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Pima Supes cut Huckelberry's pay, extend contract while violating Open Meeting Law

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Pima Supes cut Huckelberry's pay, extend contract while violating Open Meeting Law

  •  Huckelberry at a meeting of a task force reviewing guidelines for restaurants in April.
    livestream screenshot Huckelberry at a meeting of a task force reviewing guidelines for restaurants in April.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry will continue as Pima County's top staffer, as the Board of Supervisors OKed a renewal of his contract — with a cut in pay rather than the raise he'd requested — in an apparent violation of the Open Meeting Law, moments after having that statute explained to them.

Rather than bumping his salary to $315,000, as Huckelberry had asked, the supervisors cut his annual base pay to $292,000. The contract as approved cuts Huckelberry's possible severance pay from 6 months of salary to 3 months, and eliminates any automatic raises.

The supervisors voted 4-1 on party lines to approve the deal, which was hashed out behind closed doors during a lengthy executive session, and will be brought back for another ratification of a clean, unedited copy of the contract at the next meeting.

Huckelberry, the county administrator for the past 26 years, encountered substantial opposition, both from the public and among county employees, in asking for a $12,000 raise. His most recent contract expired two weeks ago; the board voted to temporarily extend it to allow for discussion during a meeting Tuesday morning. The supervisors OKed the new contract, but nearly all of them expressed certain reservations.

That meeting, conducted virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was just the second one for the three new supervisors who took office this month. It began with a presentation about the state's Open Meeting Law conducted by Chief Civil Deputy County Attorney Andrew Flagg, who explained the law requiring government business to be conducted during public meetings, with just a few explicit exemptions — including executive sessions for legal advice and some human resources discussions.

The Board of Supervisors then entered into an executive session, with Chair Sharon Bronson announcing that the supervisors would discuss six items from the meeting agenda: items 4, 5 and 6 from the regular agenda, and items 1, 2 and 3 from the addendum. The supervisors unanimously approved a motion to discuss those issues, which include ongoing legal claims against the county.

Huckelberry's contract was listed as item 8 on the regular agenda, with an executive session included.

The county board met behind virtual closed doors, with the public excluded from observing the discussion, for 2.5 hours. Because the motion to go into executive session did not include the agenda item concerning the contract, but instead six other issues, it should not have been discussed during that closed-door portion of the meeting.

As the Arizona Attorney General's Office makes clear: "Before a public body may go into executive session, a majority of the members constituting a quorum must vote in a public meeting to hold the executive session. A.R.S. § 38-431.03(A). The motion must state the ground(s) for the executive session so that the public understands why the public body is entering executive session."

Yet included in that private discussion, despite Bronson's declaration and the board's vote, was Huckelberry's contract — a fact mentioned by several of the board members during the public discussion that followed, after they reconvened in an online live stream.

Supervisor Steve Christy had earlier announced that he would refuse to take part in any executive session discussion of the contract. The Republican has for years favored firing Huckelberry, and was the sole no vote on the contract renewal.

During the public discussion, Christy claimed that other supervisors were violating the rules of the executive session, by mentioning the points that they had raised during it and questioning Flagg about the proper procedures. Bronson overruled his point of order.

Christy did not raise the apparent procedural violation of the board having not voted that the contract item would be reviewed during an executive session as they recessed the regular public meeting.

During the public portion of the meeting, on a motion by Supervisor Rex Scott, the contract as proposed by Huckelberry was changed to cut his pay $10,000, rather than giving him a raise.

Huckelberry has had a base salary of $302,000 and was asking for $315,000 annually through Jan. 7, 2025. That would have been a 4.3 percent increase, and a paycheck of just more than $6,057 weekly.

The approved deal also cut any automatic raises for the administrator, instead making any increases contingent on "evaluations as determined by the board," Scott said.

Added to the contract is a provision to allow Huckelberry, who's now 71 years old, to potentially retire under Arizona's state retirement plan, and continue to work as the administrator as a contractor while collecting his pension.

If the board were to fire Huckelberry without due cause, his severance pay would be 3 months — cut from the proposed 6 months.

Scott said that he found it "very troubling that so many of our employees" don't see Pima County as a caring and supportive place to work. But he said Huckelberry "manifests many of the traits of a true servant leader" and has an "almost encyclopedic" knowledge of the county's operations, and has assembled an "exceptionally skilled and dedicated crew."

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said that it was "notable" that so many outspoken opponents of renewing Huckelberry as administrator were county employees, and said that she would "like to see improvement in diversity in leadership," with "more people of color" in top staff positions.

Grijalva also suggested that the county set up an "employee relations department" that reports to the board, as a conduit for communicating with staffers.

Supervisor Matt Heinz, the third new Democrat on the board, said, "I don't like the contract; I made it pretty clear in our discussion."

Noting that the deal does not formalize any performance reviews,  Heinz said "the only way to be absolutely sure (that takes place) is if it is structurally required" and that he'd prefer an extension for just one or two years.

Christy said that he'd be "voting for the second time against renewing Mr. Huckelberry's contract," saying that "it is and has been for many years, time for a change in our county government."

Bronson briefly said she supported the renewal because of Huckelberry's attention to a "three-legged stool" of "economy, environment and equity," noting that she has "worked very closely" with him, especially on economic development measures.

Under the contract, Huckelberry's benefits include:

  • A county vehicle or a $550 monthly vehicle allowance, to include liability insurance, maintenance and repairs.
  • Paid health insurance.
  • Three weeks of sick and vacation time in addition to what county employees with 20-plus years already receive.
  • $26,000 annually toward the state retirement plan and $15,000 toward a supplemental retirement plan.
  • $8,200 contribution to the Health Savings Account, or the maximum allowed each year.

At a meeting two weeks ago, a majority of the county board — which includes those three new members who were attending their first-ever meeting of the supervisors — 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 raised hackles both among them and the public.

Huckelberry has been the top staffer for the county since 1993. As the county's chief executive, Huckelberry reports to the supervisors, and oversees the implementation of the county's $1.4 billion budget.

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 this Tuesday's meeting, to allow them to include an executive session so they can get legal advice and potentially negotiate with the administrator behind closed doors.

To end 2020, Huckelberry told the supervisors that Pima County is "out of funding" to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county faces a $15 million shortfall with federal COVID-19 response funds nearly all spent, and some $55 million in additional aid will be needed to continue fighting the outbreak in Southern Arizona, he said.

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