The Lone Republican On The City Council Completes His First Year In Public Office.
By Dave Devine
COUNCILMAN FRED Ronstadt fiddles with his Mickey Mouse tie as he weighs the question: What's been his greatest impact in his first year on the City Council?
"Comic relief," Ronstadt says, before turning serious. From his perspective, his colleagues on the Council respond to issues differently since he took his seat. For example, there's his proposal to ban everyone, including newspaper peddlers, from street medians. The other Council members were initially reluctant to support the idea, but he says they've come around to seeing it as a safety issue.
As the lone Republican on the City Council, Ronstadt believes he brings to the table a voice of common sense and a different perspective on issues, which has changed the way the six Democratic members approach things.
Before Ronstadt's election last year, Ward 6 had been represented for eight years by former Councilwoman Molly McKasson, whose office had a sterling reputation for constituent service. Some Ward 6 residents who feared that service would slide under a rookie politician now say they are pleasantly surprised by the high degree of responsiveness concerning neighborhood issues coming from the office. Others are more restrained in their evaluation. "His heart is in the right place," says one critic, "but his staff is young and inexperienced."
That staff, however, earns high marks from Ronstadt. He says constituent service is "job No. 1," and says he picked people for the positions who were service-oriented. "As is usual" he noted, "the aides do the lion's share of the work and the Council member takes the credit."
What happens, though, when neighborhood and business interests collide? Ronstadt said that hasn't been the case so far because people on both sides of issues have been reasonable. But, he concedes, that record could soon change. Ronstadt is pushing to close all three streets on the north side of the El Con shopping center as part of the current addition of a megascreen cinema.
While many people who live near the mall favor the move, the owners of El Con are vigorously opposed. But Ronstadt thinks he has the votes on the Council to accomplish it. "El Con has always done the minimum required about working with its neighbors," Ronstadt says. "If a business can't get along with its neighbors, then we need to do something."
While he's been sympathetic toward neighborhood groups, Ronstadt has taken a tougher line on the use of tax dollars for non-profit organizations, complaining the city has become a kind of "United Way." He's also been critical of the management of the Tucson Convention Center, which requires an annual subsidy in the neighborhood of $2.5 million.
But Ronstadt has his own sacred cows, including the University of Arizona Icecats, the club hockey team. Ronstadt wore an Icecats jersey when he was sworn into office and claims coach Leo Golembiewski as a good friend. Earlier this year, Ronstadt tried unsuccessfully to get the Icecats $5,000 in public funds to help offset losses caused by the city's deal with a new minor-league hockey franchise, the Gila Monsters.
Ronstadt also got involved with lease negotiations between the Icecats and TCC management, which some critics say went too far. They complain that his presence may have put pressure on the city's representatives to make concessions which weren't in the public's best interest.
Ronstadt insists his participation in the discussions was proper. The Icecats felt they were being treated differently than the professional Gila Monsters, and he wanted to ensure equal treatment. "It was a lot of small things, and I wanted to make sure the Icecats were treated fairly."
Complaints about Icecats conflicts are minor compared to the criticism Ronstadt receives from those who support recharging Central Arizona Project water into Tucson's usually dry streambeds.
After his election, Ronstadt said, "The people clearly want recharge and trades with agriculture and mines. That will be a top priority." But since taking office, he has consistently sided with Mayor George Miller and councilwomen Janet Marcus and Shirley Scott to continue the CAP status quo.
Ronstadt cast the swing vote in a 4-3 decision to continue development of the controversial basin recharge project in Avra Valley. He opposed a pilot project to recharge CAP water into the Rillito River, instead siding with those who wanted to "test" the idea by using a mixture of groundwater and sewage effluent (a proposal which has since been put on hold).
"We're disappointed in him" says Rich Wiersma of the Citizens Alliance for Water Security, a group which supports streambed recharge. "After the election he seemed to say one thing, but then joined with the three old-timers to continue CAP business-as-usual. We thought it might be different."
Ronstadt argues that he's just following the best scientific advice available. Using the Rillito for CAP, he says, wasn't even an issue when voters approved the 1995 Water Consumer Protection Act, which encouraged recharging the water.
The solution to Tucson's subsidence problems, Ronstadt believes, is to turn off pumping in the city's central well field. The Avra Valley project, he says, will allow that to happen.
As for increasing the amount of CAP water used by mines and agriculture in the Green Valley area, Ronstadt says the city is being as aggressive as it can be.
"We're continuing to talk to them, but can only go as far as they want because there is no legal requirement for them to stop pumping groundwater," he says. "One of the problems we face is how you get the water to the city. We are moving as diligently as we can with the Indians about that issue."
On another important topic, Ronstadt remains undecided. Before his election, he told The Weekly that he opposed any more public support for Civano, the so-called solar village on Tucson's far-eastside. But then he voted to supply an additional $700,000 of city money to the project. Ronstadt is under the mistaken impression that the Council will have to vote again on that allocation before it can be made.
But he thinks that perhaps his potential opposition to providing the money may not be practical, because the city could get sued if it doesn't supply the funds. So he says it may be better to OK the money but attach conditions to how it is spent. That $700,000, of course, is no laughing matter.
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