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Pima County taps former F-16 pilot Lake-Wright as new constable

Some on Board of Supervisors want to reform or even eliminate elected office

Pima County has filled its constable office for Precinct 5 in the eastern part of the county, keeping alive a position in the “fractured group” of elected officials that some top local officials want to replace with hired county employees.The previous constable, Marge Cummings, retired earlier this year, leaving little more than a year for the appointee serve until an election next November.

The new constable, William J. Lake-Wright, is a registered Republican, former F-16 pilot and paramedic. He spent 20 years as an Air Force officer after enlisting in high school. He was recommended to the constable office “for his ability to remain calm under high pressure...a true grit,” according to a letter to the county board.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 at their meeting on Tuesday to appoint Lake-Wright. Four supervisors spoke in favor of the candidate’s character, including the chair of the county board, Supervisor Sharon Bronson. She and Supervisor Matt Heinz voted against installing Lake-Wright, however, voicing a preference to keep the office vacant.

“I too spoke with the gentlemen, and I think he’ll be a very good constable,” Bronson said after voting against hiring him. “But I really would like to eliminate the position.”

The supervisors who spoke in favor of the motion spoke more about Lake-Wright as a person than the need to save the position in Precinct 5. Supervisor Steve Christy, the county board’s lone Republican, said that the board has to respect that an election put the now-retired constable into their slot and that the supervisors should refill the position.

“It would be incumbent, in my view, that the supervisors respect that official election, an election by the public, and replace that vacated office,” Christy said.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry had previously recommended that the county start their consolidation of the constable's precincts and eliminate the position by leaving it vacant, but he yielded on Tuesday, saying “if you appoint someone who exudes a role model, perhaps it will rub off on others.”

There are nine constables in the county, who are limited law enforcement officials elected from each justice precinct to serve orders of protection, evictions and other court documents from the justices of the peace. The offices are filled by candidates elected on a partisan basis. The supervisors had to pick another Republican to fill Cumming's position after she left office.

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Huckelberry had previously written the filling the position was “unnecessary.”

“This temporary appointment would last about one year and has no efficacy with respect to the need to serve our citizens,” he wrote in memo earlier this month. “There is substantial capacity with the existing constables to redistribute the workload of JP 5 efficiently or hire a civil servant replacement if necessary.”

Huckelberry’s memo carried with it a review of the constables by Mark Napier, the former sheriff now working as an assistant county administrator. In Napier’s opinion, the constables are a “fractured group” who distribute their work disproportionately and carry out their duties differently despite getting paid $67,000 each, no matter their workload or efficiency.

“They seem incapable of reaching full consensus on how to address many issues,” Napier wrote, noting they don’t even dress the same. “While we respect the autonomy of elected officials, there should not be such significant deviation in the level of performance, appearance and manner of administration of duties between them.”

Napier goes on to make several recommendations like reducing their pay, eliminating the Precinct 5 and redistributing their workload randomly like the county Consolidated Justice Courts.

Presiding Constable Mark Stevenson said that Napier’s recommendations won’t work because of the nature of the constables' role. Stevenson pointed out that distributing workload like the judges in the Consoldiated Justice Courts may lead to multiple constables delivering papers to the same area or having to travel across the county.

Stevenson also said that constables cover work as the need arises and fill in for constables who can’t deliver their papers. A decrease in their pay would be “detrimental to the individuals, the team atmosphere and cooperation to maintain a balance in the work product.”

He agreed, according to a letter to Napier, that there is a disparity in the number of papers that each constable receives, but argued that Napier isn’t seeing the “successful service we perform” by just looking at the number of papers served. He also said “we have many factors unique to our work that makes a true consolidation difficult to achieve.”

One county constable, Oscar Vasquez, is currently suspended for refusing to carry out an eviction of a mother and her children, despite a court order, and for a pattern of misbehavior including speeding in a county vehicle and following and yelling at someone who almost hit his car. Other constables have had to pick up his workload during his six-month suspension, which began in July.

Another Pima County constable who’s attracted attention is Kristen Randall, but she’s been called a “rebel eviction-enforcer” because choosing to alert tenants about coming evictions and connect them to housing assistance resources. Randall has said in the past that she does her job differently from other constables but has worked with other constables to create a “housing first mentality” among constables.

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In March of last year, all the constables, including the presiding constable at the time, Bennett Bernal, alongside Randall, Stevenson, Vasquez and Cummings, signed a declaration that they would stop serving eviction papers on residents, citing the threat of transmitting coronavirus due to the many households they contact daily.

This was in the first few days of the pandemic in the US, when emergency declarations and shelter-in-place orders were taking place, and a few months before the declaration of federal eviction moratorium that stopped most evictions until late August, when the Supreme Court ruled it down.

Only one other application came in for the Precinct 5 appointment, but the applicant withdrew earlier this month “for a sudden turn of events.”

Lake-Wright has previously worked in an ownership role for a limousine company and a construction company. He can run for reelection in the the 2022 election and seek a four-year elected term.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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William Lake-Wright is the new constable for Pima County's Justice Precinct 5 in the eastern part of the county. Lake-Wright is a former F-16 pilot, paramedic and business owner.

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