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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

Do diligence: Huckelberry's stealth retirement a product of incurious Pima County supes

Not a peep.

On Monday, the Pima County supervisors couldn't pearl-clutch enough about how Chuck Huckelberry had retired and started collecting his pension nine months before tendering his resignation.

They demanded answers. Who knew what, when? Hell's come collecting, because the county administrator had perpetrated an affront against the voters.

"Every single taxpayer in the county had a right to know" about the move, said Supervisor Matt Heinz. "What a catastrophe. This undermines the confidence that people should have in us."

Heinz wasn't alone. He was just the most quotable.

Then, on Tuesday, Heinz and his colleagues accepted Huckelberry's resignation without a public word about the earlier retirement, and voted 4-1 to replace him with Jan Lesher. 

It was almost an exercise in "Chuck who?"

The county administrator had, back in July, switched his status from employee to contractor, so he could start drawing his pension. Not even a murmur was heard, until the Sentinel broke the story Monday — breaking it even to Huckelberry's bosses.

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That's right, Huckelberry actually retired on July 4 to take advantage of a clause in his contract allowing him to serve as a contractor. The 72-year-old could then start pulling his pension from the Arizona State Retirement System as he still drew a full county paycheck.

It's a double-dip. Voters hate it. But it happens all the time (just ask teachers).

Still what stuck in the craw of the Supes was how Huckelberry flipped the switch they explicitly provided him.

Had they asked the most basic questions in January 2021, they'd have seen this coming. (The Devil whispered pretty loudly about it back then.)

As it stands, Huckelberry didn't need to tell the supervisors, it seems. So long as his paperwork was kosher with the state, he was good to go. Nothing in his contract required him telling the members of the board he was changing his status and drawing a pension.

But, the county still needs to hand over his personnel records so we, the people, can see them (please and thank you). They've been slow-walking those documents for a week now.

What does it matter if he's being paid out of Pool A or Pool B, when the board said "Either will work, so long as he's doing the job"?

And that's the rub. If the Supes had only asked "What does working as a contractor mean?," they'd have have saved themselves a lot of grief.

I understand the spectacularly valid argument that an employee has a responsibility to tell his bosses when he quits.

It's hard to argue with that. Except Huckelberry didn't quit. He still showed up and did his job, until October when he was in a Jeep-on-bicycle crash that left him with a severe enough head injury to eventually prompt his resignation.

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So, we have an irate Board of Supervisors hollering about Huckelberry quietly using an option they provided him. Well, don't provide it or make sure that a provision of his contract includes notification. 

Asking the question leads inevitably to an answer that the county never had to grapple with, because of a freak bike accident.

And now we run headlong into what might have been if the Supes had gotten what they had voted for.

What happened

Let's start with what went down, and the detour it took after Huckelberry's Oct. 23 bicycle accident.

In January 2021, Huckelberry signed a new contract that provided him the option to retire, and remain in his post as a contractor at the same salary, and also draw his pension of $12,228 a month. It wasn't hard to see the double-dip coming. He all but took out an ad.

We at TucsonSentinel.com saw it coming. We wrote about it. I opined with partial outrage and partial "meh."

On July 4, 2021, the man known the county 'round as just "Chuck" exercised that clause in his deal that reads "If Employee retires as allowed by the Arizona State Retirement System, Employee can return to work as a contractor without any negation of the terms of this contract, including its length."

He didn't tell the supervisors (at least not most of them). The contract language doesn't require it.

Then Huckelberry started collecting the pension, but there was a caveat.

The Arizona State Retirement System has this weird little thing called the 20/20 Rule governing how pension recipients can continue to draw public paychecks.

An employee can't retire and start receiving pension payments if they work more than 20 hours per week for more than 20 weeks in a fiscal year. After that, state law says, Huckelberry would have to go down to 19 hours a week for 19 weeks — essentially getting paid for half time ... probably (more later).

Under that ASRS restriction, his ability to remain on full-time status expired in mid-November. Huckelberry never got that far.

On Oct. 23, he was thrown from his bike by a Jeep that had been crashed into by another car, and suffered severe head trauma that had him in the hospital for a long time. He hasn't worked since.

According to a Pima County document sent to the supervisors Monday night after they started asking questions following the Sentinel's scoop:

"Effective November 15, 2021, Mr. Huckelberry began using 19 hours of accruals (sick and/or vacation) in order to remain in compliance with the ASRS 20/20 Rule. He therefore received part-time pay and all the terms under the contract. If continuing to use accruals at the rate of 19 hours per week, this will cover 19 hours through the week of May 2, 2022, with a few hours remaining.

Currently, Mr. Huckelberry remains under the terms of his contract receiving 19 hours pay and all the terms under the contract."

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The county says he's OK, so far as the pension and working arrangement goes. I talked to the Arizona State Retirement System, which signed off on Huckelberry's status. So legally, there seems to be no problem with how this all transpired.

What could have happened

But what if?

The what-if in this case is not some crazy hypothetical, like "What if he's in a really bad traffic collision?" This hypothetical is, what if he hadn't been in a terrible accident?

If that had been the case, he would have come up against the 20/20 rule in mid-November.

Then what would have happened? He would have become a part-time employee?

That's what the 20/20 Rule requires. For Huckelberry to keep collecting his pension, he'd only be allowed to work full-time in his first fiscal year for less than 20 weeks.

It wouldn't have been a matter of him reducing his pay by half, because the policy (laid out in state law) limits hours worked and not compensation received.

"A retiree’s pension will be suspended if any of the following conditions are met: a) Member did not reduce hours below 20/20. b) Member worked 20/20 prior to retirement then, after retirement but in the same fiscal year, agrees to or does work even one more 20 hour week ..." We don't need to go on to the rest. Huckelberry was supposed to go down to part-time in November.

So yes, he would have had to inform the board at some point that the guy running the county was about to reduce his hours by more than half.

I don't see how it would have been possible for Huckelberry to be a part-time worker.

His employment contract is to be county administrator, not do something else for 19 hours a week from mid-November to June 30, 2022, then jump back to full-time hours. Running Pima County is many things, but I think we can all agree it's not a part-time gig. 

How the hell was he going to get away with that? 

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Well, the supervisors agreed to the contract. It included the wording "Employee retires as allowed by the Arizona State Retirement System." To me that reads Huckelberry's contract includes those ASRS rules. Therefore, the board agreed to let him work part-time. That has nothing to do with state law. That's between the county and Huckelberry.

My reading of this is not universal among my cadre of advisors here at the Sentinel, but the county's human resources and other admin folks sure as heck followed the 20/20 rule after the bike crash. It's reasonable to assume they would have done the same without that horrible incident.

But does that really square with the contract, which is about him fulfilling the duties of a post that requires far more than 40 hours per week? That would've been between the Supes and Huckelberry.

Write a better contract

If supervisors expected Huckelberry to tell them when he made a switch to contractor, they could have included that requirement in the contract they signed.

One of them could have asked "This contractor line, what does it mean? What would that look like?" 

Well, if he retires to draw retirement, then he must comply with the 20/20 Rule.

"What's that mean?"

It means he's a part-time employee for a while. 

At that point (assuming they agreed to the provision), any supervisor with minimally functioning cerebral cortex would have to ask "Well, you'll tell us when that happens, right?"

Instead, they just rubber-stamped a deal with Huckelberry without understanding its ramifications.

But none of this part-time stuff effectively matters because of a ghastly twist of fate. 

However, it's possible that twist is what saved the county from the contract the board approved.

The silence says ...

Monday night, Huckelberry's business attorney Larry Hecker wrote an email ("as his friend") to the supervisors griping about the Tucson Sentinel's report, and insisting Huckelberry "has an Employment Agreement with Pima County that requires that he work full time" and had in no way left the county. So either he has a way around the 20/20 Rule, or doesn't know it exists.

I have to believe Huckelberry knew what he was doing — for better or worse. He may have had a trick up his sleeve to get around a part-time drama.

He always knew what he was doing and attended to the details during his 29 years as county administrator. And he always had magic tricks ready to reveal. He might take a risk that didn't pay off but he was careful to limit his exposure if he could control it.

He didn't tell the board he'd retired but was still on the job because he didn't technically have to, and he probably didn't want any part of the anti-double-dip blowback from the community.

That kind of move is 100 percent, Grade-A Huckelberry.

Huckelberry playing coy makes a lot more sense than any nefarious suggestion, but he's still recovering from his head injury and hasn't been able to explain himself to those who have plenty of questions about this.

I'm not seeing the massive betrayal of the public trust that Heinz and some of his colleagues have suggested Huckelberry committed.

I am however, seeing a board that didn't understand what it wrought.

Maybe that's why they were quiet while they were on the record on Tuesday.

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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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's secret retirement had the Board of Supervisors in a tizzy, but the scandal of it isn't clear.

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