House Call

Tucson City Attorney Michael House faces criticism for legal advice he offers City Council.

His critics contend Tucson City Attorney Michael House wields "absolute and arbitrary power" in some cases while being "very conservative" much of the time. These community activists are compiling a growing list of complaints about House's legal opinions, especially as they have an impact on public involvement in the decision-making process.

House defends himself, pointing out that he doesn't make decisions, but only gives advice to the City Council and other municipal departments. At least for now, members of the council seem supportive of the attorney they appointed 17 months ago.

But a year ago, Pastor Lee Norris May of the Prince Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church filed an appeal with City Council of a Planning Department decision. He wanted to halt demolition of the First Congregational Church on University Boulevard. May hoped to buy the building for his own parish, even though another offer had been accepted that would result in the structure's destruction.

Citing a provision of the Tucson Land Use Code that allows appeals in the city's historic districts from "any other person aggrieved by the decision," May sought a hearing before council. But House informed him that "it is my determination that you do not have the necessary legal position to appeal."

In a recent interview, House explained his stance. "An aggrieved party," he said, "is defined by case law to mean someone specially damaged with a unique injury applicable to them, and not to the public as a whole. The [AME] Church did not show that it had that kind of stake since it had no legal interest in the property."

When the "aggrieved party" clause was developed almost a decade ago, though, that type of very narrow interpretation was not contemplated. Sharon Chadwick helped write the historic district provisions and remembers " the term 'aggrieved party' was not intended to limit who could appeal a decision. Anybody should be able to appeal was the intent."

Despite that, House's decision stood and the church building on University Boulevard is now gone. Pastor May never even had a chance to address City Council about the issue.

Another recent appeal that the council did not hear was filed by local historian Ken Scoville, who had concerns about a construction project planned by the Tucson Museum of Art.

Scoville argued that as a taxpayer he was an "aggrieved party," but again the city attorney's office ruled he was not. "The city has decided it doesn't want citizen input anymore," Scoville said. "I've never seen it this bad in 17 years [of public involvement]."

Unbeknownst to either May or Scoville, there is a process through which they at least could have appealed House's determination to deny their initial appeals. House indicated they could have tried to reverse his opinion in front of the Board of Adjustment.

When told of that possibility, Scoville was livid. "They never told me that. I spent one year on this, now I'm informed by the media and not the city. I feel shafted."

Also not looking kindly on Michael House right now are opponents of the upcoming transportation sales tax election. Some of them have filed a lawsuit, seeking to require that the ballot measure comply with provisions of the "Neighborhood Protection Amendment" in the city's own charter.

That 1985 voter-approved initiative mandates that information concerning the location, design and cost of limited-access roadways be placed directly on the ballot. For the scheduled May election, however, the city will put this material, about three proposed grade-separated interchanges, in the publicity pamphlet that is mailed to every registered voter and available at polling places.

House said he believes this meets the requirements of the law. But Joy Herr-Cardillo, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which has gone to court seeking to overturn the measure, disagreed.

"It's not House's decision to make about where the information goes," she said. "He and the city have no right to ignore the charter. People may or may not read the publicity pamphlet and the only way to ensure the voters have the information at the time they vote is to put it on the ballot."

The City Attorney also has been faulted by some neighborhood residents for his handling of the former Drachman School site controversy. In that case, House recommended the use of an "Overlay Zone" approach. This process was intended to fast-track the review process, but limited the amount of public input into the decision-making, according to his critics.

In addition, House's office has interjected itself into decisions about who will receive the city's "Back-to-Basic" grants. He defends this action, saying it is important the city comply with state law concerning gifts. "We can't put in improvements that primarily benefit individuals," he said, "and can't improve private property."

Some of those involved with the program complain that projects that were formally funded are no longer considered because of new interpretations of the law. They feel House is being too restrictive about use of the money.

While opponents publicly and privately blast House, he recently has taken steps to address one criticism. Several weeks ago, Arizona Daily Star reporter Joe Burchell pointed out a longstanding procedure that limits the public's right to know about the costs of city legal settlements if they are decided by the council in a closed-door executive session.

Saying that he was sensitive to the issue, House discussed the matter with the council in another executive session February 4. After that meeting, the City Attorney said that once future legal settlements are concluded, informational memos about the outcomes will be sent to elected officials. Then he quickly added, perhaps realizing that the public would still be kept out of the loop by this action, "and it may be included in the weekly agenda materials." Those documents, at least, are available for public inspection.

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