Back In The Saddle Again

Former County Manager Enrique Serna Returns To A High Post In Pima Government.

INTOXICATED WITH THEIR historic control of Pima County, Republican members of the Board of Supervisors ascended the dais on January 4 seven years ago, blew off temporarily enfeebled Democratic colleagues and began their costly and ultimately failed experiment.

Taking his seat as he had for more than three years, County Manager Erique Serna was but a few feet from the GOP majority consisting of Ed Moore and followers Mike Boyd and Paul Marsh.

In what was to be an organizational meeting traditionally marked by minimal business mixed with modest celebration, Moore's crew -- prepped by long hours of reorganization lessons and pep talks all held in secret -- sunk the mood to match that of an execution.

First to go was Serna, the Texas-born and Texas-educated manager who led what was arguably the most effective management team the county has had. Remarkably composed, Serna accepted the vote and simply asked to be excused. He walked out of the crowded hearing room to a standing ovation.

That hit started the carnage that didn't stop until Manoj Vyas, the man Moore, Boyd and Marsh chose to succeed Serna, had carried out their orders and fired or demoted 12 more top county executives.

Busting fat-cat bureaucrats would usually not cause so much as a ripple of concern beyond the political vines. But this was different. The GOP reorganization was such a monumental failure that hitman Vyas fell victim 11 months later. A pandering tax cut combined with horrific misspending drained the $20 million surplus that Serna and his top administrators, Bruce Postil and Chuck Huckelberry, had built. Moreover, taxpayers shelled out more than $5 million in settlements and legal fees because the Moore-Boyd-Marsh-Vyas plan was so full of error.

Postil, then the deputy manager, also got the ax. Huckelberry was demoted into oblivion. But he returned in December 1993 to sweep up Vyas's mess. Postil led a group that won a $3 million settlement two years later.

And now, less than a month after Huckelberry lured Postil back to cure the county of the crippling problems in its health care system, Serna also is back.

While Postil, who also will advise Huckelberry and the Board of Supervisors on its major league spring training and AAA baseball operations, is on a consulting contract, Serna is fully in the fold.

He began his $115,000-a-year as a deputy county administrator job two days after Christmas. He will be in charge of the county's office of Youth, Families and Neighborhood Reinvestment.

And with all the county and daily press giddy about the county's ambitious environmental protection effort, the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, Serna also will focus on the human side, enunciated flatly by Democratic Supervisor Dan Eckstrom during one of the favorable votes on the Sonoran Desert plan as the Sonoran Desert People Protection Plan.

"He can help us out," Eckstrom says. "Frankly, we have a lot of areas that are falling apart. And times are not going to get any easier."

Serna succeeded by letting his managers manage. And he could energize even the downtrodden public workers.

"That team was the best I've seen in Pima County," says Eckstrom, the senior board member with nearly 12 years.

Only Boyd remains from that one-time Republican majority. He says he's happy Serna is back and in the job he is in.

"I always said he's a quality guy, but not in the top position," Boyd says. "Of all the people let go, I felt worst about Enrique and Bruce. Bruce, while he didn't go out of his way to make friends, is smart and a problem solver. Serna is a good public servant and the nicest guy. Live and learn."

Supervisor Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who had a full briefing from Boyd seven years ago on who would be canned, says Serna's hiring is "a good redemption. He deserves to be back."

It isn't as if Serna has been lost in the wilderness for the last seven years.

While his lawsuit failed -- courts ruled that Boards of Supervisors are not bound to keep holdover administrators, and administrators serve at the pleasure of their boards -- Serna returned to small-town administration. He piloted Guadalupe, bordering Phoenix and Tempe, for nearly five years. Before he won the surprising vote to be Pima County manager in December 1989, Serna was the manager for South Tucson.

Serna then joined the consulting engineering firm Collins-Pina as the Tucson branch manager in 1997. Partners Jerry Collins and Raul Piña sold to Tetra Tech, one of the country's biggest engineering companies, but maintain operations and staffs here.

It was away from government, Serna says, that he got a different, sometimes clearer view of government.

"It was wonderful," says Serna, who turns 54 on January 12. "I am really glad I had that experience. I didn't expect to learn as much in the private sector including about government. I gained an appreciation of the criticism that people have of some, not all, in public service," Serna says.

And about the feeling returning to the county after being dumped from the top job seven years ago?

"Seven years all of sudden flashed before my eyes even though there are a lot of new faces," Serna says. "But I was really humbled by the kindness from a number of employees."

The People Protection Plan will be patterned after the successes of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, Serna says. It will rely on the same type of public input, the type dramatically lacking from county planning previously.

No longer will engineers and planners simply tell a neighborhood where a road, sewer line, lights, park or flood control project will be, Serna says. Communities, instead, will tell the government.

Part of the task will be allocating the $10 million, a relatively small component of the county's successful 1997 bond election, for neighborhood reinvestment.

There is no shortage of need -- health, safety, recreation -- and no lack of connection between social infrastructure and public facilities, Serna says. Underscoring it all is a back-to-basics philosophy that city government has begun and that, in a sharp departure for the constant need for road widenings on the congested northwest side, means sidewalks along South 12th Avenue for the elderly and families to use to walk to church or the reconnecting of South Tucson and southside communities split by freeways or washes.

"I'm glad to get my public juices going," Serna said. "The prospects are very exciting."