Good Intentions

Supervisor got no-bid contract for consulting on South 12th road project before he joined board.

Supervisor Richard Elias, who has defended Pima County's troubled road building program while seeking to limit an audit of those bond projects, received a no-bid $25,000 contract in 1998 to drum up support for improvements along South 12th Avenue.

Though he received high marks from two of his sponsors, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and former Supervisor Raul Grijalva, Elias made no mention of that work as he sought and won appointment to succeed Grijalva, who resigned in February to run for Congress.

Huckelberry was quick to point out that Elias billed only a fraction, about a fifth, for his public outreach with business and other property owners along the South 12th project that will extend from West 38th Street to Los Reales. There is a clear answer why Elias didn't collect $25,000.

"He didn't finish," Grijalva said. "He transitioned into something else at the county."

Indeed, Elias took a fulltime, but also bond-related, job with the county in November 1999 as senior housing project coordinator. He was making $52,047 a year when he won appointment to the $54,600-a-year job that Grijalva abandoned after 13 years to pursue bigger political ambitions.

It was during an earlier transition, after he left his job at Chicanos Por La Causa, that Elias, 43, landed the public outreach contract for South 12th Avenue, a project controversial for its slow start, design and planning cost overruns and inflated price tag. As part of a $350-million bond package, county voters approved $9 million for improvements to South 12th Avenue in a special 1997 election. Projected costs skyrocketed to between $34 million and $45 million, when parks, river parks and mercados were added.

Huckelberry now says the South 12th roadwork will be confined to the $9 million in bonds. Federal and other funds, including from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, could be tapped for linear parks and other features.

It was Elias' experience on South 12th Avenue, Huckelberry said, that qualified him for the work. Elias opened an office for Chicanos Por La Causa, a community development agency that also relies on county, city, state and federal grants and contributions, on South 12th Avenue.

Although Huckelberry says it was "probably through Raul (Grijalva) that he met Elias in 1997, he does not recall how Elias made the contact for the South 12th Avenue contract. "You got me." Huckelberry said. "I think he was just available and could do the work."

Elias said he was looking for work after leaving Chicanos Por La Causa. The resume he submitted when he topped 11 others who wanted to be a supervisor puts his departure from Chicanos Por La Causa at May 1999. His contract for South 12th Avenue work and another, for $5,000 for housing consultation, were approved eight months earlier, records show.

And although Elias knew Grijalva-"I've always known Raul," he said-it was Alonzo Morado, a political operative who then worked for Wells Fargo, who helped him get consulting work. Morado is married to Lorraine Lee, the vice president of Chicanos Por La Causa.

"I probably went in and talked to Huckelberry," Elias said. He reported to Jim Barry, an executive aide for Huckelberry.

"My job was solely to tell people the road (improvement) was coming and that the county or the consultants would be coming to talk to them and to think of ideas and how it might affect them," Elias said. It was a door-to-door operation that Grijalva said succeeded with all but perhaps three or four business owners.

Although most of the project is in the southside panhandle of the Grijalva-Elias District 5, it extended north of Ajo Way to touch part of Democratic Supervisor Dan Eckstrom's home precincts in District 2. Eckstrom said last week that he didn't know that Elias had a county contract, even though he, Grijalva, Democrat Sharon Bronson and Republican Ray Carroll voted to approve it and another on the 79-item consent agenda on Sept. 1, 1998. Mike Boyd, a Republican then in his last year, was absent from that meeting.

Previously Eckstrom, during an acrimonious review of the road bonds in December, sharply admonished Huckelberry and other bureaucrats to do more than keep him in the loop. Said Eckstrom: "In my district, I want to know what's taking place and what's being recommended rather than having somebody unilaterally at the staff level make a determination as to what they think is in the best interest of the district I represent."

Sections of South 12th Avenue handle as many as 20,000 cars a day. Volume increases at intersections, such as Valencia Road, where nearly 40,000 cars pass daily. The project has been controversial partly because of contracts given to two of Grijalva's key political backers.

Collins-Pina, absorbed by Tetra Tech and then headed by Grijalva backer Raul Pina, and a firm headed by former county transportation director Frank Castro landed no-bid contracts for design and planning. Grijalva justified that by saying the firms had the necessary "cultural sensitivity." But the contracts, which began at $100,000 each, jumped by another $275,000. Collins-Pina jacked its contract up by another $800,000. Those budget busters have fueled calls for investigations and thorough audits.

Elias said he "had no part" in any of the work or contracts that are contained in "any of the allegations or irregularities."

"I don't think I did anything wrong," Elias said. "I did the work that I was asked to do."

Huckelberry, in a December 2000 memo to supervisors, said South 12th Avenue was "unique. At first Supervisor Grijalva ... simply wanted the South 12th Avenue project completed by county staff so that it could be a 'showcase' of how county staff can compete with the private sector." But because staff was too busy, Huckelberry said, "not long after this experiment started it became a failure."

Elias said there is no longer a need for a consultant to work with South 12th Avenue merchants and neighbors. Work on the southern end, between Calle Lerdo and Los Reales, is beginning under a $3.9 million contract that supervisors awarded Granite Construction.

There have been numerous questions about the 57-project county road plan. Only a half dozen projects have been completed. Voters approved $350 million in gas taxes on a transportation plan that has now risen to $670 million.

Elias, who must defend his seat against Democrat Frank Felix in a special primary election on Sept. 10, has been left to defend a plan he largely inherited. He joined a unanimous vote last week backing Republican Ann Day's call for an audit by state Auditor General Debra K. Davenport, though he and fellow Democrats have consistently said they don't want a full audit of projects that have not been completed. That would exclude how millions of dollars have been spent for ongoing projects.

"I haven't seen," Elias said, "any direct proof of any irregularities."

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