Full-Service Danny?

Is Supervisor Dan Eckstrom Fairfield Homes' Best Buddy? Or Just Another Name On An Obscure Border Commission?
By Teresa Leal

WHEN PIMA COUNTY Supervisor Danny Eckstrom voted in favor of the controversial Canoa Ranch project several weeks ago, opponents complained he'd been unduly influence by $2,200 in campaign contributions from officials and associates of developer Fairfield Homes. Critics also hollered about Eckstrom's allegedly tight connections with Fairfield consultant Frank Thomson (See "Business As Usual," Tucson Weekly, March 27). Of course the Supervisor vehemently denied any possibility of a fix.

Now it looks like Eckstrom could further aid Fairfield, should he so choose, through his membership on a little-known federal commission.

The Border Environmental Cooperation Commission (BECC) was created in 1993 as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Eckstrom serves on the BECC's advisory council.

The advisory council assists the BECC, which has a staff of 16 and a board of directors, in screening border-related projects for possible funding.

The BECC's approval lends great legitimacy to those seeking loans from the North American Development Bank, which controls a $450-million pot--half from Mexico and half from the U.S.--and which can loan up to 50 percent of the price of an approved project at bargain-basement interest rates. It's supposed to be furthering projects that benefit the public on both sides of the border.

In this and several other cases, however, the BECC appears to be benefiting mostly rich and well-connected special interests.

Eckstrom's presence on the BECC's advisory council could be a potential boon to his friends at Fairfield because Fairfield is counting on a proposed Pima County project to further growth in the Green Valley area.

The county is seeking the BECC's approval for a $3-million loan to plan and design a new wastewater reclamation plant to provide water "suitable for the reuse of effluent on local golf courses/turf irrigation and recharge," according to the county's official BECC application. The application also notes, "This facility will serve the projected growth within the Canoa Hills area."

The debt is to be repaid through Pima County residents' user fees. The supervisors have yet to approve the plan, which totals $7 million. Guess how Eckstrom will vote on that one.

And as a member of the BECC's advisory council, Eckstrom won't even have to make a public vote on the matter to make his influence felt. According to an evaluation done by Cyrus Reed, of the Texas Center for Public Policy Studies, "...the role of the council is limited to pronouncing themselves in favor of projects up for review. The council appears to make decisions for the BECC board, and the BECC has many secret meetings to review projects, and does not have to provide public access to review such meetings."

In other words, all Eckstrom has to do is talk up the project.

Furthermore, it would seem a clear contradiction of the BECC's mission to spend staff time and money considering projects to help develop a wealthy residential community such as Canoa Hills, including golf courses, acres of turf and hundreds of high-priced homes. The resulting increased pumping of the aquifer is projected to lower the area's water table at a rate of two feet a year.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. The same sorts of situations involving the BECC and the North American Development Bank are cropping up in Nogales, Matamoros, El Paso and Tijuana--because safeguards designed to keep the BECC's process free from manipulation by special interest groups have failed.

Chief among those safeguards was the BECC's original mandate to support projects--including such things as wastewater and sewer facilities--with "sustainable community components," which were defined as public participation, approval and monitoring of the projects.

In practice, however, due to poor economic conditions, the ability of the public living along the border to pay back the BECC's loans has been eroded since its creation, thus opening the door for private interests operating under the guise of public interest, critics charge. One of the main arguments for Canoa Hills, for example, is that it will create jobs.

So far, several private industrial parks, a shopping mall, as well as several other environmentally questionable projects have managed to gain the BECC's seal of approval despite broad opposition and embarrassing accusations from critics.

Ideally, the BECC's approval process is supposed to be clear and open to public participation. Unfortunately, it's not. The public is routinely denied basic, right-to-know information about the BECC and what it's considering.

And since it's allowed to operate in secret under the pretense that certain commercial interests which may be eligible for loans may need to keep information from competitors, the advisory council is seen as a fabulous lobbying opportunity for special interest groups, according to the Texas report.

Golf, anyone? TW

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