Lesher looks to axe Pima constable pay as resignations leave office nearly empty
Constables Office continues to shrink, creating safety and workload challenges; administrator pushes reforms
Pima County Constable John Dorer will leave his post at the end of the week after the Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to accept his resignation. The Constables Office continues to shrink as it faces challenges such as safety and unequal workloads.
Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher has recommended that the Board of Supervisors cut the pay of constables in coming years if the office — which is collectively run by the independently elected constables — doesn't enact a series of changes.
Presiding Constable William Lake-Wright, who's been pushing for policy shifts in the office, said Wednesday that he considers Lesher's proposals "not suprising," but he's "not opposed to any of the recommendations."
"Nobody will have any heartache" about the changes that Lesher is asking for, Lake said. "I am going to get some bemoaning about the docking in pay."
The county board has been searching for applicants who to replace Dorer, who must be Republicans and live in his precinct. The submission deadline is Nov. 18. Constables are responsible for serving legal documents such as evictions or orders of protection, also known as restraining orders, and other documents for the county Justice Courts.
Dorer's resignation comes just weeks after Michael Stevenson, who headed the office as the presiding constable, submitted his own resignation. Stevenson served as constable for JP10, which includes areas such as Marana and Picture Rocks. The county board expect to appoint Stevenson's replacement on Nov. 15.
Dorer worked as a Tucson police officer before becoming a county constable in 2020. He went to Rincon High School and graduated from the University of Arizona with a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture, according to Dorer’s website. He has worked in law enforcement for more than 30 years.
Supervisor Adelita Grijalva called these resignations "a cause for concern." Board Chair Sharon Bronson responded, “We all share your concerns.”
Stevenson wrote that he was resigning “due to personal reasons.” The supervisors accepted his resignation at their Oct. 18 meeting. At that meeting, Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, remarked that “we should get rid of the constables,” but state law doesn’t allow the county to do so. Democratic Supervisor Matt Heinz has also expressed a desire to change the office.
Lesher: Shape up or pay cut
Noting that the constables don't work directly for the Board of Supervisors, but are each independent elected officials, Lesher told the supervisors in a memo Wednesday that they do hold "the power of the purse."
The board should "formally request" that the constables work to reform their office, which a county report last September called "not a unified group," with the constables not approaching "their duties in the same manner or with the same philosophy," Lesher said.
If the constables don't revamp operations to the board's satisfaction, the supervisors can cut their pay — currently $67,000 annually — to the legal minimum of $48,294.
The recommendations are "already in the works or being done already," Lake said. "It's nothing that's going to be a shock to them," referring to the other constables, though "the part about docking pay is unique," Lake said.
The potential pay reduction is an "empty threat" because it would discourage a constable from running again for their position as well as other candidates from running to fill it, he said.
"It's not going to affect a constable for that term, so anybody can turn around and say they're not going to do the job," he said. "The only person is screws over is the incoming constable."
"As new constables come on board, if the policies already there and they're already in practice, it become a standard instead of an option," he said.
And then there were 3
Recently, only three constables have been working in Pima County, Lake said. He discounts Constable Jose Gonzalez in JP3 because Gonzalez works in Ajo, but Lake, George Camacho and Bennett Bernal have been serving papers in the much busier Tucson metro area, Lake, who covers the soon-to-be-gone JP5 in the eastern part of the county, said.
Lake, who shortened his name to Bill Lake on the ballot while running as a write-in Republican candidate during the primaries, is optimistic, however.
"It's an unfortunate situation with everybody jumping ship and retiring," Lake said. "It is difficult because there's so few of us right now, but I see it as an opportunity for a fresh start."
Constable Thomas Schenek has been on medical leave for three months following surgery on both his feet, but returned to work on Tuesday, Lake said. Constable Oscar Vasquez was in a car accident and hasn't been working. Vasquez was suspended in 2021 for six months after he refused to serve an eviction.
Despite a rise in evictions, since last year, four constables have resigned, one precinct has been eliminated, one constable has been suspended, several have been accused of ethical violations — even felonies — and one constable was killed after six months on the job.
Pima County Constable Deborah Martinez was shot and killed along with two others in August while serving an eviction in North Side Tucson. She was the newest constable in the county at the time of her death.
Martinez served as constable for JP8, which mostly covers Midtown Tucson. She took over for Kristen Randall, the “rebel eviction-enforcer” who resigned in January because of “a great divide between my vision of what a constable should do and between the accepted practice of others,” according to previous Sentinel reporting.
Randall now works for the Green Valley court with Justice of the Peace Ray Carroll, a former Pima County supervisor.
Before her death, Martinez was under investigation for potential felony fraud, forgery, perjury and tampering with public records, by the Arizona Constable Ethics, Standards and Training Board. She had been accused of faking signatures on her petition to run for election this year and lying under oath to get orders of protection against political opponents.
Constable Esther Gonzalez, who was also named in reports about Martinez allegedly forging signatures, has also stopped serving papers in the wake of Martinez's death, Lake said.
Mark Napier, the former assistant county administrator, called the Pima County constables a “fractured group” in an September 2021 report and called for “consolidation” and an “equal workload” by not filling the constable position for JP5, which was vacated in Sept. 2021.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to eliminate JP5 shortly after Constable Marge Cummings resigned. Despite Napier’s recommendation to leave Cummings seat empty, the county board tapped Constable Lake to fill it.
Lake is now running unopposed to take Martinez’s place as the constable for JP8. Randall and Lake consider each other family relatives.
A fresh start
When Stevenson resigned, Lake became the presiding constable. Lake said his position "is unlikely to change anytime soon because first we need constables to vote" for some one else to take the position.
Lake, however, said "when new people come in, that's an opportunity for a fresh start." He wants to standardize how the constables are trained and how they do their job. Lake wants his colleagues to follow his lead in giving tenants notice that they're going to be evicted before serving them evictions, a practice that he considers "identical" to the housing-first method that made Randall known as a "rebel."
"If you train them the way it should be done from the get-go, it has a better chance of sticking than if you try to train an old dog new tricks," Lake said.
Lake thinks standardization is necessary, especially for dress code and training. He think the constables "should be easily identifiable" and "not wildly different from each other. He also believes they should get training, such as for Tasers or firearms, from the same law enforcement agency.
Constables Comacho, Bernal, Lake — and Stevenson before he resigned — had been splitting the responsibility of serving documents left behind by constables who were inactive or had departed, Lake said. The biggest issue is the "geography," he said, because, for Lake, who works mostly in the area around Vail and East Side Tucson, serving papers in Arivaca or Marana can mean driving more than an hour.
Lake is still committed to giving the reputation of the Pima County Constables Office a "boost," he said. Because of his military background, Lake said he's focused on his "duty" and doing what he was hired — and likely to be elected — to do.
"When I joined in, I went there with the intention of being more service-oriented and taking care of tenants and landlords and everybody else instead of doing the basics of knocking on doors and kicking people out," Lake said. "I still have that moral compass and sense of service, and I'm trying to affect change in the constables."
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.