Walkout On Walkup

And Then It Suddenly Dawned On Tucson's New Mayor -- He Wasn't Some Bigwig At The Huge Aircrash Company Any More.

TUCSON'S DYNAMIC new take-charge mayor came perilously close to earning a deleterious nickname among thousands of midtown residents Monday night.

A nickname that, for the next four years, undoubtedly would have stuck to him like stinky orange poo to a baby's bald butt:

One-Term Walkup.

As beginner's luck would have it however, Mayor Bob was saved from that ignominious moniker. Councilmen Jerry Anderson, José Ibarra and Steve Leal walked out on him, an apparently impromptu move that deprived the council of a quorum and aborted the hearing Walkup had engineered to aid his El Con Mall owner buddies.

Rumors of an unpleasant Walkup-brokered "January surprise" had been circulating for a month or so among midtown residents.

They've been worried sick about decaying El Con's determination to revitalize by adding ridiculously out-of-place, heavily trafficked big-box stores like Super Wal-Mart and Home Depot to the pleasant mix of genteel old neighborhoods in the heart of the city.

Last year, negotiations between residents and mall owners reached the boiling point, with residents calling the mall's plans, as well as its demands on them, completely unreasonable.

Their failure to reach an agreement on what sort of stores should be built and what sort of mitigation -- street closures, sound-deadening walls, low-glare lighting -- should be in place, subsequently spilled over into the political arena.

As a result, the Tucson City Council, following the lead of enlightened communities elsewhere, passed the so-called Big Box Ordinance, aimed at mitigating the impact of increasingly gargantuan merchandisers on surrounding homes and streets.

But Walkup's little "surprise" -- which, oddly, the mayor withheld from neighborhood activists until last Friday, giving them little time to understand his proposed deal before Monday's council meeting -- completely ignored the Big Box Ordinance.

Instead, critics charge, Walkup's proposal would have set events back to June 7, a time when the mall owners and residents had tentatively agreed on mitigation measures.

However, a major problem with the mayor rewinding that tired old video, says neighborhood activist Tom Bever, is that at the time, the mall owners had not revealed their plans for a Home Depot and a 24-hour Super Wal-Mart.

"The mall was not being truthful with us then," he says. "They were refusing to tell us precisely what kind of stores would be going in. And nobody ever dreamed it would be a 24-hour Wal-Mart and a 17-hour Home Depot. Nobody thought the mall owners were that crazy. We were negotiating under the assumption the owners would bring in something reasonable -- much like the traditional department stores there now. So the mitigation that was arrived at is simply inappropriate to the scale of what they want to do now."

Also, complains Chris Tanz, another neighborhood activist, Walkup's dramatic knight-on-a-white-horse approach to problem solving "bypasses and tosses away a half year of intense political activity by a lot of people who were working for the betterment of our community. By doing this, [Walkup] shows that he's perfectly willing to trash all that."

Adds Bever:

"Because the El Con owners are reluctant to negotiate with neighbors, it puts the city in the position of dealing with the equivalent of a 3-year-old child who's sucking his thumb and turning blue, refusing to breathe until you do what he wants."

And because of the mall owners' boorish behavior in the face of sincere and legitimate neighborhood concerns, Bever argues, this was not a proper opportunity for a novice mayor to show off his supposedly incisive problem-solving abilities.

Beyond the weak parent metaphor and the stupid-move critique, however, lay another, far more troubling criticism of Walkup's proposed El Con deal:

"It was more than simply a way around the Big Box Ordinance," says Bever. "It also would have required the City of Tucson to defend the mall against any third party."

In other words, the city would have automatically taken the side of the mall owners in current and future lawsuits seeking to mitigate superstore presence -- a move that would have been patently unfair, not to mention politically unwise, on its face.

Still, Bever would like to think Walkup is not just a tool of selfish business interests.

"Let's look at it in the best light," he says. "He comes from a world that undoubtedly has an image of how the city can make progress, and it's a kind of corporate, business-based image in which you make deals as needed that will benefit the city. When you say it that way, it doesn't sound too bad."

Unfortunately, he's quick to add, the corporate problem-solving model is not a government problem-solving model. Governments must honor various fairness principles, including due process.

"Even the most beneficent of deals, if they don't go through due process, can come back and bite you," Bever noted.

Had Walkup managed to push through his proposed deal Monday, numerous critics say, midtown voters would soon have seen as many as 17 semi-tractor trailer rigs a day rolling off Interstate 10, north along Alvernon, and on down Broadway to the El Con big boxes.

Once they dumped their huge loads, often in the wee hours of the morning, the big rigs' drivers would undoubtedly try to return to the Interstate via a right-turn only route that would take them through the neighborhood north of the mall.

And beyond that unpleasant prospect, critics add, the massive increase in commercial and private traffic created by the ill-placed big boxes would undoubtedly eventually require the widening of Fifth/Sixth Street north of the mall, angering an even wider swath of midtown residents.

"It would have really changed the character of what it's like to live around here," Bever says.

MONDAY'S ABORTED meeting was also seen as a sincerity test for newly elected Councilwoman Carol West. She flunked.

Going into the meeting, West turned out to be the swing vote on a divided council. Walkup, Shirley Scott and Fred Ronstadt were clearly in favor of the incompetent mall owners' big-box wet dream, while Ibarra, Anderson and Leal were obviously firmly opposed.

West had campaigned on a promise -- at least to worried El Con neighbors -- that fairness and community appropriateness would govern her vote on the matter.

As late as Monday morning she was attempting to act as a go-between, conveying offers and counter offers between the opposing forces.

"Carol was like the new guy in town," observes Peter Howell Neighborhood resident Andrea Kennedy, who echoed the sentiments of many midtown residents. "I have sympathy for her, and yet I can't stand someone who doesn't live up to her convictions."

West failed miserably when she voted against Anderson's motion to kill the El Con hearing Monday night, instead supporting corporate pawn Shirley Scott's counter motion to proceed. (Scott, ostensibly a Democrat, who's known as "Margaret Thatcher in a cheap dress" around City Hall, recently hired hardcore Republican Sam DeLong, wife of hardcore Republican Bill DeLong, as an aide.)

The subsequent walkout abruptly ended the evening, as well as -- reasonable minds would assume -- Walkup's wildly delusional belief that buttoned-down corporate know-how somehow translates easily into the World Wrestling Federation nightmare known as municipal politics.

Walkup looked uncomfortably like he wanted to wipe some stinky orange poo off his perspiring pate as he weakly ordered City Attorney Tom Berning to explain to the angry crowd why their new mayor had been off playing Monty Hall in his very own Let's Make A Deal fantasy.

According to a strangely nervous Berning, nasty old Wally Mart is trying to challenge the Big Box Ordinance via referendum. Those petitions have been rejected by City Clerk Kathy Detrick on technical grounds, but Wal-Mart's attorneys have challenged that decision in court. If Wal-Mart prevails in court January 31, the Big Box Ordinance is on hold until voters can decide its fate. In the meantime, El Con's owners would be free to build the biggest, ugliest goddamned box they want.

It was a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation. And one which omitted a very important detail:

The greedy, insensitive mall owners would find it very difficult to build their big, bad boxes if a tough-minded City Council were to stand firm on the need to preserve the character of existing Tucson neighborhoods -- something Corporate Bob is obviously unwilling to do.

And besides, there's already a strong indication that Wal-Mart ignored city requirements -- even city staff warnings -- that its petitions were not adhering to the proper legal form. The city claims the giant retailer followed state law, rather than the city ordinance, when it drew up its petitions. If the court adheres to the usual standards it imposes on mere citizens' groups in the referenda game, that would be enough to get the petitions thrown out. But "if" is a very big word in the rough-and-tumble ring of city politics.

Perhaps Berning was nervous at Monday's meeting because he sees clearly the next showdown coming up in this lousy little range war.

Come next month the city is set to close Dodge Boulevard, the last open street leading north out of El Con, thanks to a vote of the council last year. That would severely limit El Con's ability to attract mega merchandisers.

Berning is now saying that come February 8, the street must be closed. But longtime Deputy City Attorney Brad Detrick (husband to Kathy), who seems eager to play lackey for Walkup and El Con lawyer Si Schorr, is maintaining that because the council voted to reconsider the matter on Monday, the streets should remain open.

It'll be fun watching these two gunslingers pop off a few rounds in each other's direction during the next few weeks. When the smoke clears, will Berning still have his tin star? Or will wily backroom manipulator Schorr have his very own stooge in the city lawman's spot? Yes, it's all very much the sleazy TV western.

Of course Mayor Bob and his trio of corporate yes-men on the council -- Ronstadt, Scott and West -- could try to stop the street closure from happening, but it would probably only mean that Anderson, Leal and Ibarra would be wearing down more shoe leather.

And kudos to those three for showing their backsides to a council majority whose members had clearly chosen to ignore the interests of the people.

Leal says of Walkup's January surprise, "Changes were agreed upon with some city staff members, some council members and the developers -- and, basically, the neighbors were just told about them. That's unfair. All the work that had gone on, work that was done with the equal involvement of the residents, city and mall owners, shouldn't be averted by a quickie one-sided deal."

But then Leal has never considered himself a corporate bigwig like Walkup.

And Monday night, when Home Depot hired goons were berating the three, telling them that it was their job to stay in the meeting and vote, as if they were supposed to behave like some timid Home Depot working stiffs, Leal replied:

"When a numerical minority sees the rights of the community being trampled by a majority of the council that may be acting illegally or unethically, it's the obligation of the minority to fight smarter and do what it can to protect the community."

Not exactly pithy, but certainly worth engraving on stone somewhere around Mayor Bob Walkup's City Hall, Inc.

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