amphi board members Virginia Houston and Richard Scott, to stop the election and shift the matter to a trial on the recall petitions that Parents as Children's Advocates filed in December.

The request by Heurlin, already rebuffed by Kelly on March 28 after asking for the judge to order county Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez to re-examine the petitions, came as voting in the recall election was already in its third day. Early voting, for absentee voters and others, began April 13.

Forty-four ballots had already been cast on the day Heurlin told Kelly that he and his clients thought it was a good idea for court review of what they claim were faulty petition signatures. And, according to figures from the Recorder's Office, 210 requests for early ballots had been received.

"You think they'd take a clue that people were already voting," said Mary Schuh, the longtime Amphi parent and grandparent and fierce government watchdog who is seeking to oust Woodard in the recall.

It was not clear if Heurlin or his clients realized the recall was underway. Heurlin did not return a call seeking comment.

In court he focused on the county's work to print ballots on March 31 -- 17 days before he showed up back in court on his second attempt to stop the election.

County officials, Heurlin said, "chose to expedite" matters by printing ballots early.

Kelly looked toward the county officials gathered and asked flatly if the county "expedited" the printing.

Bemused at the charge that they rushed a print job, the county officials in Heurlin's view -- D. Scott Little, chief deputy to the county schools superintendent; Christopher Roads, the registrar of voters; and Paula N. Wilk, a deputy county attorney -- calmly pointed out that ballots were printed on the last possible day. Moreover, Wilk said, the dates for ballot preparation and for early voting are spelled out in state and federal laws and are not chosen at the whim of county officials.

The muddled legal strategy from Woodard, Houston and Scott seemed to worsen after the March 27 hearing. Kelly's ruling, the following day, did not order re-evalution by Rodriguez, a Democrat who is completing her second term. But it also did not altogether dismiss the complaint that Woodard and his allies filed. But it took them another three weeks to get back to Superior Court.

By then, Wilk argued, it was too late according to a doctrine known in court as laches, which signifies only undue lapse of time in enforcing a right of action and negligence in failing to act more promptly. It also upsets the balance in court.

"We've done everything we can do," Heurlin pleaded.

"Although the court on March 28 declined to find that this action was barred by laches, the ballots have now been printed and votes have been taken," Kelly wrote. "The court finds that the overall delay is unreasonable and that prejudice would result from granting the injunction that (Woodard, Houston and Scott) seek. The plaintiffs had the option of presenting the evidence that they now seek to present at the earlier hearing and chose not to do so. Laches now bars this action."

The matter now rests with voters in the 16,000-student district. Results from the last three rounds of elections are reason for Woodard, a political aspirant who once sought an easy route to the City Council through appointment to the northside Ward 3 office, and the others to worry. Reformers Nancy Young Wright, who won an Amphi seat in 1996, and Ken Smith, who won one two years ago, had no trouble appealing to voters and leading their respective ballots. Houston's strong years appear to have faded, while Woodard and Scott have turned in mediocre to poor performances at the polls, canvasses show. Scott retained his seat in 1992 by a mere 38 votes.

Joining Schuh on the ballot are Kent Barrabee, a Pima Community College instructor who is taking on Scott; and Mike Prout, an administrator at the University of Arizona space sciences, who is seeking to oust Houston.

While the recall was given another in a series of green lights, Smith still awaits a decision from Judge Kenneth Lee of Pima County Superior Court. Smith was targeted by Amphi administrators, including the board's counsel Todd Jaeger, for removal because his wife, Barbara Smith, is a participant in the district's early retirement program and serves in a variety of jobs for the district, including tutoring, at least 20 days a year.

Jaeger got the county schools superintendent's office to press the matter with the County Attorney's Office, claiming Ken Smith is violating state law that forbids school board members from having spouses working for the school district.

Barbara Smith sat in court Monday listening to the majority's last gasp. She did a little needlepoint and wore the familiar "I voted" sticker given to voters.

She could have told Heurlin the party was starting.

"I was 31st (voter)," she said.

Still, the board upheaval has not slowed the selection of a replacement to retiring Superintendent Robert Smith, a board majority loyalist.

The short list includes Vicki Balentine, an assistant superintendent at Tucson Unified School District, Thomas McCraley, regional director for ABS School Services and former superintendent at Osceola County, Fla.; and Julian Stafford, superintendent of the New London Public Schools in New London, Conn.