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Pima Supes OK Lesher's contract; Huckelberry getting $1.1 million in 'excess' pension

Pima Supes OK Lesher's contract; Huckelberry getting $1.1 million in 'excess' pension

Questions remain about 'secret' retirement of 29-year ex-head of Pima County bureaucracy

  • Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher during Tuesday's meeting.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comPima County Administrator Jan Lesher during Tuesday's meeting.
  • Huckelberry at a 2016 press conference.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comHuckelberry at a 2016 press conference.

Jan Lesher, the new Pima County administrator, will be paid $260,000 per year, significantly less than her predecessor, Chuck Huckelberry — who is being paid out $1.1 million more in retirement than documents revealed previously.

Lesher's contract was approved 3-2 by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, and includes far fewer pricey perks than the agreement with the previous top bureaucrat in the county. Her total employment package will be worth about 30 percent less than Huckleberry's pay and benefits.

The supervisors also included an item on the meeting's agenda to press top staffers for more specific information about how Huckelberry's retirement was kept under wraps from them, and the public.

But members of the board didn't press on questions of whether Pima County policies were violated when written records were not kept of changes in his employment status, nor did they mention how Huckelberry is now being paid out more than $1.1 million in "excess" pension funds that he paid into the Arizona State Retirement System in his decades of working for the county, in addition to his $12,000 monthly pension benefit.

Nor did any of the supervisors push a line of questioning about how Huckelberry could have remained as the county administrator — a full-time position — while being limited by state law to working just 19 hours per week after mid-November.

Sources with knowledge of the situation told the Tucson Sentinel that everything was done orally, with no documents shared between staffers, to keep a lid on Huckelberry's job status for months.

Lesher's contract: Basic benefits

Lesher's new contract as county administrator is $32,000 less than Huckelberry's in base pay, but includes about $75,000 less in perks. Huckelberry's contract for $292,000 in salary also included additional paid time off of 240 hours annually, on top of what a county employee with his years of service would receive. It also included $26,000 per year in additional retirement fund contributions, and $15,000 in contributions each year to a 401(a) retirement account.

Lesher's agreement — which was approved by the board as she proposed — leaves out those extra benefits, and includes regular health, dental and other coverage, as well as vacation and leave, as would be provided to any other county employee with her experience. It does include a monthly vehicle allowance of $550, as did Huckelberry's contract.

The 3-2 vote came after the supervisors spent about 30 minutes in executive session, discussing the deal behind closed doors.

Supervisors Matt Heinz and Steve Christy voted against the contract, with Christy — the lone Republican on the board — saying he was still dissatisfied that the other supervisors had not gone along with his proposal to open the position up to other applicants. He noted he would've preferred a one-year agreement, "with a probationary period."

Heinz had voted for Lesher's appointment two weeks ago. He did not indicate during the meeting why he opposed the contract, but had plenty to say to the Sentinel after the meeting.

The deal "just seems like a over-correction to decrease Jan's overall compensation by $107,000 — 29 percent — when compared to Chuck's," he said.

"It's almost like we were punishing her for his duplicity and unprofessionalism," Heinz said.

Acknowledging that Lesher herself proposed the contract that was accepted without any changes by the board majority, Heinz said "she low-balled it probably out of an abundance of caution coming off of the Chuck debacle."

Both Supervisors Adelita Grijalva and Sharon Bronson said during the meeting that they had concerns about "equal work, equal pay" issues, but voted in favor of the deal.

Heinz told the Sentinel that Leshers's "value to the county is not nor will it be 30 percent less than Chuck's."

"I am at peace with the salary being offered," Lesher said during the meeting, noting that she considered the contract appropriate based on her years of service to the county and the level of the position.

Her new salary is a 13 percent increase from her $231,000 pay as a deputy county administrator.

In addition to the lower salary and smaller benefit package, the contract does not include a provision, such as the one inserted by Huckelberry into his employment agreement, that would allow Lesher to retire under a "double-dip" and collect a pension while still working as the county administrator.

The contract runs through January 2025, when new terms will begin for supervisors following the 2024 election.

Huckelberry's 'secret' retirement questioned

Although a number of the supervisors expressed shock and even flashes of anger when informed by a Tucson Sentinel reporter earlier this month that Huckelberry had in fact retired and been collecting his pension while being paid under his contract with the county, only Christy asked a sustained number of questions about the issues involved during Tuesday's meeting.

Christy asked Lesher if she knew who about Huckelberry's retirement, and if it had been carried out legally.

While she could not recall an exact date, she said she knew about it "sometime after July."

Lesher wrote in a memo to the board last week, after Christy and Heinz had pushed for records and information about the situation, that Huckleberry had "instructed a limited number of staff to closely hold this information."

Noting that "there has been speculation by some in the media" (meaning the Sentinel's push for information and public records) "that there are county personnel records" related to Huckelberry's change in employment status to collect his pension, and a move in November to limit his hours to comply with the Arizona State Retirement System's "20/20 Rule," Lesher told the supervisors "there are no such records."

Pima County policy indicates that all records of changes in employment status are required to be kept in a staffer's personnel file.

County sources told the Sentinel that nothing was done in writing, and that instructions about changes in Huckelberry's status and hours were only made orally, to limit the number of people who knew about them.

County staffers "did as (they) were instructed," Lesher said, in limiting who knew about Huckelberry's employment status. While staffers in Human Resources and the county's payroll division were aware of the changes, they "adhere to a variety of standards of confidentiality regarding not only this employee but every employee."

That information was so closely held, Huckelberry was still listed as a "full time" employee in an internal record of all Pima county staffers as of the middle of March. That document was leaked to the Sentinel by a source who requested anonymity. It did not indicate that Huckelberry's work hours had been changed to just 19 per week, nor that he was retired and collecting his pension.

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 the state's "20/20 Rule" on so-called "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.

One of Huckelberry's attorneys said in a letter to the supervisors, before they voted to accept his resignation, that "he has an employment agreement with Pima County that requires that he work full time."

During the meeting, the supervisors did not question how he might have served as county administrator while working just 19 hours per week. Lesher said in a memo last week that Huckelberry had instructed his hours be changed before the Oct. 23 bike crash that severely injured him, causing him to be out of the office for months.

While Christy said the moves were legal and allowed under Huckelberry's contract, he said "the issue, of course, is the fact that this caught this board and many others in Pima County completely by surprise. We're really not in a position where we're talking about the legality or illegality of what Mr. Huckelberry did, we're talking about how the process evolved, and what the result of his actions did as far as the transparency, the trust, where we can put our faith in our administrators and community leaders."

Supervisors Rex Scott, Christy, and Grijalva again indicated that they weren't happy about learning of Huckelberry's move from a Sentinel reporter, months after he had submitted his retirement and begun collecting his pension.

"It certainly is jarring to hear the news that Mr. Huckelberry had applied for his retirement benefits in July from a member of the media," Scott said during the meeting. "I don't think any of us were prepared for that nor did we appreciate it. But the one person that we would like to ask about that situation is not here, and we're not able to ask him about it."

Christy's request for an agenda item on the topic had included an invitation for Huckelberry's attorneys to attend and answer questions, but they did not appear at the meeting.

Grijalva said the issues should be a "learning opportunity" for the board. "Should he have told us? I think he should have. But is that something that was required explicitly? No."

Lesher said she has already taken steps to provide more transparency, including sending the supervisors a regular update of changes in county staffing, including retirements, dismissals and other shifts in status.

"I am not in a position to go backward on what may have occurred under a different administration," she said. "I can tell you that what we are recognizing is where are the teachable moments that we can use to move a system forward and to provide, we hope, additional transparency for the public and for the board."

Heinz had put forth two proposals to require disclosure of pending retirements from top county staffers, but did not gain support from the rest of the board for those policies.

Instead, Lesher said she'll take the tenor of the supervisors' questions as direction to come up with a policy about disclosures.

"We have heard the general direction loud and clear," she said.

Bronson, the chair of the board, told the Sentinel on Tuesday that she hopes to move on from the issues around Huckelberry's retirement.

"The county budget is the most important" topic right now, she said, citing more "cost shifts" being imposed by the state Legislature.

Extra $1 million in retirement flies under radar

Sending the supervisors a document dump of 718 pages (many of them duplicates) of records that were released to the Sentinel, Daily Star and Arizona Public Media, Lesher said last Friday that "these are the only records that exist."

But letter from state officials, informing Pima County staffers that Huckelberry was due more than $1,139,000 in "excess" retirement funds, was not included in those documents.

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.

The most recent paycheck to Huckelberry, not including a payment of "excess" retirement, was for $9,815 for about 77 hours of remaining vacation time, along with 4 hours of sick time and 31 hours of vacation time used in his final two weeks.

But on top of his pension, Huckelberry was set to receive an additional $10,167.49 each month from the retirement system, as an "excess benefit payment," according to a Nov. 9, 2021 letter from ASRS sent to the county payroll division. That figure has changed to $8,556.09 per month in recent checks, for unexplained reasons.

State officials describe the "excess retirement" amount as "the different between the full amount of pension provided by state law" and the maximum benefit possible under federal limits. Because Huckelberry paid into the ASRS system for decades, and the current federal limits were more recently applied, he is allowed to be paid out the difference.

Each month, the state retirement system will remit to the county the "excess" amount, which the county will then pay to Huckelberry.

Despite the Sentinel repeatedly informing county officials that they should release all records related to Huckelberry's retirement and pay, the letter from ASRS was only provided after documents specifically related to the retirement system were included in a listing of records that had not been released. Nor was it included in the document dump sent to the supervisors.

Huckelberry retired 9 mos. ago, began collecting pension

Lesher, for years the second-in-command of Pima County bureaucracy and for months the acting administrator, was appointed as the replacement for Huckelberry two weeks ago. Her salary and other contract details were approved by the board on Tuesday.

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

Although it was announced at the beginning of the month that Huckelberry would leave his post in the wake of a devastating bike crash, records exclusively revealed by the Tucson Sentinel in a report before his resignation 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 April 4, with them expressing varying degrees of surprise and shock when asked about it.

"That's complete news to me," said Grijalva. "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 raised questions about Bronson's handling of the matter, if she had information that was not relayed to other supervisors.

"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, had 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.

READ MORE from the Sentinel's exclusive April 4 report: Huckelberry retired 9 mos. ago, withheld info from Pima County supervisors

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.

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