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Huckelberry retired 9 mos. ago, withheld info from Pima County supervisors

Board learned county administrator was collecting pension when questioned by Tucson Sentinel reporter

Although it was announced last week that Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry would leave his post in the wake of a devastating bike crash, records revealed by the Tucson Sentinel show that the longtime local government honcho actually retired on July 4, 2021, and began receiving his pension.

That Huckelberry — the top county staffer for the past 29 years — had handed in his retirement papers and apparently exercised a clause in his contract allowing him to continue working as a non-employee consultant was unknown to the members of the Board of Supervisors. Each said that they first learned of that fact because of questions from a Sentinel reporter on Monday, with them expressing varying degrees of surprise and shock when asked about it.

"That's complete news to me," said Supervisor Adelita Grijalva on Monday. "It's completely unacceptable" that the board wasn't informed he had retired nine months ago.

"Wow," said Supervisor Steve Christy. "That's bizarre. It's news to me."

Board Chairwoman Sharon Bronson said "I assumed everybody knew; they should've known" that Huckelberry "yanked his retirement," but later walked back her comments to say that she had a discussion with the county administrator sometime in October, prior to his injuries, about him taking that step before the end of the year.

"It's odd that he didn't share" with the other supervisors, she told the Sentinel.

"Oh... oh," she said, when told that records showed he'd already retired in July.

"It was a poor decision on his part" to not inform the board, said Supervisor Matt Heinz, who also questioned Bronson's handling of the matter, suggesting he may call for her to step down as chair if she knew that Huckelberry had retired.

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"Every single taxpayer in the county had a right to know" about the move, he said. "What a catastrophe. This undermines the confidence that people should have in us."

Supervisor Rex Scott said that while "I knew (Huckelberry leaving) was something that was going to be in the offing," he wasn't able to comment on the July 4 retirement, as he didn't have all of the details when informed of it by the Sentinel.

Huckelberry, 72, has not been working for the county since being knocked off his bike while riding Downtown in October, when a vehicle crashed into him. He had a traumatic brain injury, punctured lung and broken ribs, and was hospitalized for nearly a month before being moved to a physical rehabilitation facility.

Details about his condition have been closely held for months, but Huckelberry was released and returned home in January, receiving treatment as he continues to recover.

$12,228 monthly pension

Last Thursday, Supervisor Sharon Bronson added the acceptance of his resignation to the agenda for a Board of Supervisors meeting set for Tuesday morning.

Huckelberry had indicated he was leaving his position last week in a phone call, Bronson said. But he showed reluctance to submit a written statement about it until late Monday afternoon, sending the board chair after 4:30 p.m. the succinct email that "I desire to resign as the county administrator due to the recovery time now required as a result of my bicycle accident." About 40 minutes later, he sent a more complete letter, saying "I hereby resign as the Pima County administrator in order to concentrate my full efforts on the recovery of my health. However, I am not resigning from Pima County," and offering his services in the future.

According to records that the Sentinel requested from the Arizona State Retirement System, Huckelberry has been on retired status since July 4 of last year, collecting a pension of $12,228 per month.

Huckelberry's salary was set last January at $292,000, along with an extensive benefit package, including health insurance (which Pima County self-funds), extra sick and vacation time, extra retirement contributions and a health savings account. His pension would be paid on top of that amount under a retirement/continuing contractor arrangement.

Pima County officials have not responded to a request for a copy of Huckelberry's personnel file, which is a public record that could answer questions about how he has been paid, and what benefits have been covered by county taxpayers, both in the period prior to him being hit by a Jeep while riding his bicycle on Oct. 23, and while he has not been working in the six months since.

Closed-door discussion added to Supes agenda

While Bronson added both the acceptance of Huckelberry's resignation and the possible appointment of Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher to the permanent post to the list of topics for Tuesday's meeting, there were no specific executive session items about those issues until they were added Monday morning, just before the 24-hour legal deadline to set the agenda.

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Supervisors Adelita Grijalva, Matt Heinz and Rex Scott signed a request to have those closed-door discussions added for the purposes of getting legal advice.

'Who knew what, when?'

"We need to know who knew what, and when did they know it?," Heinz told the Sentinel on Monday.

Grijalva said she "found out Chuck was resigning when I landed in San Diego" on Thursday afternoon for a trip last week.

"I haven't seen a letter" of resignation, which she said would be "pretty standard for that position."

"It's completely unacceptable. We are a board of five (members). He should have had a meeting to minimally let his supervisors know" he was exercising the retirement clause, she said.

'Double-dip' clause

As the Sentinel reported last January, the supervisors approved a contract that, in part, would allow Huckelberry to retire, collect his pension, and continue working as a contractor rather than an employee. That so-called "double-dip" is legal under Arizona law — with proponents noting that, in general, it may not increase staff costs because the continued work does not increase the basis for a pension, and some benefits are limited to only those working as employees.

"If Employee retires as allowed by the Arizona State Retirement System, Employee can return to work as a contractor without any negation of the terms of this contract, including its length," Huckelberry's contract read.

Because county officials have not released Huckelberry's personnel records, which the Sentinel requested last week, it's not clear what his status was in the payroll system, how much he was being paid, or what benefits he was receiving — including health insurance.

The contract stipulated that "Employee's accumulated unused vacation and sick leave will be paid to Employee at the termination of this Agreement at his rate of pay then in effect."

It's not clear how much, if any, vacation and leave Huckelberry had accumulated, or if any was used after he was injured in the October crash.

Supervisor Christy, the lone Republican among the supervisors, said he first "heard about (Huckelberry's resignation) when it was announced in the addendum" to the meeting agenda.

Christy questioned whether the contract approved by the board — which he voted against last year — would allow Huckelberry to continue working, without the supervisors having to OK another, new contract.

"How I read it" is that a new agreement should be necessary, he said.

Bronson, the chair of the board, told the Sentinel that "his contract allows him to work 20 hours a week" and that the ability to retire and continue as county administrator "was in his contract."

While the contract includes a clause about retirement, it does not include any provision about reducing work hours, despite Bronson's statement.

"Last October, we talked about how he was going to pull the trigger on his retirement," Bronson said. "I never knew he officially" did so.

"Chuck said he was going to do it by the end of the year," Bronson said. "We were talking about a whole bunch of things; he didn't say when he was going to do it."

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"Chuck never 'quits," said Bronson, who said she wasn't quite sure of the date she had a discussion with Huckelberry about him retiring. "It's unfortunate that he didn't inform the rest of the board, but at the same time we've benefited by his expertise and competence."

Heinz had a slew of questions, which he's likely to raise during Tuesday's board meeting.

"Did we pay him a salary as an independent contractor while he was not able to perform his work as an independent contractor?," he asked rhetorically.

"Has he cashed out all his leave?," Heinz asked. "This isn't an attack against Chuck, but I'm not pleased about how this is going down."

"We need to be respectful of county taxpayers," he said. "That's being short-circuited if the county administrator and board chair don't inform the other supervisors of his status."

Huckelberry did not respond to the Sentinel's attempts to contact him for this report Monday.

'Very irritated'

"How's he getting paid? I don't know," Grijalva said.

"There's been no communication at all," she said. "This is exactly why people make assumptions about what is being discussed behind closed doors."

"I would hope that one of us was notified," she told the Sentinel. "Respectfully, I shouldn't be finding it out from (a reporter). That, again, should be public info for all of us, you included. All of us should have access to the same information."

"Mr. Huckelberry should have notified us; this should have all been done in public," she said. "It's completely and totally appropriate if that's what he wants to do (because it's in his contract)."

"Did Jan (Lesher) know?," she asked rhetorically.

Heinz, who works as a medical doctor outside of his county duties, compared the period since Huckelberry began collecting his pension to a pregnancy.

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"When our employee decides to retire, and it's nine months ago? That's a gestation," he said.

"That is not OK," he said. "Why did we not know that? If (Bronson) did withhold that information, she has absolutely undermined this whole process."

"It is a lie" for the other supervisors to be kept in the dark, he said. "She's not a board of one. The chair doesn't get some magical extra ability to do things unilaterally."

If Bronson held back information about Huckelberry's status, "she had better resign as chair immediately," he said.

Huckelberry making sure the board was informed would have ben the "decent, professional, appropriate thing to do," Heinz said. "We're talking about the CEO of a county of 1.1 million people, with 7,000 employees. We don't have a CEO right now."

"Every single taxpayer in the county had a right to know," Heinz said. Between his pension and what the county has paid him, Huckelberry "has been making $500,000 a year."

"It was a poor decision on his part; three months before his terrible accident, there was plenty of time in there, for him to do the courteous thing, to be the professional we all know him to be," Heinz said.

"We didn't ever approve him as an independent contractor," Heinz said. "It's not as easy as" just retiring and continuing to work. "A lot of stuff is different."

Supes ponder legal action

The request for an executive session for legal advice by Grijalva, Heinz and Scott includes reviewing the "potential need for outside counsel."

"Our legal counsel (at the Pima County Attorney's Office) is conflicted," said Grijalva.

Because PCAO has defended Huckelberry's actions as county administrator in other court cases, even though he has two outside attorneys — Ted Schmidt and Larry Hecker — the supervisors may hire a different outside legal firm to represent the taxpayers' interests in this employment matter.

Scott said "we felt like it was prudent for the board to have these (legal) discussions — we have personnel matters to discuss in exec."

Heinz noted that a prolonged legal tussle with Huckelberry — who even on Monday appeared to indicate that he wanted to continue working for the county — wouldn't reflect well on the supervisors.

"What kind of ogres do we look like if we're trying to claw back money given to him over the past six months?," he said.

Prior to sending his "desire to resign" email to Bronson, Huckelberry had responded to a legally required email notifying him that his position at the county would be discussed in an executive session (and providing him the opportunity to move that discussion from behind closed doors and hold it in public), by simply saying "Acknowledge resigning as county administer (sic) and not as county employee."

Huckelberry began working for the county as a transportation engineer in 1974, moving up to department director five years later, then assistant county administrator in 1986. He was tapped as the top administrator in 1993 after a tumultuous period at the top of the county building.

'Never knew what hit him' in crash

Huckelberry was riding "fully in the bike lane and wearing a helmet" on October 23 when he was thrown off his bike when a vehicle attempted a left-hand turn from the right lane of Congress Avenue, and hit the rear of west-bound Jeep in the left lane, sending that vehicle up on two wheels, when it "bumped the rear tire of Chuck's bike," said one of his attorneys, Ted Schmidt.

"He never knew what hit him" the attorney told the Tucson Sentinel last week.

Huckelberry has been "getting better, remarkably so; he wants to get back to work," Schmidt said. "But it's time to face the music. He's not able to return right now (because of his injuries). That's likely not ever going to happen."

"It's in the best interest of the county to lift the cloud of this recovery" and let the Board and county administration move ahead, Schmidt said.

Huckelberry "continues with therapy" and "has a positive attitude, which is a real plus for his recovery," the attorney said.

But, Schmidt said, he had a "very traumatic brain injury" and often has trouble communicating and processing information. "But he has moments of lucidity, you'd swear he never had an injury."

Just Wednesday, a day before before Bronson told the board clerk to add accepting the county administrator's retirement to the agenda for Tuesday's meeting, Huckelberry's family issued a press release via the county, saying they had "good news."

"He is in great health and speaks often about his eagerness to return to work," they said in a written statement. "As we all know, Chuck is a very strong, positive, and optimistic person, so it is not hard to understand that his improvement has led him to express to friends and county coworkers a desire to return to work at the county. However, his doctors say that, while his optimism is a plus in his recovery, he should focus on his continued dedicated work with his therapists. His care team and family will continue to assess his recovery and evaluate when a return to work might be possible. Thank you to all who continue to send us your prayers and concerns for Chuck’s health."

Monday, Huckelberry sent a letter to county officials, formally informing them that he is indeed leaving the desk at which he's sat for nearly 30 years.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry at a Feb. 4, 2020, meeting of the Board of Supervisors.

Charles Huckelberry Resignation

At 5:15 p.m. Monday, Huckelberry's attorney sent a letter of resignation to Supervisor Bronson:

Dear Chair Bronson:

I hereby resign as the Pima County administrator in order to concentrate my full efforts on the recovery of my health. However, I am not resigning from Pima County. Pima County has a bright and prosperous future with many opportunities and unlimited potential for everyone. After I have recovered, I will be available to assist the County Administrator's Office and Board of Supervisors in achieving those opportunities and that future.

It has been a great honor to have served as county administrator. I am proud of the many accomplishments of the Board of Supervisors, the deputy county administrators in my office, and all county employees. Pima County's response to the COVID-19 pandemic became the model for many other jurisdictions nationwide.

Thank you for the opportunity to have served the people of our great community.

Charles H. Huckelberry

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