The Skinny

LET'S MAKE A DEAL: Billboard bigwig Karl Eller is no Monty Hall when it comes to handing out prizes. Instead of valuable gifts, Eller offers up garbage.

This homeboy, who once wept as he donated millions of dollars to the University of Arizona (and then had the entire business college named after him), acquired most of Tucson's billboards a few years ago, knowing there were numerous legal actions pending against many of the boards. But Eller gambled he could settle the court suits to his advantage though his own brand of salesmanship, which basically meant persuading politicians--either at the state or city level--to give him a break.

After numerous false starts, that tactic backfired once again this week when Eller's proposed "compromise" to the Tucson City Council on the billboard issue fell flat on its face in a closed-door session. The Council, with the notable exception of Fred Ronstadt, was able to see that Eller's settlement was all good for him, but bad for the community. Among its provisions were:

· Dropping code-enforcement legal action against 121 huge and large billboards in exchange for removing 43 small and medium signs inside the city limits. Eller also generously offered to throw in 18 billboards that had already been removed, one that will be taken down in April, and 25 that are outside the city limits;

· A carefully crafted list of billboards that will come down. None of the billboards Eller offered to remove are included in the pending legal action. That's because he knows the most attractive sites for boards, so he's offering up financial dogs instead, many of which are located on streets with low traffic volume;

· The ability to build new billboards as part of a second phase of the proposed agreement. Eller apparently wants access to the fertile ground of the I-19 corridor for his unsightly behemoths. In exchange, he would remove some more of his existing billboards. But he ain't no fool. Eller knows what will make him the most money and that's his motive; he has no interest in complying with the law or the adopted 1985 referendum through which the voters demanded fewer billboards in Tucson.

The local billboard industry has suffered a series of legal defeats over the past several years. The industry has been very slow to follow court orders about removing illegal boards and bringing existing signs into compliance with building code requirements. Despite that, Karl Eller continues to play Let's Make a Deal. But to him, the only fair deal benefits him, not Tucson.

It's time for the City Council to let the pending legal action run its course. It's a slow, deliberate process, but in the end it will get the best results for the community. If Eller wants a deal, let him negotiate over the 121 signs in the legal action. If not, then council members should tell him they'll see him in court.

ALL DRESSED UP WITH NOWHERE TO GO: A great source of amusement to local political proctologists is observing the dozen or so lower ranking pols who actually believe they may, in the immediate future, emerge as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Put aside for a moment those, such as former State Sen. George Cunningham, who have already proved themselves totally incapable of any future viability by already losing by an embarrassing margin. Cunningham blew a half million bucks and got about as many votes against incumbent District 5 Republican Jim Kolbe as a couple of earlier non-entities so inert they could barely cloud a mirror with their breath.

Some of the others might actually be Congressional material--which, in case you haven't noticed, doesn't require a helluva lot--assuming they had somewhere to run. They don't.

Now a major flash for those who just love to pontificate about the redistricting process: It doesn't matter much if it's done by a Republican legislature, a Democrat legislature, the hokey new redistricting commission or a passel of nuns (even Buddhist nuns). The process is constricted by three factors--population, minority distribution and simple geography.

A congressional district will hold about 625,000 Arizonans. The early census material has Pima County at slightly over 800,000. Including with it the rest of Southern Arizona, like Pima County currently split between Democrat Ed Pastor's Second District and Republican Jim Kolbe's Fifth, there aren't enough bodies to make two whole districts south of the Gila even with Yuma thrown in. That's why Pastor currently represents a big slice of Maricopa County.

Theoretically Pima could get one entire district minus the heavily minority portions, which would stay with similar demographics elsewhere in Southern Arizona. But there would still need to be a connection to the minority portions of Maricopa County or else they would find their voting strength diluted, something in violation of federal guidelines. That means Pima County and Southern Arizona will be in two House Districts, one Anglo and leaning GOP, the other heavily Hispanic and safely Democrat.

Sorta like now, with two guys named Pastor and Kolbe, neither of whom appears to be going anywhere. Pastor currently has no place else to run. And forget sexual orientation; the Bush administration is not appointing Kolbe or anybody else to anything from such a marginal seat.

Which leaves a bunch of folks who want on that House payroll the single option of doing it the old-fashioned way: knocking off one of the incumbents who will still be there after the new lines are cut. That's something we expect will greatly reduce the number of actual candidates from all those currently jabbering about it.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The proposal now being considered by the City Council to include funds from the Rio Nuevo project for expansion and new construction at the Tucson Convention Center smacks of bureaucratic manipulation.

In 1994, city voters overwhelmingly rejected bonds that would have paid for improvements at the TCC. So seven years later, city staff members have seized upon the idea of using money from the Rio Nuevo pot to pay for changes at the complex.

This is just the latest episode in a long history of the city government ignoring the will of the voters while continuing to dump taxpayer money into the TCC, which has lost millions of dollars.

City officials whined for years that the complex would make money if only it were larger. So, despite rejection of a plan by the voters, the TCC was expanded over a decade ago.

Guess what? It still it loses lots of money. This latest switcheroo to take funds from the Rio Nuevo pot for improvements at the Convention Center is just another demonstration that in Tucson, it's the city staff, not the voters or the City Council, who make the final decisions.

ANNEX MEN: The Southern Arizona Leadership Council is ready to wheel out its latest Trojan Horse proposal, which includes creating two new City Council wards and providing for more wards to be added as the city "expands through population growth and annexation." Expect to see Mayor Bob Walkup unveil a plan for charter changes at his big state-o'-the-city hugfest this week.

The Leadership Council bosses hope the added wards will be just the annexation bait necessary to reel unincorporated areas into the community.

As the city's unabashed annexation boosters, Leadership Council bigwigs have met with "community leaders" and even conducted polling in the areas they wish to see annexed. Now we expect, because of these good deeds, that people in the Catalina Foothills believe the price of annexation includes their very own council ward.

But swallowing the many residents of the Catalina Foothills will still require a slow, laborious process, which works against the notion of creating a new foothills ward. That is, unless the city is successful in changing state law regarding annexation. The mayor's staff is saying there's no pending legislation to do that, although a long-term goal is lowering the barriers to annexation to bring more residents into incorporated areas in Pima County.

Even if they manage to get enabling legislation, there's the issue of new wards possibly diluting our minority community's voting power. If new wards are to be created, let the Leadership Council and its supporters on the Tucson City Council first show us how these new wards will preserve our minority community's political voice.

After all, if the Leadership Council doesn't do that, the U.S. Justice Department most likely will. If the idea of creating new council wards will better serve Tucson residents, then take the time to prove it.

DIGGING DEEPER: The Skinny asked Assistant State Mine Inspector Phil Howard if deputy state mine inspectors are allowed to moonlight as safety consultants to private mining companies regulated in Arizona or any other state.

Not in his shop, said Howard, who promptly e-mailed the following policy he thought prevented such activity: "No person may be an inspector or deputy inspector while an employee, director, or officer of a mining, milling or smelting company."

Howard, who is as straight as they come, knows the office of the State Mine Inspector has "somehow" lost credibility with the rank-and-file miners his agency is supposed to protect. "We're looking within ourselves to learn why some miners don't trust us," said Howard, who defended the professionalism of his staff.

That's a tall order, even for someone with Howard's apparent integrity. But we suggest taking each aspect of the "don't-trust" issue one step at a time. A good first step would be to close the loophole in that conflict-of-interest clause. The policy does not rule out being a consultant to a mining company, because consultants are generally not employees, but contractors.

SUPERVISOR POR VIDA? Somebody needs to tell the morning daily that former Supervisor Mike Boyd has left the building. For the last two weeks, as government watchdog Mary Schuh points out, the Arizona Daily Suckwad has been running tallies from the Board of Supervisors that include Boyd's vote, despite the fact that he was replaced by Republican Ann Day earlier this month. Guess some folks just can't tell the players without a scorecard.