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Christy: The more things change in Pima County government

'Lesher's tenure is off to a rocky start. Say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.'

One of the skills I believe I’ve developed over my adult life, particularly through my business background of some 30 years, is the ability to receive unsettling news calmly and with equanimity. I must say, when a reporter from the Tucson Sentinel called me out of the blue on a Monday afternoon before the first Board of Supervisors meeting in April, his questions rattled me significantly.

He asked me if I was aware that Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry had “retired” as county administrator and had triggered his contract clause allowing him to become a “contractor” while still drawing his county administrator’s pay and his retirement as well. All of this, the reporter said, went into effect as of July 4, 2021, a full three months before Mr. Huckelberry’s horrific bicycle accident.

I responded with a shocked, “I had no idea.” It appears I was not alone, as my colleagues on the Board exhibited similar reactions to this news. How could and why did this happen with no one knowing about it?

Immediately, damage control was deployed by certain county administrators, a couple of my Board colleagues, along with friends and attorneys of Mr. Huckelberry. All were practically falling over each other to make sure that the “public understood” that what Mr. Huckelberry had done was perfectly legal. Further, they stated that county employees involved “comported themselves professionally” and that Mr. Huckelberry was a selfless public servant who served Pima County admirably — his accident was tragic and he has suffered enough. It was time to move on, they said.

“Not so fast,” I thought as the public uproar became increasingly louder. It is not hard to fathom, that given these sets of circumstances regarding Mr. Huckelberry’s actions, that any sound-thinking individual would understandably suspect that something is amiss here, something is not right.

Accordingly, for the two weeks following the news broken by the Tucson Sentinel, Pima County was awash with speculation, rumors, and conspiracy theories. All of this was fueled doubly by the fact that the main player in this drama, Mr. Huckelberry, was unavailable to answer any questions regarding this matter. His resignation was accepted at the April 5 Board of Supervisors meeting and Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher, Mr. Huckelberry’s chief deputy for five years, was appointed county administrator by the Board majority, with my vote being the outlier against her appointment.

Now we come to the April 19 Board of Supervisors meeting. I placed on the agenda an item requesting a thorough discussion of the events and details surrounding Mr. Huckelberry’s retirement and all documentation related to it. The only individual who made herself available was the new county administrator, Jan Lesher. I questioned her for a good half-hour. I asked what she knew of Mr. Huckelberry’s retirement plans, when she knew them, and who else knew as well. After asking dozens of questions in many different ways, it became painfully obvious that I was not going to get decisive or direct answers. Ms. Lesher responded with a lot of “I don’t knows” or “I don’t recalls.”

Cloaked in this vaguery, responses were further delivered under the umbrella that whatever Mr. Huckelberry did do was perfectly, totally legal and that all of the retirement benefits he gets are his to receive, and, of course, there are privacy laws that prohibit further discussions of such matters. She finalized her lack of specificity by saying that she is certain that no laws were broken and that county staff acted appropriately and professionally. In short, “Nothing to see here.”

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Meanwhile, my colleagues on the Board said, asked, and contributed nothing meaningful to the investigation or discussion. These same supervisors initially expressed outrage and had quickly pointed fingers at Mr. Huckelberry for so egregiously compromising the public’s trust and money. Yet, they all sat there together in a stony silence that was only broken by one reiterating the legality of Mr. Huckelberry’s actions and another trotting out the tired trope of this being a “learning opportunity.”

And, there you have it.

The most troubling takeaway from that meeting is that the saga of Mr. Huckelberry and the events involving and surrounding his termination, with Pima County will forever be shadowed by black clouds of suspicion, mistrust, and conspiracy. Mr. Huckelberry’s legacy of decades of public service will be diminished, and instead, the issues and controversies of his pay plan, benefits, retirement, resignation, and termination will be all that will be remembered.

He’s not alone in this matter.

The Board of Supervisors will rightfully receive justified blame for not keeping better control of their “general manager” — for decades. A complicit and disinterested press (for the most part) will be guilty of not serving the public interest, protecting the public trust or holding elected officials accountable. County staff will shoulder the burden of blindly following orders, circling the wagons, and keeping public information hidden in order to protect their bosses and careers.

Finally, the new county administrator, Jan Lesher, will be unable to sever her connections to the previous administration as merely being Mr. Huckelberry’s Number Two and Right Hand. She was aboard the same ship for years with Mr. Huckelberry and to think she had no real-time knowledge of this saga’s events, as she has publicly stated repeatedly, is beyond comprehension. Ms. Lesher's tenure is off to a rocky start, marked by an inability to step out of the previous administrator’s shadow to chart her own course, and clouded by the suspicion of her being a willing participant. She will be duty-bound to carry on Mr. Huckelberry’s policies, procedures, and managerial style.

Say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Supervisor Steve Christy at the April 5 meeting of the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

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