Bloodbath at City Hall

City Manager Mike Hein got along with lots of people—but not four members of the City Council

When Mike Hein took the reins of city government in 2005, he was hailed as a man who could reach out to feuding jurisdictions and bring peace to a troubled region.

The business community, led by restaurateur Bob McMahon, loved him. Environmentalists like Carolyn Campbell, who dealt with him when he worked for Marana and Pima County, embraced him. Developers felt as though they could trust him.

Hein enjoyed close relations Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who then had recently hired Hein as an assistant county manager. He had ties to former employers in Marana, South Tucson and Nogales. He had the respect of the southside Dan Eckstrom machine.

Even Tucson's hardest-to-please journalist, the late Chris Limberis, praised Hein's "lack of ego and presumptuousness" in a glowing Weekly profile that examined the Wisconsin native's humble beginnings and rise to the top of Tucson.

"Mike Hein is a relaxed, fit man with a calm demeanor and self-deprecatory manner," Limberis wrote. "A lifelong athlete, he is not too pious to have a cigarette. He is polite, but he isn't overly impressed. He is nice, but he isn't weak, and you quickly get the impression that he won't be the one to back down from a fight."

In his four years leading the city, Hein delivered on many fronts. He forged new cooperative agreements with Pima County, convincing the jurisdiction to take over the libraries, a move that will eventually save the city $10 million a year. He aided in the effort to create a Regional Transportation Authority. Last year, Hein and Huckleberry launched an ambitious effort to get a grip on the region's water supply.

Mayor Bob Walkup remembered that the previous city manager, Jim Keene, was regularly "locking horns" with Huckelberry, but once Hein took over, "the conflict almost disappeared."

Working with UA lobbyists and GOP leaders at the Legislature, Hein was able to extend the life of Rio Nuevo, the city's downtown-redevelopment funding. The changes meant that over the next decade or so, the city was slated to receive hundreds of millions of additional sales-tax dollars to spend on downtown projects.

Hein also moved forward on the City Council's sustainability plan, paving more residential streets and hiring more cops and firefighters. He trimmed the city staff, using an early-retirement incentive to persuade longtime employees to depart. He got rid of high-end bureaucrats and engaged in more direct management of city departments.

But as budget pressures grew, and downtown redevelopment sputtered through rapidly changing plans, Hein began to run afoul of City Council members. Last summer, Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal made an unsuccessful push to fire Hein after the manager tangled with Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich over a proposal to raise bus fares. Hein cut short a vacation to salvage his job and got a 7-0 vote of confidence from the mayor and council.

But the underlying tensions continued to build as the city budget was strained by the failing national economy. In recent months, Hein had been warning council members that they would have to cut as much as $80 million from next year's budget. The options he offered them included employee furloughs, department mergers, fee increases and cuts to various agencies.

Instead, he was the one on the chopping block, as four of the Democrats on the City Council—Uhlich, Leal, Regina Romero and Shirley Scott—voted to fire him last week after a brief evaluation behind closed doors.

Assistant City Manager Mike Letcher has moved into the top spot for now, but he is scheduled to retire in November. Council members still need to determine whether to do a national search or find local talent to serve as the next manager.

The Democrats who voted to fire Hein were mostly evasive when asked why they axed the city manager (who will receive roughly $100,000 in severance pay), but it ultimately came down, in Uhlich's words, to a lack of "trust and confidence" in him.

Scott, who represents the eastside's Ward 4, said she didn't want to discuss the reasons she fired Hein.

"We really don't go into details when it comes to personnel matters," Scott said. "We need to talk more about the next steps in our bright future as opposed to any of the minutiae of the details."

Romero was most openly critical of the deposed city manager, saying she was unhappy with his financial management and the lack of progress on downtown development.

"It's time for a new direction," Romero said. "We need to look forward."

Walkup—who did not want Hein fired—sharply disagreed with Romero's criticism of Hein's budget management.

"I think Mike, in comparison to almost any other city in the state, has performed financially in a superior way," Walkup said. "I had great trust in the city manager to do the right things."

Ward 6 City Councilwoman Nina Trasoff was also unhappy with the decision, saying her colleagues chose a lousy time to fire Hein, given that he was in the midst of preparing a budget and fighting to persuade lawmakers not to strip the city of the Rio Nuevo funding.

"I completely disagree with the decision that my colleagues made," said Trasoff, "but they've made it, and now it's time for us to move on and protect Rio Nuevo and keep the downtown work going and get our budget going and work on the behalf of the citizens of this community."

Ward 2 Councilman Rodney Glassman was "disappointed" by Hein's firing. He praised the manager and his staff for helping him with his pet projects, including making a deal with the Tucson Unified School District to use school campuses as parks in the afternoons and increasing water-conservation measures.

"He was working well with our office, and I was not hearing concerns from my colleagues," said Glassman, who suggested that his fellow council members could have provided Hein with clearer budget options. "The city manager can only be as strong as the policy direction they receive from the mayor and council."

Business leaders were also upset. Developer Don Diamond made a point of visiting KUAT Channel 6's Arizona Illustrated to express his unhappiness with what he called a "dysfunctional" City Council.

Perhaps the biggest immediate problem for the Democrats is persuading Republican lawmakers to continue funding Rio Nuevo after Hein's dismissal. Although Uhlich and Romero said that they thought lawmakers would be happy with the decision to can Hein, they may have misunderstood the GOP's concerns.

Republican state Sen. Jonathan Paton, who has been pushing to preserve Rio Nuevo funding with a reform plan at the Capitol, said that firing Hein significantly undermined the city's credibility among Maricopa lawmakers. He is now trying to figure out a way to bring in a new oversight board and strip the city of any control of future Rio Nuevo funding.

"He was the only guy left in the city that the business community could trust, and without him there, I think that the business community is going to write the city off," Paton said. "And you can say the same thing about the Legislature, too. They already have written Rio Nuevo off. The day after his firing, I looked at the budget, and it was out."

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