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What the Devil won't tell you

No brown M&Ms: Zoo flap says Tucson needs to take voting more seriously

Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik, after meeting with angry townsfolk, the Reid Park Zoological Society and City Manager Mike Ortega, is pushing an idea to add a water feature and build a new little hill north of the Reid Park Zoo.

Voters in 2017 approved a sales tax increase to pay for the Reid Park Zoo to be spruced up and grow a bit. So the tigers are going to get more elbow room, taking a few acres of the rest of the park. 

Some weren’t paying attention to that election or how the Tucson City Council approve the zoo's "master plan" in 2018 figuring out what to do with the money.

They just found out they are losing little Barnum Hill and the little pond (I guess we would call it in Tucson) next to it and teeny tiny slice of urban "wild land." They won't stand for the zoo doing what it said it was going to do.

Now social media is ablaze with outcries over how we are going to lose part of Reid Park to new zoo habitat.

I’m a bit of a homer in the whole World War Zoo thing. But more than that, I’m a homer for democracy.

I took my daughter to the Reid Park Zoo probably 458 times between 2003 and 2008. We would go see the tiger, say hi to the otters (she’d say with ritualistic certainty, “Hi otters!”) and of course hang out with Boris the late polar bear. Then we’d get ice cream and talk about whatever 5- to 10-year-old girls talk about while scooping vanilla dairy product into their mouths.

So when Props 202 and 203 came up for voter approval in 2017, I remember thinking “Yeah, let’s do that. The critters could use more space.” The measures squeaked by by 632 votes, but close only counts in curling and heavy artillery. The necessary propositions passed and became the law of the land.

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I — and you — also just lived through four years of a monster in the White House because a whole bunch of people said “Yeah but emails … what’s the worst that can happen?”

I know and respect a lot of the people with their fur up about this zoo deal, but how many ways can we say "your vote matters?" 

A democracy run by people who spend two minutes Googling a ballot proposition about the zoo is probably not the kind of democracy that gives a madman the most powerful job in the world. What's the worst that can happen?

We didn't think of this before?

I remain firmly rooted in a posture of “Why are we having this conversation now?”

So is Kozachick and he’s right. 

“Had this sort of outcry been raised during that time, we might have altered the plan,” he told me in an email. “Now though, we have three consecutive fiscal years in which the (mayor and Council) have voted to approve the project as described in the plan.”

So what are we to do about the $2-3 million already spent on the work so far to get ready for the expansion? Just say “never mind?”

Leaders of the Zoological Society penned an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star, asking the same question. They were met with insinuations that they are some condescending cabal meeting around a pentagram. Dress code: Palpatine cloaks.

They hoodwinked Tucson with black magic and Robert's Rules of Order, the innuendo intimates.

Hardly. Kozachik sent out a news letter discussing "an expanded zoo" two months ahead of the vote. I don't expect everyone to have read it but it's kind of proof that there was no conspiracy of silence. There was plenty of other information about the zoo's push to grow floating around at the time, too.

Voters weren't fooled. They just didn't put a lot of effort into considering an item way at the bottom of the ballot. They probably just thought “Zoo, yeah, cool” and voted “aye,” or “Taxes? Screw that!” and voted against it. Voters put about as much thought into it as they did Rio Nuevo and their insistence that government should be the work of part-time amateurs.

Stupid but relevant

Opponents of the expansion make two main points: 1) Zoo expansion is taking this treasured patch of urban wild lands and destroying it forever; 2) It’s turning the free part of the park over to the rich people who can afford to get into the zoo, like some sort of municipal gated community.

These are worthy arguments, I guess. They don't hold up for me, but they are worthy.

Reid Park is a finite area, the zoo is within Reid Park’s boundaries. To expand the zoo … are you following me? To provide habitable quarters for the zoo animals meant expanding the zoo, which will necessarily will eat into the park. It's plane geometry.

It took me just three minutes to find this today: A 2017 conceptual plan of the zoo expansion and because it’s 2021, I had to use the advanced Google search. In 2017, it wasn't necessary.

No one was hiding it. 

Those who are in the "no" crowd now could have published a single argument in the voter guide back then, explaining their opposition because of the loss of a treasured public amenity. They didn’t.

Instead the only opponents were the local GOP, who argued against a tax increase.

A single mailer from a single progressive group could have flipped 322 votes in a hurry. Where was that organization then?

Tucson heritage

Quick, before I go further, point to me the Barnum Hill area on a map of the city of Tucson. Maybe you can, voracious reader of news, but ask your neighbor. I used to take Alexandria on walks through all three Barnum Hill acres after confabbing with Boris. I can’t tell you much about the place.

There are rocks. Some nice trees. There’s running water. Ducks come to mind.

Just because some people remember somewhere in Tucson and enjoyed it, doesn’t make it a vital historic cog in the gears of our community. It’s nice, sure. Let’s not pretend it’s Windy Point, Gates Pass or the Buffet Bar and Crockpot.

I have a great memory of Sancet Stadium, demolished in 2018. It took me back to the 1980s, when you would get out of class (hell, skip class) head down the ballpark on the southeast corner of campus and take in a University of Arizona baseball game on a March day. Put a hot dog on the meal plan and giggle at your high school classmates shivering in mukluks at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Then they tore it down and Wildcats moved in 2012 to Hi Corbett Field in Reid Park. No one is going to walk from Modern Languages to Reid Park.

Don't even get me started on the old Gallagher Theater.

That's just campus. No one cares about campus. In Tucson proper, though, the villagers treat random street corners as shrines to something they did once with someone they rather liked.

We claim history over things like Valley of the Moon and the Sunshine Mile.  Happy memories become crucial and ancient cultural touchstones. No, it's just mid-century modern.

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You don't want to play this game with the Tohono O'odham. They probably have a lot of memories of what we call "22nd and Alvernon."

User pays

The next argument is actually, not so much stupid as not fully understood.

By taking the free part of the park, more of Tucson is swallowed up by “admission-only” enclaves.

Well, gang, welcome to the social contract since we all got sick of spending a red nickel on anything that wasn’t us and demanded "government run like a business." I'm old school and think that's B.S.

The "user pays" model is how business is done in government these days. Check tuition costs.

The city could come up with $2 million to cover the annual cost of admission. Make everyone pay a little so users don’t have to pay a $10.50 and the zoo would be free to the public. Maybe with the new amenities the cost would double. The sales tax paying for the improvements will cover that. The tax goes away in 2028; make it permanent.

Who pays what to go see which city property is a political decision that can be affected by political action. Do something about it.

Not irreversible

Plans can change. My editor keeps insisting I remind you of that. He’s right.

Rio Nuevo changed a lot from the days it was sold to the public with things like a Sonoran Sea Aquarium that never went anywhere (with that project at least).

Just because it was written down, doesn’t mean it’s irreversible.

Changing circumstances, revenues or a bad engineering report can justify changes. Partnerships evaporate. When reality changes, plans do too.

“I forgot to pay attention when the decisions were made” isn’t a good enough reason to undo all the work that was done to get their plans approved fair and square.

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 I call no take backs.

People are still free to protest but might I suggest not filing unfounded open meeting law complaints. Don't send letters to the editor of the dead tree publication about purported conspiracies. Things aren't part of a "cover up" just because you didn't see them happen.

Bring facts. Be legit. Arguments are a bit harder to dismiss if they're not based on stuff you made up.

Candles lit

I’m not here to curse the darkness. I’m all about the candles.

Opponents do raise some points worth considering about Tucson’s open space, and how much government should or shouldn't be run like a Circle K.

Just grab nine holes of Randolph Golf Course and turn it into public open space. Wanna grab all 18 holes, fine by me. I don’t know why we insist on playing a game in the desert invented in, and for, Scotland. Unless you are wearing a kilt and carrying a claymore, the game is just plain stupid.

And if that neighboring land truly is forever barred from a change of use because of the deed restrictions that the city seems to have imposed on itself, there are other ways to build more nature close to the urban core.

Force developers to include land dedicated to a urban greenways and condemn some land for it. Create buffers and paths along washes and floodways, where no one can build anyway. We've already seen some cool projects like this on the East Side.

We’re not going to solve our open space concerns by protecting a puddle for a few ducks at a Midtown park. We’re not going to crack the user-pays model by overcrowding the tenants at the zoo.

Ain't Talking 'bout Zoos

Tucson’s zoo needs more space because the animals we import for our amusement deserve some semblance of a reasonable existence.

To this humble columnist, the whole thing reminds me of Van Halen and the brown M&Ms. The 20th century hard rock band snuck a proviso in their contracts with venues demanding no brown M&Ms between the subsection on 1,000-pound lighting trusses and the parts to keep them from being electrocuted on stage.

If they saw their dressing room had the bowl of candies and none of them were brown, they knew they were safe on stage that night. If they didn’t, they could assume the safety precautions may have been ignored.

When we take the time to study ballot propositions about zoos, we don’t elect a Mad King who lets 500,000 people die because he decides fighting a pandemic isn’t a good look for him.

Democracy works if we all pay attention.

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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have your say   

2 comments on this story

2
22 comments
Feb 24, 2021, 1:30 pm
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Well then, I achieved something monumental, EllieMae. Thanks for reading! (Personally, I think I have been more wrong. See, Sanders, Bernie—unstoppable juggernaut). Eh. Bad day.

1
197 comments
Feb 24, 2021, 12:33 pm
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Blake has never been more wrong than he is right now.

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Reid Park Zoo

The ant eater is the symbol of the Reid Park Zoo, which is now a symbol of the voter who needs to be better informed