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Pima Supes shoot down Heinz push for 'audit' of RTA head Farhad Moghimi

Pima Supes shoot down Heinz push for 'audit' of RTA head Farhad Moghimi

Other county supervisors refused to back proposed scrutiny of chief of Regional Transportation Authority

  • city of Tucson

The Pima County Board of Supervisors rejected a second proposal to scrutinize the work of Farhad Moghimi, the executive director for nearly a decade of the metro area's road-building Regional Transportation Authority. 

Supervisor Matt Heinz asked the board to consider putting Moghimi through a review at their Tuesday meeting but stopped short of asking for a vote it became clear it wouldn't garner the necessary two additional votes to pass.

Heinz put three items on Tuesday's agenda targeted at the RTA and its executive director of nine years. The District 2 supervisor, representing the South Side and part of Sahaurita, called for a legal and financial review of the RTA as well as a "360" extensive performance review of Moghimi.

The third motion was to ask the RTA Governing Board to put two projects — the widenings of 1st Avenue from Orange Grove to Ina Road and of Silverbell Road from Ina to Grant Road — back on the current RTA slate of projects. Those projects were pushed to RTA Next in August, but that proposed renewal of the transportation program has yet to be approved by voters.

Heinz withdrew his motions for a legal and financial review of RTA and to ask RTA to move the two Pima County projects up on the timeline. The supervisor made no motion related the "360" review of Moghimi but said he hoped Pima County "pushes for this."

Pima County's representative on the nine-member RTA board, Supervisor Rex Scott, called Heinz's proposal "an audit," saying that "I don't see the need this based on what's already happening in the RTA," including audits done internally and by the Arizona Auditor General's Office.  

Board Chair Sharon Bronson agreed with Scott. Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, pointed out that they have "no authority to make such demands."

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva also declined to support Heinz's push.

Moghimi answers to the RTA board, which mirrors the Regional Council of the Pima Association of Governments. Both bodies include one representative each from the cities of Tucson and South Tucson, Pima County, the towns of Marana, Oro Valley and Sahuarita as well as the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, the Tohono O'odham Nation and the state Transportation Board. 

PAG and the RTA were created by the Arizona Legislature. The RTA is a special taxing district that can collect sales tax revenue across the county for major road and transit improvement projects throughout each of the participating jurisdictions.

Christy warned Tuesday of the "Legislature stepping in and jeopardizing the existence of PAG/RTA or negatively modifying it as a result of ill-conceived or unintended consequences" caused by Heinz's motions. Bronson agreed with Christy's comments.

Heinz said "it's not an audit but simply a review by an outside third party," but Scott pointed out that the proposed review would look at all RTA funding and revenue.

"I certainly have a lot of concerns about the leadership at the RTA," Heinz said Tuesday, including a "lack of transparency" and "having county projects moved to a non-existent RTA Next, which I believe to be a violation of our commitment to the voters."

RTA Next would be a continuation of the current 20-year RTA plan, but it has yet to be approved by voters. Heinz said he wants a review of Moghimi's job performance so the county board can "have the confidence to recommend something like that to the voters" of a potential RTA Next" but none of the other supervisors spoke in support of the Heinz's idea.

During a meeting in early September, the Board of Supervisors shot down a motion by Heinz to send Scott to the next RTA board meeting with a proposal to fire Moghimi. That motion died for lack of a second when Heinz put it forward, but his attempt to put Moghimi through another review on Tuesday was pulled back by Heinz before the supervisors could vote on it.

Heinz charged Moghimi at that September meeting with “a lack of transparency” and “mismanagement,” saying the RTA executive director was using “fuzzy math” to increase cost estimates for remaining projects.

“I’ve had concerns about his leadership, the way he runs things, the way he doesn’t reveal things, the fuzzy math, the different memos within 24 hours showing a 30 percent difference in data and really no great explanation as to why,” Heinz said. “There are multiple folks (who could replace Moghimi). I suspect some would be willing to come back in a heartbeat who know RTA/PAG, who know Pima County and who left because of Farhad.”

Moghimi has since pointed out, while talking with the Tucson Sentinel, that Heinz isn't levying any specific factual claims against him.

“If it’s just their opinion, it’s just their opinion,” he said. “If there were a true claim that we could look at, we could say ‘OK, here’s the response,’ but if it’s just generic opinions, I don’t know how to respond to that.”

Moghimi told the Sentinel that “there are people who are confusing folks by not stating the facts. If someone doesn’t agree with the facts, let’s go from there.”

'Talking about someone's job'

Talking with the Sentinel, Scott said that if anyone had concerns of “a specific nature” about Moghimi’s performance as executive director, he would "take them seriously." Otherwise, “we need to think about how serious a move it would be to fire (Moghimi) and how detailed and specific any allegations or concern needs to be.”

Scott didn’t want to diminish concerns by Heinz, he said, but “this is serious stuff.”

“I don’t think it’s either fair or logical to lay whatever concerns Supervisor Heinz has at the feet of the executive director,” Scott said. “I don’t think that’s fair, and I don’t think that stands up to scrutiny."

Scott cautioned that when talking about firing Moghimi, they’re “talking about someone’s job, you’re talking about the potential for them to bring suit if they feel they’re unfairly treated.”He also warned that they’re “talking about the public perception of an organization that all of us are invested in.”

“To discipline or terminate an employee, you need to have a very strong case, documented,” he said. “When people raise issues with regard to someone’s employment, they need to be specific, they need to be detailed and they need to be thorough in what they put forth.”

If Heinz did have a specific complaint, Scott said, "we’d have an obligation to look into it, but I have not heard those concerns. I’ve heard generally expressed concerns about (Moghimi), but I haven’t had anything brought to my attention as a board member of a specific nature.”

Moghimi, who previously chaired the Policy Subcommittee of the RTA's Technical Management Committee while working as a deputy town manager for Sahuarita, rose to the helm of RTA in late 2013. A year earlier, the group's previous head, Gary Hayes, stepped down due to health issues. Hayes had been executive director of PAG since 2004 and headed the RTA since voter approval in 2006.

Hayes' salary was $137,000, but Moghimi’s original contract paid him a $153,700 salary with cushy benefits. Moghimi’s salary was raised to $196,700 in his 2017 contract.

Tucson needs ‘a change at the top’ of RTA

Another full-throated critic of Moghimi has been Midtown Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik, who mentioned wanting to see Moghimi leave the RTA when Tucson was considering walking away from the group early this year.

Under Moghimi’s leadership, the RTA has “changed rules on the fly, they’ve established policy by memo, they are completely stiffing the city in terms of fulling funding our projects,” Kozachik told the Sentinel in September.

“It’s ludicrous the games they’re playing,” he said. “We the city had to threaten to jump ship on RTA Next in order to get their attention. I’m firmly convinced that if we want to see change, we’re going to have to see change at the top and that means Farhad.”

Having Moghimi around threatens the city of Tucson’s willingness to be on the RTA, Kozachik said.

“If the rest of the RTA Board wants the city’s participation and support on RTA Next, then they need to make a change at the top right now so we can see a change in the way policy is being driven,” he said.

Scott doubted that Tucson was ever really going to leave the RTA, however, he said.

“I have never thought that the city (of Tucson) is going to just pick their things and leave the RTA,” he said. “The city has asserted what they feel are their concerns and they’ve done so very directly… but I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to the point where there was serious concern, at least on my part, that the city was going to leave.”

Kozachik responded, saying “Rex ought to check his notes. We had one foot out the door back in February. We said if we don’t get some serious action on some issues, we’re out.”

The Tucson City Council voted to stay on the RTA in February then successfully passed a half-cent sales tax of their own in May to help pay for the city’s own transportation projects, including its $5.7 billion Move Tucson plan. The council agreed on a half-cent tax “in good faith,” Kozachik said, as a higher tax would have allowed the city to collect more of their own revenue independent of the RTA.

Kozachik would support a motion on the Tucson City Council to send Mayor Romero to the RTA board with a proposal for Moghimi's firing, he said.

“I would certainly consider asking the City Council to authorize the mayor, who is our representative on the (RTA) Board, to make a motion for the immediate termination of Farhad,” Kozachik said. “If the conversation in the moment felt that the appropriate move to make, I would certainly vote to authorize giving Regina that authority.”

At Tuesday's meeting, Supervisor Christy accused Heinz of "carrying water and helping the city of Tucson pull the rug out from under the RTA."

The voter-approved RTA

In 2006, Pima County voters passed a ballot measure creating the RTA to carry out a 20-year, $2.1 billion plan to improve roadways, mostly heavily trafficked corridors between Tucson and surrounding jurisdictions, as well as to improve road safety, boost the economic benefits of new roads, limit their environmental damage and build more transit infrastructure such as bus pull-outs.

Pima County voters will be asked to approve an RTA Next plan before June 2026, when the current RTA is set to expire. Approving RTA Next would greenlight a new slate of roadway projects, but it’s also set to include unfinished projects from the current RTA.

Along with the fact of the revenue shortfall, Scott said in September, the reality is “that we are not going to complete all of the projects in the current RTA plan is indisputable.”

The current RTA, now 16 years old and three-quarters of the way done, has finished more than 950 roadway projects and spent more than $1.4 billion doing so, but it also ran into a shortfall in revenue during the recession in 2006.

“Project costs are rising, though, and while our tax receipts are also up, the impact of the 2008 Great Recession continues to be felt,” according to the most recent RTA annual report published in May. “Consequently, the RTA does not expect to collect the $2.1 billion originally anticipated at the time the voters approved the 2006 RTA plan.”

RTA pays for its projects mostly with revenue collected from a half-cent sales tax across the county though it also receives state and federal funds. The recession in 2008, however, cut down how much people were spending, which makes up the taxes that RTA uses as revenue, and the growth of the local population slowed, leaving the tax base for the RTA smaller than expected. At the same time, the costs of construction for roadway projects increased with inflation.

The amount of revenue collected from the RTA’s tax base has “finally recovered (on an inflation adjusted basis) to pre-recession levels,” according to the report, “but the recession also stymied growth within the region; the pre-recession population forecast for a 2025 population of 1.4 million residents in Pima County region will not be realized for several more decades.”

The RTA and its member jurisdictions did, however, take “advantage of favorable construction costs during the Great Recession and delivered many small-scale projects while the larger projects now underway were being planned,” according to the report.

The estimate for RTA’s revenue shortfall for projects on the current slate has increased by 28 percent since August, however, an increase that Heinz called “a colossal financial failure” at their September meeting. RTA will need to come up with somewhere between $99 million to $141 million to pay for the remaining projects on the current RTA list, which marks an increase from an estimate of a $78 million to $121 million shortfall.

Bennito L. Kelty is’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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