TO PAVE AND PAVE NOT: The morning daily has gotten itself worked up over an apparent political scandal in the county transportation department. Just before Christmas, the Star brought us a story in which Brooks Keenan, who has headed the transportation department for the last three years, alleged that four county transportation contracts over the last six years were improperly influenced by, believe it or not, politics.

The story, written by Rhonda Bodfield Sander and Enric Volante, suggested that Supervisor Dan Eckstrom or County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry had a hand in fixing three of the contracts and that Supervisor Raúl Grijalva improperly influenced a fourth project.

On their face, these sound like damning accusations. But when you stop to consider that the county has signed more than 300 contracts over the last six years, the impact of four alleged fixes begins to dwindle somewhat.

Then there's the process of selecting engineering firms. Unlike the actual construction contracts, which must go to the lowest bidder, design and engineering contracts can consider other factors, including a firm's experience and history (and, to be frank, quite possibly its political influence, although Huckelberry and the supes deny that happened in this case). The current board has made a point of favoring local and minority-owned firms, especially since those firms have been shortchanged in the past.

Generally, engineering contracts first go through a selection committee before being forwarded to Huckelberry's office. Huckelberry makes a final recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which has the final say. Huckelberry says that this board has yet to change one of his recommendations--unlike previous boards, which have been known to dish out generous helpings of pork.

In the cases that Keenan complained about, Huckelberry admits changing the decision of the selection committee, but denies any wrongdoing.

Keenan certainly bided his time before coming forward to lodge his complaints. One dated back to 1994 and another regarded contracts from 1998 that had already been the focus of a Star exposé.

The Star has demanded an investigation by the attorney general's office. Bring 'em on, if you must, but realize this: It's highly unlikely any laws have been broken. Supervisors can award these engineering contracts based on all sorts of different criteria, and in these cases they went with the firms recommended by Huckelberry. If the editorial board at the morning daily is really that upset about the process, they ought to call for a new policy requiring the board to accept the recommendations of their selection committee. Of course, that means board members lose a little power and move more closer toward being what local political piranha Emil Franzi calls "onlookers" rather than supervisors. And keep in mind: Selection committees can be fixed just as easily as supes can be.

Keenan says he could have kept quiet and found another job, but that "the mess" would have gotten worse for his successor. But others have a different spin: Keenan was in danger of losing his job and wanted to set himself up for whistleblower protection.

Keenan's Transportation Department was the focus of two high-profile screw-ups toward the end of 2000. The first came when the county was forced to forfeit nearly $1 million in interest earned on bond money because projects weren't completed on time. The second blunder was mowing down a small forest of ironwood trees in pygmy owl habitat for the widening of Thornydale Road, which led to a halt in the work and a hasty consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which now expects Pima County to purchase 47 acres of habitat elsewhere to replace the carnage--possibly costing as much as $1.5 million.

With his allegations that politics played a role in contract selection, Keenan makes any attempt to fire him look like retaliation. If he gets the ax now, look for him to make a claim under Arizona's whistleblower law.

STACKS OF BILLS: Local lawmakers want to make the most of the Arizona Senate's 15-15 split. Both Republicans and Democrats are seeking to form a Southern Arizona caucus to advance our interests down here in Pima County.

We wish 'em the best of luck. Between term limits and other political realities, the GOP will likely be back in control in two years, so the window of opportunity is narrow. We hear this will be a looooong session stretching far beyond the 100-day target of recent years. Since committee chairs will be less likely to quash bills, we're going to see lawmakers introduce a lot more legislation, both good and bad.

MALL MUCK: Montgomery Ward's is closing down nationwide, including the store in El Con Mall. That's probably no big deal to El Con's owners, because the store enjoyed a low-cost lease with some veto power over the location of grocery stores.

The big questions revolve around the mall's other anchors. Last year, Dillard's pulled out to seek a new home down the road at Park Place, where there's a mysterious department store being built; could it be a new home for JCPenney? And what about Robinsons-May? We're told their new lease allows them to move from El Con without penalty with 90 days' notice. And there's a little parcel over at Park Place that could be ideal for that department store.

If all of these shops pull out, where does that leave debt service for the Rio Nuevo project bonds, which are counting on sales tax revenue from El Con? We imagine such an exodus would make city officials rather eager to help El Con succeed, even if it means making it easier for big boxes like Wal-Mart to spring up at the aging mall.

CITY SLICKERS: This year's city elections are a long way off, but candidates are definitely laying the groundwork. It's likely to be a relatively quiet election year, with just three council seats--Wards 3, 5 and 6--up for grabs. And, for the first time since 1993, it appears voters will not be facing a CAP water initiative. (Although how Tucsonans will react to the "blended" CAP water they'll soon have flowing into their homes remains to be seen.)

We called TV psychic Mistress Cleo last week and she told us the cards say the biggest fight will be in central-city Ward 6. Incumbent council member Fred Ronstadt, a Republican who managed to win a seat in 1997 despite Tucson's Democratic 3-2 voter registration advantage, has a number of potential Democratic opponents. The top two: Gayle Hartmann, a past president of the local Sierra Club who has fought many Pima County environmental battles, and Richard Elias, a former employee of Chicanos por la Causa who now works in Pima County's social services sector.

In Ward 3, Councilman Jerry Anderson may face a challenge in the Democratic primary from Carl Bedford, who is currently working as an aide for Ward 4 council member Shirley Scott. Bedford has long hungered for a council seat, although he's blundered through previous efforts. Republicans are also looking for a candidate, although Kathleen Dunbar, who lost her bid to move from the Arizona House of Representatives to the Senate in District 13, won't be jumping into the race, despite the urging of radio motormouth John C. Scott.

Our three free minutes with Mistress Cleo ran out before we could ask about an opponent for Democrat Steve Leal in Ward 5, but we hear the GOP is on the lookout for a candidate.

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