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Up in air: Pima Supes won't rubber-stamp Huckelberry raise, float short extension

County board set to discuss administrator's contract again, possibly in private

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has been at the top of heap for 26 years, but his days in the hottest, choicest seat may be nearing an end. The Board of Supervisors declined to sign off on renewing his contract Tuesday, and Huckelberry didn't immediately accept a two-week extension to allow the supervisors to discuss the issue at their next meeting.

Even so, the experienced — and powerful — chief employee of the county may still end up with another four years at the helm.

A majority of the county board — which includes three new members who were attending their first-ever meeting of the supervisors — have generally expressed support for keeping Huckelberry as the county's CEO, but his proposal of a raise to $315,000 while local government's faces budget challenges due to the pandemic raise hackles both among them and the public.

Huckelberry, 71, has been the top staffer for the county since 1993. His most recent contract was set to expire Tuesday, coinciding with the new members of the Board of Supervisors taking office after being elected in November.

Rather than signing off on the proposed contract that Huckleberry placed, on New Year's Eve, on the agenda for their first meeting, the supervisors voted 3-2 to push off a decision until they meet again in two weeks, to allow them to include an executive session so they can get legal advice and potentially negotiate with the administrator behind closed doors.

The meeting was held virtually because of the spiraling number of COVID-19 cases in Pima County, and often became a chamber of echoes as technical snafus led to multiple repeated audio feeds being broadcast to the public. At one point, audio from the county's Granicus streaming platform was being fed with a 15-30 second delay into the video feed appearing on Facebook, with that noise then being looped through the system yet again due to an open microphone on a laptop used by county staffers.

Huckelberry didn't publicly respond to the vote, quickly signing off from the virtual meeting as soon as the business on the agenda was completed, even though the supervisors continued to have a conversation for several minutes. Nor did he immediately inform the supervisors whether he would accept the extension proposal.

Huckelberry did not respond to TucsonSentinel.com's inquiries Tuesday afternoon.

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The county administrator had asked for a raise from a base salary of $302,000 to $315,000, along with a bump in his extensive package of benefits.

Republican Supervisor Steve Christy had again promised during his re-election campaign (which became a surprisingly narrow race) to work to oust Huckelberry, and predictably offered a motion to not renew the contract. That failed for lack of a second from any of the other supervisors, all Democrats.

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva, just taking office this week, moved to table the matter until a meeting on January 19, with an executive session added to the agenda and Huckelberry formally notified. That would allow the supervisors to negotiate with him in private, while that meeting takes place, and provide the administrator with the ability to make any such discussions public, if he chooses.

Supervisor Matt Heinz, also new to the board, offered an alternative to extend Huckelberry's contract for one year at the same rate of pay, but to conduct a "formal assessment" of county administration by hiring a consultant through the County Attorney's Office, to collect feedback on Huckelberry's performance.

That suggestion failed, and Grijalva's motion was approved on a 3-2 vote, with Christy and Heinz opposed.

Christy said he was concerned about any discussions taking place behind closed doors. Other local jurisdictions, including the city of Tucson and the Tucson Unified School District (where Grijalva is in her fifth term of office), have commonly conducted much of their contract negotiations with top administrators behind the scenes — with TUSD officials sometimes stonewalling even making public the terms of a deal when it is voted into place.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry during a meeting on Dec. 4, 2020.

Bronson named chair, Grijalva vice-chair of county board

With the former chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Ramon Valadez, leaving office after loosing the August primary to Matt Heinz (a District 2 Democrat who won in November and took office this week), the supervisors chose new officers at Tuesday's meeting.

Sharon Bronson (District 3), who has the longest tenure on the board and is entering her seventh term, was elected as the new chair with a unanimous vote. This will be her third stint as the chair of the board — she earlier wielded the gavel from 2002-05 and 2014-17.

Adelita Grijalva (District 5), a longtime TUSD Governing Board member who was attending her first meeting of the supervisors, was elected as the vice-chair of the board on a 4-1 vote, with Republican Supervisor Steve Christy (District 4) dissenting.

Bronson and Grijalva, along with Sups. Matt Heinz and Rex Scott (District 1), are Democrats.

Reappointed as the clerk of the board, a non-elected staff post, was Julie Castañeda, with Grijalva moving to make her initial term only one year, rather than the typical term of four years to coincide with the terms of the members of the board.