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Lesher appointed Pima County admin after Supes accept Huckelberry resignation

Longtime 2nd lieutenant Jan Lesher named to top non-elected post in county government

Jan Lesher, for years the second-in-command of Pima County bureaucracy and for months the acting administrator, was appointed as the replacement for Chuck Huckelberry on Tuesday, as the Board of Supervisors voted to name her to the position, and negotiate a contract with her later.

The supervisors voted 4-1, with Republican Supervisor Steve Christy dissenting from the Democratic majority, to immediately appoint Lesher, who's been serving as the acting county administrator in the wake of Huckelberry being severely injured in an October crash.

The move makes Lesher, 66, the first woman to be appointed as permanent Pima County administrator.

The supervisors also unanimously to accept the resignation and "terminate" the contract of the former county administrator, who spent 29 years at his desk on the penultimate floor of the county building.

Lesher was in tears as the board voted her into the post, and embraced many of the supervisors immediately after the decision, which came at the end of a 6.5-hour meeting.

The supervisors did not vote to offer a specific contract to Lesher, nor did they name anyone to negotiate a deal with her, indicating that process would be dealt with in a future board meeting.

Although a number of the supervisors expressed shock and even flashes of anger when informed by a Tucson Sentinel reporter on Monday that Huckelberry had in fact retired and been collecting his pension while being paid under his contract with the county, none of them addressed that issue from the dais on Tuesday.

Lesher is a Tucson native who attended the University of Arizona, graduating with a degree in political science.

From a county news release:

In her early career she worked for the city of Tucson as an assistant to City Manager Joel Valdez. In 1990 she became a small business owner, launching Lesher Communications, a public relations firm specializing in government relations, public affairs, and political campaigns.

In 2003, Gov. Janet Napolitano hired Lesher to run her Southern Arizona Office. Napolitano then made her director of the Arizona Department of Commerce before finally hiring her to be the governor’s chief of staff in 2008. In 2009, Napolitano was confirmed as the Homeland Security Secretary in the Obama administration and Napolitano brought Lesher with her to Washington D.C. to continue to serve as her chief of staff and oversee a department with 240,000 employees and a $52 billion budget.

Lesher missed her home state and in 2010 returned to Tucson where Huckelberry hired her as a special assistant to the county administrator. Lesher was promoted to deputy county administrator in 2011 and Huckelberry named her chief deputy county administrator in 2017.

Before considering the personnel moves in public, the supervisors spent 45 minutes in a closed-door portion of the meeting, discussing the issue with attorneys present.

Supervisor Rex Scott moved to accept Huckelberry's resignation, which he submitted via his attorney Monday evening, "with the understanding that acceptance terminates the employment relationship, and that this action by the board... terminates the employment contract."

"He's a hometown boy and made his home town a better place to live, work, and raise a family through decades of selfless service," Scott said of Huckelberry. "We all owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude."

"I personally wish him nothing but the best in his retirement and hope that he continues on his path to a full recovery," said Supervisor Adelita Grijalva.

"It's well known that Mr. Huckelberry and I had numerous and profound differences over policy over the last five years. But one thing I must point out is that I never had to knock on his door, because it was always open to me," said Supervisor Christy.

Board Chair Sharon Bronson said that "Chuck would have made an excellent CEO in a private firm, but instead he chose Pima County, and Pima County is the better for it."

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After the meeting, Scott said that the "terminate" language was meant to indicate that the county accepted Huckelberry's resignation, and that the contract with him was ended.

Lesher gets top slot

Lesher, wiping tears from her eyes, sat quietly with other county staffers at the back of the meeting room as the supervisors quickly moved to the question of naming her as Huckelberry's replacement.

Christy suggested that the county carry out a search, open first to current county employees, and then expanding to a "regional basis if necessary" and in the "last and least desirable resort, to a national search." That motion died for lack of a second.

Heinz moved instead to appoint Lesher as the county administrator, and was seconded by Grijalva.

Scott voiced "proud" support for the move, saying "I know that the days since Oct. 23 have been extraordinarily difficult for her, because not just her boss but her friend was grievously injured. She has stepped into the role that we have called on her to fill with extraordinary integrity and dignity and her usual formidable work ethic."

The supervisors approved the appointment 4-1, with Grijalva calling out "congratulations" and Bronson saying "or condolences" with a smile as she gaveled the meeting to a close.

Huckelberry retired 9 mos. ago, began collecting pension

Although it was announced last week that Huckelberry would leave his post in the wake of a devastating bike crash, records exclusively revealed by the Tucson Sentinel in a report Monday 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 Grijalva on Monday. "It's completely unacceptable" that the board wasn't informed he had retired nine months ago.

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

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 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.

"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."

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.

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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, 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, made last week, 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.

Late Monday, after supervisors were apprised of the situation by the Sentinel, officials added a memo to the agenda material for the Tuesday meeting, explaining that Huckelberry had been paid full-time under his contract through the beginning of November, and then for 19 hours per week after that, to accord with state laws on "double-dip" employment. Huckelberry's contract, however, did not indicate that less than full-time employment was an option, even if he should choose to retire.

READ MORE from the Sentinel's exclusive report: Huckelberry retired 9 mos. ago, withheld info from Pima County supervisors

Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted incorrect biographical information provided by Pima County.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Lesher during Tuesday's meeting.

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

Pima County managers/administrators

Prior to 1971, Pima County did not have a single top bureaucrat, with department heads reporting to the Board of Supervisors. That year, county government was restructured after Maricopa County's, with a county manager running the central administration. In 1993, the position was renamed to county administrator with the short-lived appointment of Manoj Vyas.

  • Joseph Herrick, 1971-1972
  • Kenneth Scharman, 1972-1979
  • Craig McDowell, 1979-1986
  • Jim Riley, 1986-1989
  • Jane Verner, 1989 (interim)*
  • Enrique Serna, 1989-1993
  • Manoj Vyas, 1993
  • Chuck Huckelberry, 1993-2022
  • Jan Lesher, 2022-present

* Verner out-maneuvered Huckelberry, then a fellow assistant county administrator, for the 1989 interim appointment.