Pima County struggles to fill constable slot, says no to hiring deputies to assist
Applicants for JP1 lived outside precinct, Supes put off bringing on staffer to help in high-pressure situations, citing existing vacancies
The Pima County Board of Supervisors had no qualified applicants to become constable of Justice Precinct 1 on Tuesday, but decided to put off hiring deputy constables to help with the office's workload.
The empty slot was left by John Dorer when he resigned his post in early November. The supervisors voted 4-1 to seek new applicants and try to appoint his replacement on Jan. 10. Constables are limited law-enforcement officers who serve court papers such as evictions and orders against harassment.
Pima County will start the new year with two fewer constables then they did a year ago. In that time, they’ve seen the resignation of three constables and the death of one, Deborah Martinez, who was the newest member of the office at the time she was killed.
Two people applied to replace Dorer, but neither lived in the precinct they hoped to serve. Instead, the board reopened the application window for JP1 constable and set the deadline for Dec. 23.
Supervisor Matt Heinz opposed the motion to reopen the application process because he wanted to leave the position unfilled. He made his own motion to do so, but it died for lack of a second.
The board also voted 3-2 against a motion to hire two deputy constable with salaries of about $55,000 and benefits worth $33,000. The two votes in favor came from Supervisors Steve Christy and Rex Scott.
'Statistics above safety'
Bill Lake, the presiding constable, said their decision put “statistics above safety.”
“The board is looking at it from numbers about workloads. Some constables do more work than others, and they don’t think that’s fair.” Lake told TucsonSentinel.com. “I’m looking at it from more of a safety point of view. We had a constable who was killed in the line of duty.”
Board Chair Sharon Bronson said during the meeting that one of the former presiding constables provided data to the board to show that they aren’t overworked and don’t need deputies. Bronson worried that understaffing in the constable’s office was a “temporary situation, and we’ve got a permanent solution.” in hiring new employees.
Talking with the Sentinel after the vote, Lake said that the constables were more intended for safety, not to help with workloads, and accused the board of “steering the conversation” from safety to workloads.
“To deny us on this safety issue is to say that a constable’s life isn’t worth more than another salary,” he said. “There’s nothing more important than a fellow constable’s safety.”
Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said that the issue with hiring constable deputies was that the office “is not yet fully staffed or fully trained yet,” and she suggested that the board consider approving the deputies again in the spring.
“If the item comes back to us in March or April, I might be willing to consider it because you’ll be able to show ‘this is where we are, this is what our workload is, this is why we need the assistance,’” she told Lake at the Tuesday meeting.
She also mentioned a report by former Assistant County Administrator Mark Napier from September 2021, in which he pointed out their uneven workloads and different styles of dressing and called them a “fractured group.”
Grijalva said she remembered that report “saying that there wasn’t enough work” for the constables. She asked Lake for more data and information on when they would need deputies and how he would use them.
Got your six
The first board member to voice their support for the deputy constables was Christy, a Republican like Lake but the only member of his party among the supervisors.
“We’ve been given a great deal of information about the need for these deputy constables,” Christy said. “To me, it makes perfect sense because it’ll free up full-load constables to do what they’re supposed to be doing.”
However, Scott also voiced his support for the deputy constables because they would be required to be certified by Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which trains the state's law enforcement officers.
Constables are elected officials who do not need to be AZPOST-certified, and Lake told the Sentinel that this would provide security, saying “we would know that we could trust them” in dangerous situations.
Scott said the AZPOST certification and having a person on an as-needed basis — instead of having to wait for a Tucson police officer or county sheriff’s deputy to arrive — were the security reasons why he thought were most important.
Last county board meeting was more positive for the constables. The office got the OK for money to buy Tasers, body-worn cameras and bulletproof vests, and the board appointed the newest constable, Anton Chism.
County Administrator Jan Lesher suggested in early November that the salary of each constable be cut if they fail to report how much they’re working and meet certain standards, but the county board also decided to not to uphold those requirements in favor of giving the constables more time to get staffed, trained and decide their guidelines for themselves.
Two constables have resigned in the last two months — Michael Stevenson, who was the presiding constable, and Doer. Stevenson’s resignation left Lake as acting presiding constable, making him the nominal head of the office.
Before her death, Martinez was under investigation by the Arizona Constable Ethics, Standards and Training Board for allegedly committing felony perjury, fraud and forgery to get her name on the ballot.
Constable Esther Gonzalez, whom Lake described to the county board as Martinez’s “best friend,” stopped working after the death of her fellow constable. Lake said she “basically quit.”
Two other constables went on medical leave in recent months, Lake said, which has left the remaining constables to serve their papers and increase their workloads.
Two of Pima's constables, Bennet Bernal and Oscar Vasquez, are facing citizen complaints filed against them with CESTB. That agency often dismisses such complaints.
Lake’s soon-to-be former jurisdiction, JP5, will be eliminated at the beginning of the upcoming calendar year because of a decline in cases going through the court there. He was elected to take over JP8 last month, after entering the race as a Republican write-in candidate against Martinez, the incumbent.
Before Martinez, Midtown Tucson's JP8 was the jurisdiction of Kristen Randall, the “rebel eviction enforcer,” who resigned because of a “great divide” among the constables. Randall was known for giving tenants facing eviction a few days of notice before serving them their notices to vacate. Lake has said he’s adopted a similar approach.
Lake told the Sentinel that he would want the deputy constables to help the office give two-day notices to people facing eviction, or at least to residents of Midtown Tucson, saying “when we get backlogged, the first thing that goes is the notices.”
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.