Loose Ends

A look back at stories from the past year or so.

Terrorism, its impacts and aftermath, was the topic that dominated the national news this year. It distracted most people locally, too. Less than two months after the terrorist attacks, Tucson held a City Council election about which not very many people, including some Democratic Party officials, seemed to care.

The victors of that campaign will have to deal with transportation issues, the non-terrorism story that received the most Tucson media coverage in 2001. An upcoming May election to raise the sales tax primarily for road work may turn into an interesting debate during the coming months.

Legal and procedural battles between citizens and the bureaucracy were the focus of many stories in the Weekly during the past 12 months. These ranged from one individual taking on the U.S. Census Bureau over his treatment by the federal establishment to thousands of people seeking compensation from the City of Tucson for damages caused by Central Arizona Project water years ago.

COVERAGE OF THESE struggles actually began late last year with the first of several stories about neighborhood efforts to save the old Drachman School in Tucson's downtown barrio. Many nearby residents wanted to convert the building into a community center and to preserve it as a symbol of the area's history. Others, however, thought it should be torn down so the land could be used for a senior-citizen housing project.

After a sit-in by mostly elderly opponents temporarily delayed demolition by the City of Tucson, government officials controlled an ensuing mediation process. Then the came an "overlay zone" legal maneuver never used in Tucson before, and the City Council approved the housing proposal in June by a 4-3 vote. Yet even though much of the old structure has now been demolished, the story is far from over.

When the council narrowly approved the overlay zone, it labeled the new project a "residential care facility." The overlay process was used to facilitate speedy approval of the proposal by the federal government, which is paying most of the cost of the housing project. The land-use classification was chosen to decrease the number of parking spaces required by the 62-unit complex.

Time was of the essence, Tucson leaders were told repeatedly, because construction had to be underway before December 17, 2001 or the federal government would cancel project funds. Private consultant Carla Blackwell informed the city's Planning Commission in June that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) needed 90 days to review the project before construction could begin. Thus, she said, local approval had to be obtained by September at the latest.

That statement, along with many others made during the struggle surrounding the old school site, proved to be less than accurate. As recently as December 17, the city had still not approved building plans for the project and the start of construction was still a long way off. In addition, neighbors of the project have filed a lawsuit over the handling of the case.

Despite the earlier pleas to hurry the process in order to meet the December date, HUD officials now admit that time extensions can be granted. They have also confirmed that a request for one was submitted before the deadline.

Part of the continuing controversy concerning the housing proposal centers on the city's labeling the new project a "residential care facility." At the same time, however, HUD adamantly insists the complex is an "independent living facility for elderly persons."

According to the city's land use code, their definition of the project means it is "a residential use which includes facilities providing lodging, meals, and treatment to persons who are unable [emphasis added] to be cared for as part of a single household." Examples of this type of use listed in the code are "group homes and institutional living arrangements with twenty-four (24) hours care."

The concept of building a housing complex for seniors who can't be taken care of at home was never publicly disclosed during the springtime mediation process. Neighborhood critics of the project say it is being used only to reduce the number of required on-site parking spaces to 31, instead of the 47 that should be provided but probably can't be squeezed onto the property.

Based on the council's land-use decision, the City Attorney's office says the complex should be constructed as a "residential care facility," even though the building plans were recently being reviewed as simply an elderly-housing project. Following this legal advice would require the extra expense of having to install a fire sprinkler system and including greater handicap accessibility, among other items. If that is not done, neighbors say they want the project to provide the greater number of parking spaces.

As attorney Bill Risner, who filed the lawsuit against them, says, "The city created a conundrum with this case. They called it one thing, but it's not that. It has its own building requirements, as does the other land use classification."

A NUMBER OF OTHER longstanding issues, such as the hotly debated detention basins along Arroyo Chico, continued to receive coverage in 2001. Even though Pima County officials had predicted almost two years ago that the project would be under construction by now, the basins are still a long way from being started.

Neighbors of the proposed project are awaiting a much anticipated "infiltration study," the completion of which has been delayed for several months. This research was intended to show the impact of the detention basins on the contaminated ground water located underneath them.

Despite that holdup, Corky Poster, chair of the project's Citizen Advisory Committee, says the proposal "is moving ahead and there has been lots of progress. I'm guessing it could be 18 months until construction begins." Once underway, it is expected to take two-and-a-half years to finish the job.

Poster lists a few issues that still need to be resolved, including the fate of Tucson Unified School District's Cherry Field. While neighborhood residents and Tucson High School parents want the recreational space retained as part of the detention basin project, some school district officials apparently are still holding out hope that the county will pay them big bucks for the property. That now seems highly unlikely, but the possibility of relocating the football practice field from the site is still under consideration.

Also needing to be finalized is a decision about the concrete stretch of the arroyo between Kino and Tucson boulevards. But one positive step was taken recently when it was decided to close 15th Street through the basins, thus allowing them to be shallower.

Poster is now somewhat optimistic about the project, but continues to have concerns. "It remains to be seen if the Army Corps of Engineers has the will to do an aesthetically beautiful project," he says.

Another controversial engineering idea from the past is the proposed roadside pullout located in a very environmentally sensitive area along State Route 82 near Patagonia. At first it was called an absolute safety necessity by the Arizona Department of Transportation, which insisted it was needed to prevent rockfall accidents. For more than 18 months, however, a group of mostly local citizens and state engineers has been meeting to try and resolve their differences concerning the project. They are now focusing on two options, one a "no build" possibility, the other including limited construction and an environmental "guardian" to insure damage to the surrounding land is minimized.

Pima County has also made progress on complying with the legal requirements of the 1974 federal Privacy Act. A February story pointed out that the county still had a long way to go before it could meet the act's regulations for requesting an individual's Social Security Number.

In a March memo, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry demanded the law be complied with and gave those departments requesting SSNs until April to do so. County Human Resource director Gwyn Hatcher now says, "We're in compliance. Where necessary, we're providing the required disclosure statement, while we took the SSN request off some other forms."

That kind of success can't be claimed by the U.S. Department of Education's Family Policy Compliance Office. In 1998, a complaint was filed against the University of Arizona for releasing tens of thousands of student and staff Social Security numbers to two businesses, a charge the university publicly admitted to. Now entering its fourth year, like a college senior working toward graduation, the federal investigation of this complaint remains to be completed.

Better results have been obtained by the City of Tucson in its efforts to make the municipal golf course operation profitable. Two years ago, the City Council adopted a business plan for the courses in an attempt to eliminate a $2.5 million debt. Because of increased revenues and forgiveness of some of the debt, the red ink has been erased. In addition, despite considerably higher winter fees, the number of rounds played on the courses increased in the last fiscal year by 3 percent, to almost 300,000.

But while the city might be taking in more money on the links, it is getting ready to pay out large sums because of damage done years ago by CAP water. As a September story reported, a class-action lawsuit was seeking compensation for destruction caused by the water between 1992 and 1994. Within a few months final resolution of this longstanding dispute should begin.

Because of out-of-court negotiations, the almost 4,300 claims in the case will be divided into two groups. Those who sought less than $5,000, which comprise approximately 80 percent of the total, will receive a maximum of $3,000 for damage done to water heaters, swamp coolers and pipes. The city has set aside $1.5 million to pay these claims; if more is needed it will be requested from the city.

City officials will review individual claims of over $5,000, which can include annoyance and discomfort caused by CAP water in addition to property damage, and a settlement offer may be made. The claimant will then have the choice of accepting the offer or taking the complaint to an independent three-member panel for a binding decision. Thus, the final figure for compensating those Tucsonans harmed by CAP water is still uncertain, but will probably run into the millions of dollars.

The City of Tucson had enormous difficulties with its CAP allocation before opting for the Avra Valley blending project, which began operations earlier this year. To look at a different method of treating the canal water, a group of northwest-side water companies is exploring another alternative. As covered in June, these water providers are considering using a combination of slow sand filtration and reverse osmosis to improve the quality of CAP water. Two months ago a pilot project began to test the idea, and so far the results are very encouraging.

The treatment of a whistleblower by Tucson Water administrators was the focus of a July article about her Civil Service Commission hearing. Maria Magda Thompson was seeking reinstatement to the job she was fired from because she stopped showing up, claiming it was a hostile work environment.

Thompson alleged severe harassment by some coworkers after she reported an acid spill incident. She also said Tucson Water director David Modeer even called her a "disgruntled employee who didn't get along with her supervisor," a charge Modeer flatly denied, but which others confirmed.

When Thompson's hearing resumed shortly after Labor Day, the commission heard more unflattering statements about the way Thompson was treated, particularly by her supervisor, Mike Ring. In emotional terms, the former city worker recalled how Ring threatened her career as a treatment plant operator. Another Tucson Water employee labeled Ring's management style one of intimidation and bullying, and said he feared retaliation from departmental superiors because of his testimony.

Later, however, Ring said of Thompson's allegations, "Her story changes every time it is told. If she doesn't get a reaction the first time, she changes it."

Ring's boss and professional admirer, Tucson Water deputy director Marie Pearthree, added of Thompson's complaint against Ring, "It was hard to get your hands on it. It was a long ramble of stuff. I had no idea what she was talking about. It was like trying to grab onto a cloud."

As part of his closing statement, Thompson's attorney, Steven Sandoval, summarized her case by stating, "She was retaliated against and abused because she had the guts to speak out. [Tucson Water officials] wanted her out because she was a troublemaker in their eyes." Despite that argument, the commission not surprisingly took only moments to uphold Thompson's firing. They concluded she simply stopped going to work, so she had to be terminated.

The case, however, is not over. A lawsuit has been filed in federal court and attorney Sandoval believes it could go to trial by next fall. He promises that Tucson Fire Department personnel will then confirm the threat and intimidation practices used by Tucson Water in dealing with its employees.

THE PAST YEAR ALSO SAW A number of other stories about people standing up to an unflinching bureaucracy. In January, we examined the case of former U.S. Census Bureau manager Kent Christofferson. He charged that he hadn't been paid for hundreds of hours of overtime work done in 2000.

Because of that story, Christofferson is now a named plaintiff in a nationwide collective-action lawsuit soon to be filed against the federal government. Attorney Jack Lee, whose San Francisco firm is handling the case, says he has heard from Census workers in five states with complaints similar to Christofferson's.

Seeking to contact all former Census employees about the pending suit, Lee asked the bureau for names and addresses of everyone who worked on the 2000 count. He says that request was refused, and only information about people employed in the offices from which actual complaints have been received were offered. So Lee will be going to court to demand the information, which will enable his firm to mail out notices to hundreds of thousands of people about the lawsuit. In the meantime, any Census worker who might be interested in more details concerning the case can find out about it by calling toll-free (888) 528-9707 or checking out its Web page at www.censusclassaction.com.

Of the 500,000 former Census workers, Lee estimates 75,000 or more may not have been paid the overtime they deserved, especially if they were employed in areas where it was difficult to find everyone. He thinks the total dollar figure for the lawsuit could be anywhere between $50 and $300 million.

The case of Charles Licurse, local dentist Ronald Walker and the Arizona State Dental Board involved much less money. As covered in May, Licurse had filed a complaint with the board over his treatment by Walker, but despite the evidence he presented, it was summarily rejected.

Since then, Walker took Licurse to Small Claims Court, seeking $1,400 in compensation for his dental work. He was awarded less than half that amount and Licurse intends to pay the judgment in installments.

In the meantime, Licurse is seeking some restitution from Walker under a new complaint filed over the dentist's confusing billing practices. After a recent hearing, Licurse believes the board is still protecting Walker, but hopes to receive compensation now, even if that could have been done more easily when the earlier complaint was first considered almost 18 months ago.

Also still working its way through the system is the situation of Fred and Linda McKee. As a September story showed, they built a new house outside of Tucson in the Rincon Valley fire district. But because they didn't install a fire sprinkler system in the house, a requirement they insist they were never told about, the McKees were prohibited from occupying the new dwelling.

The couple's appeal to the district's fire chief was denied, as was their subsequent request to a citizen's review board. Interestingly, this latter case was considered without the McKees being present because, according to the fire chief, they "are not public meetings."

That type of secrecy might be news to anyone interested in enforcing Arizona's Open Meeting Law. Meanwhile, the McKees have filed suit against the fire district, seeking either permission to occupy the house or to be paid $25,000 to cover the cost of installing the required sprinkler system. An early January hearing is scheduled on the case.

Mold and its health affects were the topic of another September story. Gloria Theirjung said her unit at the Casa Loma Apartments was infested with mold and she and her daughter had suffered severe medical problems because of it.

According to Theirjung, not much has happened since then. She has hired an attorney to represent her, and the complex managers have demanded she remove her belongings from her former apartment. But other than that, she says, "Everything is kind of at a standstill."

NOT STANDING STILL was the City of Tucson in enforcing its ban on newspaper sellers and others using the public right-of-way, particularly street medians, to solicit business. Supporters said the law was needed to promote safety, while others claimed it would help clean up Tucson's image.

The new law has had an impact. According to Randy Cross, circulation manager for Tucson Newspapers Inc., the afternoon Citizen has lost 1,200 daily sales since the ban. Because its circulation is only about 40,000, that number hurts.

But the law prohibits anyone from using the public right-of-way to solicit sales. So when Cross sees someone standing near the curb promoting a car wash or other function, he calls 911 to report them. The police do respond, Cross says, even if slowly.

Local homeless advocate Brian Flagg insists that despite city promises to help find jobs for the displaced newspaper sellers, "they didn't graduate to better economic opportunities. I see guys who sold papers at the Casa Maria soup kitchen now."

Flagg points out another result of the law. "Before, you could tell the homeless were here in Tucson, because you could see them. But now they are easy to forget because they're not visible." He hopes that eventually the city's ban will be challenged in court.

The ordinance prohibiting sales solicitation in the public right-of-way became effective on May 1. Six weeks earlier, a ceremony was held to mark the relocation of historic Locomotive #1673 to the downtown train depot on Toole Avenue.

A story titled "The Engine and the Engineer" briefly outlined the conceptual plans for displaying the 101-year old steam locomotive. Those plans are now about to be realized.

Construction will begin shortly on enclosing the engine behind a decorative fence, raising a roof over it and making other site changes. The total price of these improvements is almost $200,000, and they should be completed within four months.

To help defray the cost of this project, the City of Tucson's Locomotive #1673 Task Force is selling 2002 calendars. Using historic photographs of the depot and locomotive, the calendar is priced at $25 and can be obtained by sending a check, made payable to City of Tucson--#1673, to Locomotive #1673, P.O. Box 40815, Tucson, AZ 85717-0815.

Also seeking financial support is the University of Arizona. As detailed in an August article, campus officials were looking for private-sector partners to build new housing units for graduate students and students with children.

David Duffy, director of the Campus and Facilities Planning Department, says negotiations are still underway with the consultant selected to build the graduate facility at Euclid Avenue and Fourth Street. He adds that he recently received four proposals about supplying family student housing. These should be reviewed in January and a decision made then about how to proceed.

A few months after that, Duffy's department and other campus support units will move into the former Tucson Electric Power Company building on St. Mary's Road. The university bought the high-rise intending to swap it for the Tucson Unified School District's administrative offices immediately south of the campus. That deal, however, fell through, so now university officials will occupy the downtown space.

FINALLY, TO COMMEMORATE THE Fourth of July, this author penned an article blasting Tom Brokaw's annointment of the World War II generation as the greatest ever. That was an opinion for which I was loudly criticized, especially for writing, "The 'Greatest Generation' wasn't that; it was just a group of people who did their jobs like almost anyone else would have done under the same circumstances."

The events of September 11 only reinforced my opinion. The people who sacrificed their lives to try and save others on that crystal-clear day showed that no matter what era they live in, many people will do what is necessary. They aren't greater than others for that, they are just doing what is required. They should be honored for their actions, not ranked in order of greatness.