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Career conservationist Kevin Dahl takes office as Tucson's new Ward 3 councilman

Conservationist and environmental activist Kevin Dahl was sworn into office Monday, representing Northwest Side and North Side neighborhoods such as Barrio Blue Moon, Flowing Wells, Dodge Flower and Jefferson Park in Ward 3 on the Tucson City Council. The Democrat said he hopes to tackle the “big issues” from his local seat, including climate change, COVID recovery and quality and equitable housing and transportation.

Dahl, elected in November, is the third person to hold the Ward 3 seat in less than a year.

The Council seat was taken over by Karin Uhlich in March after Paul Durham resigned for personal reasons. Durham, a Democrat like Uhlich and Dahl, had missed multiple months leading up to his resignation as he recovered from multiple rib fractures as his husband was being treated for terminal cancer. Uhlich had previously been councilwoman from 2005 to 2017; the Council appointed her on an interim basis to serve out Durham's term, which ended this month.

Dahl's successful campaign included besting his Democratic opponent Juan Francisco Padres with 60 percent of the primary vote, then garnering 57 percent of the citywide vote in the general election to beat the Republican Alan Harwell and independent Lucy LiBosha.

A formal inauguration took place on Monday morning in the Tucson City Council chambers, the first time the room has been used since March 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. Dahl was sworn into office before incumbent Councilmen Richard Fimbres and Steve Kozachik renewed their oaths of office, as both won elections for new four-year terms in November.

Monday's meeting also included the Council naming Councilmember Lane Santa Cruz as vice mayor, a largely ceremonial title that was previously held by Councilmember Nikki Lee. Dahl’s invocation was done by Chairman Peter Yucupicio of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

Dahl's big issues

Although he said his priority will be “getting my feet under me,” Dahl, a former leader of environmentalist organizations such as Native Seeds/SEARCH and the Tucson Audubon Society, wants to confront big issues with the mantra “think globally, act locally.”

“What I envision going forward is that we tackle these big issues: COVID, climate change, water, transportation,” Dahl told TucsonSentinel.com.

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Having focused his career conservation and his campaign on climate change, he’s worried about impoverished and vulnerable populations in his ward that will be more severely affected by the issue.

“I ran mostly on climate change, which even goes beyond concerns of water pollution, air pollution, toxins in the environment, because it’s clear that the impact in Tucson will affect the vulnerable much stronger than the people who have resources,” he said. “It will affect people who have to work outside. It’ll affect people who have to work in homes that aren’t adequately insulted and where cooling is a big part of your budget…it’s a global problem but the solutions have to be at the local level.”

Ward 3 has impoverished neighborhoods which suffer from a lack of shade from trees and green spaces, and they often have higher temperatures than parts of the city with more greenery, he said. He wants to re-vegetate those areas, cool them down and provide more jobs in the areas to make the area to improve the quality of life.

“Imagine a Tucson where someone who can’t afford a car can still walk up to a bus stop that’s shaded with trees, and they can walk there on a pathway that’s also shaded and has vegetation and get a bus that continues to be free of charge and runs on a good enough schedule that they know they can use that to get to their job and the grocery store,” he said. “We’re talking about quality of life and preparing us to continue having a livable city despite rising temperatures.”

He said it’s helpful that he’ll be working with Mayor Regina Romero and a City Council that has already acknowledged that climate change and sustainability in Tucson are issues.

“I don’t have to convince anybody,” he said. “I have to just bring my skills and talents and put my shoulders to the wheel to help affect the change that needs to happen."

Dahl supported the recent differential water rate increase, saying almost every other Arizona city that has a city water utility that services outside of their municipal boundaries has differential rates.

"We've been subsidizing people outside of the city with our rates for people inside the city with some people who are struggling to pay their water bills," he said. "This provides some incentive for conservation. Maybe their are some areas that should annex. I think unincorporated Pima County is a drain on our economy in the taxes that go to the state, none of those return whereas if you're in the city some of it returns for services."

He also wants to see the extra revenue from the rate hike to stay with Tucson Water and help people pay bills who can't afford it, especially if they can't because of the pandemic.

There were a wide range of issues that people had talked to him about when he went knocking on doors for his campaign, Dahl said, including potholes, public safety, issues with dumping and homelessness.

The real estate market and availability of places to live will be an important issue, he said, saying “housing is on everybody’s mind. Affordable housing is super important, as is transition housing to get people off the streets”

His first full Council meeting on Tuesday will feature a public hearing on affordable housing units, or casitas, which Council members say could allow for more housing in the Downtown area but also renew concerns about an influx of developers trying to profit off cheap, easy-to-build units.

He knows how this issue can affect Ward 3, Dahl said, especially areas like the Jefferson Park neighborhood, which he said “suffered the onslaught of mini-dorms” that similarly offered cheap rental options but brought in a large number of profit-seekers cramming small dwellings into the area.

Dahl also said he wants to continue Uhlich's initiatives such the Thrive in the '05 program, which is collaboration between the city's Community-Based Crime Reduction, Choice Neighborhoods and Workforce & Economic Development programs to provide social service and public safety resources to the 85705 ZIP code around the Barrio Blue Moon neighborhood.

Familiar faces

Dahl and his team will spend December working with Uhlich’s staff members to transition to the Ward 3 offices to his stewardship.

Dahl also said that he plans to retire from his other job as the Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association at the end of January and commit to City Council work. He had already gone from full-time to part-time in the summer to work on his campaign and has since remained part-time.

The Ward 3 staff will include Katie Bolger, a longtime City Council aide who previously worked under Ward 2 Councilman Paul Cunningham in the East Side and played a large role in his water policy actions such as differential rates. She was also previously the aide to former Democrat Tucson City Councilman Rodney Glassman, who is now a Republican candidate for the Arizona Attorney General and who left the Council to run against John McCain in the 2010 U.S. Senate elections.

The rest of Dahl staff includes CJ Boyd, the campaign manager for the Tucson Fight for $15 that put a minimum wage hike on the city ballot and won; Kristin Woodall, who was a council assistant to Uhlich; and Marlene Thompson Avelino, a local community organizer for the Working Families Party.

Dahl originally came to Tucson to study Journalism at the University of Arizona and fell in love with the place. He ended up graduating from Prescott University in 1990 with a degree in Ethnobotany, the study of how humans use plants.

He’s lived in the Samos neighborhood a few blocks north of the UA for 39 years with his wife Barbara Miller, a retired special education teacher at the Tucson Unified School District. His wife is the president of their neighborhood association in Samos, and Dahl worked as treasurer for them. He hopes to see stronger neighborhood associations in his ward that work together, he said.

He was born in Washington D.C., but said he’s fallen in love with Tucson since moving here almost four decades ago.

“What’s not to love?” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful city, very livable for most of us. There are some huge challenges on the horizon, bigger problems, but the people, the landscape, the culture — it’s all pretty wonderful here.”

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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Kevin Dahl thanking his wife at his Tucson City Council inauguration on Monday.

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