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What the Devil won't tell you

Huckelberry trading his finest hour for tone-deaf request

I’m not used to watching Chuck Huckelberry miscalculating and I’m not sure the Pima County administrator doesn’t have something up his sleeve.

But at first blush, asking for a 4 percent – of sorts – raise at Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors seems oddly tone-deaf, hypocritical and heartless.

Huckelberry is typically a lot smoother than this and would know better.

So here’s the deal: Huckelberry’s contract as the top hired hand in Pima County government is up this week. He placed on the agenda for Tuesday — the first meeting of the year and the first for three new supervisors — a four-year extension, with a raise of base pay from $302,000 to $315,000, plus a bunch of extras. He needs the OK from a five-person Board of Supervisors — which has three brand-new members and Huckelberry’s move is a pretty standard “take-me-or-leave me" power play.

Huckelberry has stockpiled a fortune in deferred compensation during his 26-year reign. When a new board comes in, the man has his grab-and-go bag. He’s acquired enough power to demand to serve more or less on his terms. He can have a mighty nice life if this board provides three votes to tell him to take a hike.

Government executives are kind of like lawyers. People hate the idea of them, until they need one and then an effective one is worth every dime. Huckelberry is effective.

In the grand scheme of things, the $13,000 per year raise that's on the table is hardly a big deal. Hey, $52,000 is a price worth paying for a guy who knows every bit of the county government and what it can do. That’s just over 50 grand to help millions of dollars do a hell of a lot more than they would otherwise do.

The problem is people get mad about small numbers, not big ones. This country is shrugging off the 2,000 to 3,000 people dying from COVID-19 each day. But if five freckle-faced kids drowned in wells on consecutive days, we’d fight a “War on Holes.”

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The symbol is bigger than the number. Huckelberry looks like he’s leading by exception, rather than example. The county rank-and-file workers sure aren’t getting raises. They may be getting a pay cut.

Counting to one

This is where it gets weirder.

Huckelberry can’t fly. He’s not bulletproof. He has always had a feral instinct for three votes. But he doesn’t seem to have a single vote here willing to say “Yes. Great deal. I’ll take it.”

The three new supervisors (all Democrats) aren’t exactly embracing the longtime administrator. Rex Scott won’t comment until the meeting. Adelita Grijalva is concerned about the timing. Matt Heinz wonders why this has to be done immediately.

“It seems like a very big and complicated ask of the Board of Supervisors, when we are still trying to figure out where the bathrooms are located," Heinz said.

Longtime ally Sharon Bronson isn’t on board with the proposed contract.

Lone Republican Steve Christy — who's pledged for years to work to fire Huckelberry — has probably been laughing at the request since it appeared on the board’s meeting addendum Thursday afternoon.

Huckelberry either has to know this, or is purposefully trying to suss out where he's at with the new board just now taking office after the 2020 elections.

Really? Now?

Playing hardball with your bosses is understandable during normal years, months or even weeks. But on this day? At this time? A pandemic is scouring Pima County, stunting economic activity and cutting off tax revenues. The budget is in trouble, with shortfalls exceeding $55 million through June and that’s just to handle COVID-19 testing, tracing, vaccination and associated costs.

We don’t know what the budget hit will be and help from the federal government will require a couple minor miracles.

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But give the boss man a four percent raise. Really? Now?

There are murmurs instead about floating a contract that would knock his pay by five points at the Jan. 5 meeting.

My guess is he’s doing things the way he’s always done them, forgetting where the rest of us are and how well we aren’t doing as a community.

The county's job

The pandemic is overwhelming local hospitals. The county’s total ICU capacity is at 99 percent and Lord only knows what kind of post-Christmas/New Year's spike we are looking at because a considerable number of county residents just keep doing what they want, regardless of public health.

There are a bunch of services one can argue the county should not provide. Wastewater, for instance, is typically an urban service reserved for city government. The county runs the sewers in Tucson and the areas immediately surrounding it.

Well, there are reasons for that like high population densities in unincorporated parts of the county. Still, it’s a legit debate that could take the participants in a bunch of directions.

There is no debate that the county is the lead government body in local public health. This is a very traditional role for counties to play. There’s a county health department.

So while elected, the Board of Supervisors provides the leadership in securing public health as a legit public good, they don’t provide the management. That’s Huckelberry’s job (or not, if the county decides not to pick up his contract).

If there was ever a time that Pima County’s 1 million residents could use someone who has been running things since the beginning of the Cenozoic Era, it’s during a pandemic and recession with supplies of vaccines about to arrive (allegedly) and needing to be distributed.

So on the one hand, it might seem like this is an ideal time to strike if you are the county administrator. On the other hand, man do you look like a jerk.

It’s like in the movies where the hero is choking on poison and searching for an antidote, and Huckelberry is holding the vial of the cure saying: “Is this what you are looking for? Let’s talk price.”

Showtime

Huckelberry is a public servant and at the moment when we are having a bear of a time getting people to think about the greater good, the county administrator comes off as if he's merely asking what’s in it for him.

If he wants a raise, fine. But maybe not this year. Maybe give him a bigger raise. Spread out $100,000 over the three years after he shows off the voodoo he can do to move the vaccines the last mile, manage a budget crisis and save his hometown from a plague.

This year, perhaps show some leadership and figure out how to live on $302,000 a year plus a $500 a month car allowance. I imagine he muddled through 2020 just fine compared to the thousands of county residents on the verge of eviction because their jobs disappeared.

Maybe don't give him a four-year deal timed to end right when a new slate of supervisors could potentially be taking office.

Huckelberry’s political skills are legendary. He’s known exactly how to push his agenda, while moving the board’s along through a bureaucracy that could impede it. He’s taken the lead on landing a bunch of businesses in Tucson. He bent the Sonoran Desert Conservation plan to his will, while at the same time fusing his own ends with the community’s. He regularly pisses off the Legislature so much, lawmakers overplay their hand in retaliation. So the courts side with Pima County.

On the other hand, his outside game later during his tenure could use some work. The county crashed on successive bond elections, after all. Voters aren’t always as impressed with Huckelberry’s performance as local leaders have figured out how to let it work for them.

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Huckelberry has never been popular with Tea Party/Trump Republicans. While they have lost one of their two seats on the Board of Supervisors, Democrats have always been a bit suspect of how much power Huckelberry has hoarded.

Yet having a Huckelberry right now is a luxury Los Angeles would kill for in 2021. This should be showtime for Chuck.

It should be the year that he proved his many critics wrong. Put him in at the wheel and let him drive the backrooms like a Mercedes on the Nürburgring. Shorten meetings. Blast through obstacles. Step on toes. Cut across turf. Tell the lawyers to go back and re-imagine the administrator’s powers so there are more of them working toward a necessary end: Beat the virus back across the county line.

Then take a bow.

This should be his finest hour and the capstone of his career. So why is he acting like a Trump shaking down a Canadian? It's weird and unnecessary.

Huckelberry should step off the raise talk and step up to the moment. Then he’ll have the thing $52,000 can’t buy: a jewel of a legacy to crown his career.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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Huckelberry at a coronavirus task force meeting in April. We could use more of that leadership this year but maybe not so much with the raise he's asking for just yet.

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