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Supervisors vote to refuse Operation Stonegarden border funds

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Supervisors vote to refuse Operation Stonegarden border funds

  • Protestors during the Pima County Supervisor's meeting on Tuesday.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comProtestors during the Pima County Supervisor's meeting on Tuesday.
  • Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier and Isabel Garcia discuss Operation Stonegarden during a break in the public comment on Tuesday.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comPima County Sheriff Mark Napier and Isabel Garcia discuss Operation Stonegarden during a break in the public comment on Tuesday.
  • Supervisor Ramón Valadez voted to terminate the grant funding for Operation Stonegarden.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comSupervisor Ramón Valadez voted to terminate the grant funding for Operation Stonegarden.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 on Tuesday to terminate Operation Stonegarden here, rejecting a $1.4 million  federal grant for border-enforcement patrols by the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

Supervisor Ramón Valadez, the swing vote, moved to terminate the grant, and was followed by Supervisors Sharon Bronson and Richard Elias. Supervisor Steve Christy was the single no vote as Supervisor Ally Miller, the other Republican on the board, was absent from the meeting. 

The decision puts to rest months of doubt about the future of Operation Stonegarden in Pima County. In January, the supervisors hesitated to accept the grant. In February, Valadez, along with Christy and Miller, voted to accept the federal money, but only with a lengthy set of conditions. This year's Stonegarden grant included $1,191,000 earmarked for overtime and mileage, and another $237,967 reserved for equipment for the sheriff's department. 

On Tuesday, more than four dozen people spoke out about the federal program during more than three hours of public comment, with those asking the board to finally reject the grant's provisions outnumbering proponents by a 4-to-1 margin.

Valadez struggled with his decision, he said, saying that there were "consequences to both sides of this argument, and neither side wants to take those consequences seriously, but they're there." 

He said that over the last several days, he had gone back and forth with his decision, and struggled as "both sides have their merits and demerits." 

"The consequences to both are unacceptable," Valadez said. He said that only about five percent of Pima County's border with Mexico is under the jurisdiction of PCSD, noting that parts of the county are covered by officials in the Tohono O'odham Nation, along with federal wildlife refuges that are managed and policed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Bureau of Land Management. 

Valadez also said that the state Legislature had stopped governing the Border Strike Force, a state partnership with the federal government. 

While Stonegarden funds have been accepted by the county over the last 12 years, the Trump administration's policies had "come to bear," Valadez said, citing the Trump administration's policies of family separation, pursuit of asylum seekers, and an "unrelenting and misplaced faith in the border wall." 

Christy argued that the sheriff's department does not enforce immigration laws, and said that move against the grant was "political grandstanding at the worst, and sheer melodrama at the best." 

Christy also said that those who commented at the meeting " do not represent all the people of Pima County."  People in the county support the sheriff's department, "and they support the Stonegarden grant, including ICE, DHS and Border Patrol," he said. 

Later, Christy said he couldn't understand why the board would vote to turn down federal money that would protect the citizens of the county; "it's overwhelming," he said. 

Following the vote, Sheriff Mark Napier said that he would have to reconsider how to deploy his deputies without the Stonegarden funding. 

"I'll have to look on how to provide resources to do some of the same things that we have been doing, but now with taxpayer dollars rather than federal funding, which puts me in a real bind," Napier said. 

Napier has already expended about $500,000 from this year's federal grant, but the remaining funds, totaling around $900,000, cannot be spent. 

"What's more problematic is what we do with equipment we've bought with Stonegarden funding, the longer part of that program, the federal government could come back at me and say 'we want that equipment back,' which would be parts of our helicopter, a whole bunch of things. We just don't know yet," he said. 

"Nothing the board did today ends Stonegarden, it doesn't abolish ICE, it doesn't change in any measurable way, our relationship with our federal partners," Napier said. "Stonegarden money will continue to flow out of Washington D.C. through FEMA and it will go somewhere. The money that they rejected today will be spent by other people," he said. 

Napier called the loss of Stonegarden was "unthinkable." 

"We're the largest county and second most populous border county in the nation, so for us to not be a strategic partner is just unthinkable," Napier said. 

During public comments more than 40 people spoke, mostly arguing against the Stonegarden funding. 

Najima Rainey, the head of Black Lives Matter in Tucson, called on the supervisors to reject the grant. 

"It comes down to terms of the grant," Rainey said, adding that under the grant, deputies "have to cooperate with the Border Patrol. The grant is for them to cooperate with the Border Patrol. That’s it and that’s what matters." 

"We have said, we don’t want to cooperate with a government that commits acts that go against our community standards," she said. "This is a bribe and an invitation to collaborate." Rainey's comments were followed by standing applause from the nearly full gallery. 

Bryan Flagg, who runs the Casa Maria soup kitchen, asked Valadez to reject the funding. "You’re the swing vote if I’m not mistaken." 

"If you and I walked through District 2, and talked to all the people, they would be overwhelmingly against the grant going to Pima County cooperating with Border Patrol. Represent your district, represent the South Side," Flagg said. 

Kristen Grommer, who came in a wheelchair pushed by her husband Mark, asked the board to accept the grant by noting that a PCSD helicopter crew had saved her after she fell from a 30-foot cliff in Reddington Pass. 

"We are not recognizing the good that [deputies] do, millions of people who would not be here today because of law enforcement and search and rescue teams," Grommer said. 

Among those who spoke in favor of the grant were four members of sheriff's department, including bureau chief Byron Gwaltney, helicopter pilot Milt Kennedy, operations chief Karl Woolridge, and the head of the department's station in Ajo, Robert Koumal. 

"As a law enforcement professional, I deal with the realities of what I see," Koumal said, adding that he sees Operation Stonegarden as beneficial. Koumal argued that the cooperation between the department and federal officials, including Border Patrol, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and the Bureau of Land Management is necessary in the remote areas surrounding the Ajo Station. "The calvary is two hours away," he said, adding that the relationship between PCSD and federal officials was a "mutual necessity" and that Stonegarden allowed the agency to act as a deterrent. 

"It's a million dollars of deterrence," Koumal said. 

Gwaltney said that Stonegarden puts deputies in "under-served communities" and helps fund aircraft for operations, a comment echoed by Kennedy, who said that money from federal government through Stonegarden helped the department to purchase a hoist for Sheriff One, the department's helicopter. 

Kennedy, in his green flight uniform, said that recently while flying, he found 14 people "desperately in need of help" in the desert.

"At that moment, they didn’t care about politics, they only knew one thing: they were going to live," said Kennedy. "My presence in that area meant that they were going to live," he said.  

The federal program is offered as a boon to border counties by covering costs for overtime overtime expenses, mileage and fuel costs for patrols, and equipment, allocating $55 million annually for nearly two dozen law enforcement agencies in counties along the Canadian and Mexican borders, including about $11 million to Arizona.

For more than a decade, county officials have accepted the grant's funding, taking in more than $7.2 million in funding in just the last five years, according to the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, which manages the grant program under U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The supervisors' steps in January to reject the grant, once a consent agenda item regularly approved by the board, caught many people flat-footed. 

Following the decision, and a flurry of memos, the supervisors agreed in February to accept the money during a contentious meeting in which Valadez switched his vote, joining Miller and Christy in a 3-2 approval, against Democratic Supervisors Bronson and Elias. 

As part of Valadez's vote, he added five conditions to the grant, including the creation of a citizens' board formed by two appointees per supervisor, tasked with reviewing data and policy on a quarterly basis.

The commission, however, has struggled with its tasks over the last few months, in part because Miller has not appointed two members to the commission, and Christy has only appointed one member, leaving three seats vacant.

"I feel comfortable that not only have we met the five conditions, but in some places we've actually exceeded those conditions," said in August. 

This statement was echoed on Tuesday by Billy Peard, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, who said that the sheriff's department under Napier has been "diligent" in pursuing ongoing reforms related to Operation Stonegarden, and that the office had "gone far beyond" what other agencies have done, including the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which is under the "force of a court order," Peard said. 

"People have real concerns, and we've listened those concerns, we've developed a racial profiling policy, and we've engaged in community groups," Napier said Tuesday. "I'm probably the only Republican sheriff in the United States who actively engages the ACLU to look at our policies and our procedures." 

"We were doing good work with this," Napier said. "It's a shame to see that go by the wayside." 

Napier argued that Stonegarden allows the department to put 500 deputies in places that the agency cannot typically get to, and are used heavily by drug and human traffickers, such as the Ajo corridor where State Route 85 runs north to Interstate 8.

"There are 4,000 Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector, and I have about 500 badge and gun people — deputies — to patrol 9,200 square miles," Napier said. "The federal money overtime lets me deploy those resources to places that I typically cannot get to, but we know are heavily used by drug and human traffickers."

While the board struck down Operation Stonegarden, they agreed 3-1 to accept money for a separate program known as the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, or HIDTA, which provides funding to "facilitate, support and enhance collaborative drug control efforts" in Arizona. 

The HIDTA grant will give the county about $363,000 to support drug interdiction. 

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly listed the prevailing three votes in the February vote to accept Stonegarden funds.

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