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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

The age of Chuck Huckelberry comes to a close

3 decades at helm of Pima County ended by bike crash

The Huckelberry Era has come to an end in Pima County, and the Tucson area has a hole that cannot be filled anytime soon.

The county administrator and top dawg will step down six months after a ghastly bicycle accident left him unable to do the job he's done for 29 years. 

Technically, that job has been to run the local government staff of Pima County. What he's actually been is the strong mayor for the Tucson region, even if nobody voted him into an office that doesn't exist.

Huckelberry led the way on conjuring and developing the Pima County Sonoran Conservation Plan. He helped jump-start the Pima County Regional Transportation Authority, after the city of Tucson failed to win voter approval for a transportation bond. He steered the county through the Great Recession without any massive fiscal hits and navigated through much of the pandemic without insurrection.

Entire classes on local government could be taught using Huckelberry’s tenure. He was a master at acquiring power and making it work. If I were to write about everything I think is important here, I would ask for an advance from a publisher because it would be a book.

Yet, Republican Supervisor Steve Christy’s observation about Huckelberry gets to the nub. 

Prior to running for and winning a seat on the board, Christy said that he saw Huckelberry as a looming figure, stand-off-ish but “ubiquitous and omnipresent.”

Then when Christy got elected, he said he saw a different side.

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“He was always available and always ready to extend advice and remedy a situation, sometimes very quickly,” Christy said, then finished the thought with the money line: “You didn’t need a whole process. You just needed Chuck.”

Bingo. With Chuck on your side, life was easy. Without Chuck, life got harder.

Parking the conservation plan

In 1998, part of Huckelberry’s legend was born when he got crossways with a majority of the Pima County Board of Supervisors — who are technically his bosses. They have a term for county administrators who do that: Former county administrators.

Chuck not only survived it but strengthened his position.

The supervisors had decided to tackle growth head-on to protect the county’s most environmentally sensitive areas from urban sprawl.

Huckelberry wanted to plan for growth based on the science of identifying and protecting habitats for endangered species. 

Environmentalists wanted to more directly limit sprawl.

The board went with the environmental crowd. Huckelberry lost – for a second.

He had an administrative card to play.

He assigned all the work to get the enviros' idea done to the Parks and Recreation Department. To this day, I can picture parks workers hearing the news and asking “We’re doing what, now?”

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No way was the Parks Department ready to handle that kind of job. Huckelberry was bureaucratically murdering growth-control efforts in their crib if his bosses didn’t agree to go in his direction.

When I called him about this in my days covering the county beat, I expected him to play it off with a “I have total faith in the Parks Department to the job that needs to be done the best they can.” Instead, he confessed, adamantly, saying the environmentalist’s plan the board approved wouldn’t work and he wasn’t going to waste his time.

The size of the stones it took to do that still makes me shake his head.

It was Huckelberry versus the world. The world lost. Environmentalists had to come in and reach a deal with Huckelberry, who got much of his way.

The county pursued what is called a “Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan." The county took on habitat conservation efforts, buying up property considered critical to endangered species. In exchange, developers agreed to stay away from areas where construction would have the worst impacts, and put up houses where fewer threatened plants and animals would be harmed, and more desert areas saved from bulldozers and cement trucks.

Afterward, he pursued this plan with such zeal that he became the environmentalists’ darling.

Huckelberry pulled a brilliant little maneuver to manage the concept of community buy-in for the plan.

The whole shebang was going to be run by a steering committee of volunteers. He decided anyone who wanted to be a part of it, could be.

Well, there's no way that could work. They'd have 500 people showing up and the whole process would be shot to hell.

Nope. Chuck had a deviously elegant solution. He scheduled the meetings for daybreak on Saturday mornings out at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Sure, anyone could be involved if they didn't mind setting the alarm clock for 5 a.m. on Saturday and driving clear out to the other side of the Tucson Mountains. 

Enough did (and didn't), so it worked.

What are people going to say? "Oh, I'm not a morning person so it's not fair?"

It's here that I point out there hasn't been a serious rezoning battle in Pima County in the 20-plus years since the Conservation Plan has come to pass. It meshed protecting endangered species with managing growth in groundbreaking ways. 

Not enchanted

Huckelberry wanted to let the world know the days were different than the go-go 1970s and 1980s when sprawl ran wild.

And along came plans to build La Encantada.  

Westcor Inc., the developers of the high-end mall at North Campbell Avenue and East Skyline Drive, should have been able to get the project rubber-stamped.

The developers had the zoning. The project conformed with the county's general plan, and applicable development rules. The Scottsdale firm even agreed to big changes to their plans to satisfy the neighbors. 

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Huckelberry seized on the moment to make a point.

He wanted concessions. He had zero legal right to ask for more but he got more, including off-site traffic mitigation (more lanes of Skyline and Campbell away from the shopping center’s frontage). No one gets that when the developer has “hard zoning.”

Huckelberry did. Anyone who's ever seen the movie "Unforgiven" will remember Gene Hackman's character kicking the bejesus out of Richard Harris' English Bob. Hackman's sheriff was sending a message to bounty hunters and gunslingers who might be on the way to town to collect a price on the head of a local cowboy.

That's what Huckelberry did to Westcor. He said: Your project will not incur costs that county taxpayers will have to bear. Don't like it? Meet us in court as you apply for every single permit between now and the grand opening, sometime in the 2060s.

They reached an accommodation.

Not without troubles

I’m not arguing that Huckelberry had a Midas touch. Hardly. In 2015, Pima County put a massive slate of bonds to the voters — and voters rejected every single one of them. Three years later, they rejected a scaled-back version, but this was after Pima County strung together 11 straight bond victories under Huckelberry.

If I didn’t know better, I would drape these electoral rebukes over Huckelberry’s shoulders. To people who know, Huckelblerry has been the county. Most voters aren’t in-the-know to that extent on matters concerning local politics.

However, I can’t help notice that the city of Tucson managed to pass a couple sales tax increases to pay for roads, public safety and a Reid Park Zoo expansion. The zoo thing probably wouldn’t have flown if Oro Valley and Marana voters were allowed to weigh in, but still the city has been winning and the county has been losing.

Huckelberry's 29 years at the helm were also marked by consistent hostilities with Tucson city government. I know for a fact, that he often treated city managers with open contempt.

The problem here is that 55 percent of county voters live inside the city. So he was in a constant firefight with half of himself. He always had the view that there was an institution called the county and another called the city, and his county would protect its turf against the city.

It's the same community.

That wasn’t all his fault. However, Huckelberry has enjoyed enormous stature for a reason. He almost certainly could have done a lot more to keep those relationships functioning.

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Huckelberry did yeoman’s work on economic development deals, including bringing Caterpillar’s mining headquarters to Tucson. He also helped spearhead the World View deal that had the county build a headquarters and “space balloon” launch pad for a company with zero track record other than its leadership’s ties to Biosphere 2.

The county is knee-deep in a $15 million deal. Needless to say, the high-altitude balloon industry in Tucson has hardly been a soaring success and the 448 jobs promised by 2020 are not on the payroll.

At least Huckelberry usually lost by trying. He was always ready to jump into the arena rather than steering clear of danger and accountability.

Respect from Republicans

In recent years, no one was a bigger pain for Huckelberry than Ray Carroll. I don’t count Supervisor Ally Miller because mostly she just self-destructed as she tried to birddog the rest of county leadership.

Carroll was on Huckelberry's ass constantly, voting against every one of his employment contracts, against every single budget and going over small-ticket agenda items with a magnifying glass.

As far as I'm concerned, that was Carroll's job. Every board and council needs a contrarian and Carroll played that role with frisky abandon.

Yet when I talked to Carroll after the news of Huckelberry’s retirement, Sugar Ray reacted as if Chuck were a long-lost brother.

“I’m so heartbroken that this happened,” Carroll said of the circumstances that left Huckelberry on the outs. “This shouldn’t have been how it ends for him (at Pima County).”

They clashed over budgets, contracts, appropriations and boy, did they clash over the sales tax. Carroll was early on and forever, the thing that prevented Huckelberry from getting what he most wanted for the county: A sales tax to complement the property tax. Huckelberry, it should be noted, didn’t want higher overall tax rates. He just wanted the county to be able to cash in better on boom times and sales taxes make government flush.

Pima County needed a unanimous vote from the supervisors to institute a sales tax, and Carroll never let that happen.

Still, they managed to get along.

“We disagreed but he was never disagreeable,” Carroll said of his 18 years on the board. “His abilities and his institutional memory and his knowledge made him a real asset to the county.”

I'm a little more circumspect about the deterioration of his relationship with Christy.

Christy, who ran on a platform that pledged opposition to Huckelberry, voted against two of his contracts.

“The second time, he was noticeably cool and upset with me.... We had (had) regular meetings to go over the agenda and those stopped,” Christy said. “He did chastise me in the press or in memos and in front of the board.”

Christy is getting to a bigger point here because as he put it, "I can't remember the last time one of my employees did that to me in public."

Yeah, see, sometimes Huckelberry (and the Board of Supervisors) seemed to forget who worked for whom. There were stretches where the board appeared to let Huckelberry run the county and the board went along with it.

As a fan of democracy, I have this crazy notion that the voters elect the board to oversee the work of the county staff, which the county manager runs.

I can muse about how it often worked the other way with my Machiavellian side but the civics-oriented part of my brain says "Wait a second ..."

Down for Limbo

I have one final thought on Huckelbery's tenure, which is a bit more point of personal privilege. 

In the late 1990s, local journalist Chris Limberis – speaking of Tucson political legends – contracted an aggressive form of cancer. He was a freelancer at the time and didn’t have health coverage.

Huckelberry personally made sure Limberis got on the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System so he didn't have to go through the extensive treatments without insurance.

That was very cool of him and not at all out of character. Huckelberry has and does, give a damn, about people and about our community.

He spent his entire career working here, starting out with the county as a transportation engineer in 1974, moving up to department director five years later, then assistant county administrator in 1986, and finally being tapped as the top administrator in 1993 after a tumultuous period at the top of the county building.

The wrong way to go out

My first memory of Chuck on a professional level goes back to the first time I sat down with then-Supervisor Raul Grijalva when I took over the county beat four years into Huckelberry's tenure. I asked "What's up with Huckelberry?"

“The best politician on the Board of Supervisors is the county administrator,” the future congressman said.

He was right. This was a board that included Carroll, a troublemaker who got by on empathy, hard work and weapons-grade charm. Sharon Bronson was on that board, and she has managed to fend off over five elections some serious challenges in the county's one real swing district. The board then included Dan Eckstrom and an elevator ride next to him with his guard down should count as a three-unit political science class at the University of Arizona. Then there was Grijalva, who has climbed to national political influence in Congress.

Huckelberry was better at the art of political science.

Counting to three (votes, which make a board majority) is a simple craft, but knowing how to make things actually add up to that number takes serious skill sometimes.

Board Chairwoman Bronson said Pima County residents are fortunate Huckelberry chose public service because he could have been a Fortune 500 CEO making a hell of a lot more money.

"Most people have no idea how good he really is. There’s not a dollar in our $1 billion budget that he can’t recall from, memory that he can’t tell you where it came from, what it’s for, or the value of the expenditure for the people of Pima County," she told me.

If, dear reader, you want one final piece of proof there's the way people are viewing his apparent replacement, Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher.

Lesher is a powerhouse, pure and simple. She was Gov. Janet Napolitano's chief of staff and played the same role for her at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

Los Angeles County would be lucky to have her but in Pima people are like "Oh, I'm sure she'll do fine; she won't be Chuck but ..."

I’m with Carroll. Huckelberry shouldn’t be going out this way. He should get a cake and huzzahs on his way to what is apparently a gaga beach spread in Mexico.

He’s earned it.

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


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Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's leadership through the coronvirus pandemic was one of the last acts of a 'ubiquitous and omnipresent' tenure that's coming to a close.

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