Monday, May 19, 2014

Court Sanctions City of Tucson for Withholding El Rio Records and Lying About It

J.T. Waldron

Judge Christopher Staring
Judge Christopher Staring has ordered the City of Tucson to fully comply with plaintiff Cecelia Cruz's public records request by June 4th, 2014.  Judge Staring made clear in his ruling last Friday that the city lied to plaintiff Cruz and to the court about "fully responding" to the records request in a hearing on July 8th, 2013.  This misrepresentation altered the ruling and outcome of continued hearings over this matter and earned a sanction by Judge Staring against the city.   On behalf of a variety of concerned Tucsonans, Cruz sought documents and correspondence surrounding the ill-fated attempt to sell off the historic city-owned El Rio golf course to a private university. 

Last year, Tucson citizens concerned about the predicament of the historic El Rio Golf Course were surprised to discover a fast-track deal that would fork over 100 acres to a private university for a fraction of the market value.  Citizens formed a powerful well-organized grassroots campaign waged by the newly formed "El Rio Coalition II" that managed to convince the Mayor and Council to forego the sale of El Rio Golf Course.  In spite of the public scrutiny, these elected officials insist the city's offer was a good idea and refuse to revoke their original approval for selling the land to Grand Canyon University (GCU). 

This exchange warranted further investigation to determine how El Rio found itself up for grabs, who was involved and who were the true beneficiaries.   On behalf of the coalition, Cruz filed a formal request from the City Clerk for all records surrounding the solicitation and proposal to sell El Rio.   Was this deal a beneficial development for all Tucsonans or only a few wealthy players?   The presence of TREO (Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc.) requiring tens of thousands of dollars for membership suggests the latter.  With Mayor Jonathon Rothschild as a board member, this corporation helped solicit GCU and worked with the city to develop incentives for an enticing offer.  A full view of the circumstances involving the sale of El Rio will always be occluded because, unlike the city, corporations are not required to show their records. 

Records that have seen the light of day indicate the need to fully understand the extent to which city officials were forfeiting valuable assets for the benefit of wealthy investors.  Using a dubious appraisal that ignored existing development and infrastructure of El Rio's land, the city's offer would have yielded a purchaser's windfall of around 45 million dollars for a quantity of land that is five times the space needed to construct the university. 

Due to the careful attention of Tucsonans like Cecelia Cruz, Tina Pacheco, Bill Risner, John Brakey and Salomón R. Baldenegro, the city couldn't seal this deal faster than the public outcry that shouted it down.  Litigation arose out of the city refusing Cruz's request for information on May 12th, 2013.

One of the more popular excuses used by city officials involved an elusive "non-disclosure agreement".  Assistant City Manager Albert Elias claimed as he met with concerned citizens that his office was prevented from discussing the El Rio proposal because of a confidentiality agreement.   Some of the records finally acquired from the city indicated that GCU formally released Tucson from the confidentiality agreement three months earlier.  Bill Risner has become frustrated with their dishonesty:

"Whose responsible for the lies?  Do we have a Mayor and Council that is responsible to the citizens?...Maybe the city manager was a cop too long and thinks that that's what you do.  You lie about everything all the time.  I don't know.  We do know that he's a party to the lies.  That we know for sure.  We know the city Clerk is a party to the lies.  We know the Mayor and Council are party to the lies."

Staring's judgment contains a provision that opens the door to further litigation should the city fail to make its deadline:

"nothing in this ruling should be construed as precluding Ms. Cruz from making additional requests for public documents pursuant to ARS 39-121, or from seeking any remedy provided for by law."

The city must certify to the Court that they have completely fulfilled Cruz's request that was made over a year ago.   Judge Staring sanctioned the city $15,800 for the false statement on July 8th to Cecelia Cruz and the Court that it had essentially fulfilled the records request and was waiting to finish processing a mere seven documents to complete the task.  The Court later discovered that there was actually more than 800 pages of documents left to provide to the plaintiffs and the city's misleading statements led litigation down an errant path. 

Few are sympathetic to the city's newfound difficult circumstance, especially if Tucson officials continue to lie and withhold information past the June 4th deadline.  We shouldn't expect any complaints from the city about its small window of time given that brief moment afforded to those who successfully challenged the El Rio giveaway.  

Plaintiff's Attorney Bill Risner discusses the ruling.
Video courtesy of John Brakey

Friday, May 16, 2014

Sunnyside Press Conference on Election Integrity 5/15/14

Dear Friends, 

Some good news Chuck Huckleberry moved the counting of ballots to Tuesday at 1PM (Chuck Memo and BOS Ally Miller are attached)

Still more work to do to make this Election Fair, Honest, Transparent and Verifiable.   Please join us at the Press Conference / Rally today at Apollo school at 6PM. Address for Apollo is 265 West Nebraska Street. Tucson, AZ

We still have 3 important issues. 
We want: 

1)  Mickey Duniho to be our Representative  Election Day inside the Election Count Room.  He is registered independent; he serves on the PC EIC since the beginning.  Mickey use to work at NSA for 37 years and he knows what to watch for.  He's done this many times before but now Brad Nelson says No.  Why? 

2)  Observer rights at Apollo School as we now have at the other two locations. 

3)  A pure random hand count of one of the 12 to 15 batches of ballots after the election.  Verifying the election within a day or two. 

How did this school get picked?   Apollo Middle School looks to be very big weak link as well as a conflict of interest.  It’s the home precinct of “Louie Gonzales” who has served 14 years on SUSD board and he is being recalled. We understand that his son works at the school.  I’ve also been told that he has some 30 family members working in Sunnyside school system.  Could this be a great place to stuff envelopes? This is why we have qualified trained observers, who if needed are in touch with trained election attorneys.   We want to know how many people go in and out and how many people vote there.  Just like any other election at any other school.   

Remember sunshine is the best disinfectant.  

At all 3 locations there will be a minimum of 3 voting booths and one DRE “Direct Recording Electronics”   except at Apollo.  Don’t these centers look more like a “voting center” than Just a “drop off ballot station?”   

The Recorder’s office and Huckelberry says we can NOT have an observer at Apollo school.  However, they will allow observers at the other two locations.  Chris Roads (recorder’s office) said that because there will be NO tabulating of votes at this site, only a ‘ballots drop of center’. When I pointed out that there was a tabulator and it’s built into the DRE “Direct Recording Electronics”.  He then advised me that he was removing the DRE from Apollo site. Preferring to violate an equal access law in order to refuse access to observers clearly demonstrates lack of pure intent.

By  removing  the DRE from Apollo , in order for the County to continue to use the site without violating Arizona statute, not only a careless disregard for the perceptions of the small Sunnyside community, but the laws which protect citizens with physical or other challenges for which a DRE provides equal access. 

Over the last 10 years I’ve learned that secure chain of custody of election materials, robust ballot accounting and equipment are prerequisites for good election and post-election audits.  
Inclosing, For a Fair, Honest, Transparent and Verifiable election the following conditions must be met: 

(a). There are strict written accounting procedures for paper records to prevent the addition, subtraction, substitution, or alteration of paper records. (b). To safeguard the ballots and audit records from loss and tampering, paper records and electronic equipment are fully secured at all times when a breach could adversely affect the integrity of the records including from the time the votes are cast until all audit or recount activity is completed and election results are finalized. (c). The audit begins as soon as possible after the random selection of audit units, which commences as soon as possible after the initial tallies recorded by the voting system are reported. (In some circumstances the audit may be conducted in phases as discussed in Best Practice. (d). There is a reconciliation to ensure that all votes from all audit units are correctly tabulated in the election totals.

John Brakey

Video courtesy of John Brakey

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sunnyside Recall Reawakens Struggle for Verifiable Transparent Elections in Pima County

J.T. Waldron

Richard Hernandez
When the growth lobby's powerful political machine is dependent upon the outcome of key elections conrolled by their own elections department, consistently fair and verifiable elections are impossible without legal intervention. Richard Hernandez, the Chairman of Sunnyside's effort to recall two school supervisors, understands this dilemma.
"For months, hundreds of residents in the Sunnyside Unified School District have worked to restore honesty and integrity to the Governing Board. The effort to recall SUSD Board president Louie Gonzales and Board member Bobby Garcia has already been a huge victory for the over 100 members of the recall committee and the students and teachers of the District.
We are exhausted from hurdling the many obstacles thrown in our way by corrupt-powers-that-be, but we will not rest until every ballot is counted in a fair and transparent manner."
A recent meeting at Pima County's Election Integrity Committee (EIC) offered a unique opportunity for Hernandez and recall candidates to catch a first hand glimpse of how the outcome of their campaign is bureaucratically managed by the county. Previous court cases have established legitimate concern over illegal early peeks at election results by the Elections Division. This information becomes a valuable tool for changing the outcome so Hernandez rightfully expressed the desire to have all the ballots in this small election counted on election day.

Once EIC member Mickey Duniho asked Elections Director Brad Nelson about possibly counting all the ballots on election day, Pima County loyalist Benny White had a little temper tantrum. He pounds his hand on the table to 'demand the floor' and proceeds to complain while dubiously citing jurisdictional issues barring the board from simply making an inquiry to Brad Nelson about his schedule. In this watershed moment, the peculiar behavior of Benny White reveals the infiltration of interests that contradict the majority's desire for transparency, especially when he later complains that "there might be an opposing view, there might not be an opposing view. I don't know but the opposing view party is not represented here." In other words, the County Attorney wasn't given the chance to develop some legal contrivance to justify this betrayal of public trust.

Any bureaucratic nuanced interpretation of rules or policy can be generated to hide key election processes from public oversight. If it wasn't such a threat to the democratic process, Pima County's rationale for skirting public scrutiny can be amusing at times. Who would have thought we would hear Brad Nelson, the head of elections in Pima County, try to explain how he's too busy to count ballots on election day?

In Sunnyside's district, two elected officials are the subject of a recall effort resulting from the reappointment of Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo. This appears to be making Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry a little uncomfortable. Citizens within the Sunnyside district have the political will to remove elected officials that continue to support the same corrupt bureaucratic head at Sunnyside. What if these uppity citizens realize that similar efforts should be aimed at PIma County's Board of Supervisors for their continued deferrence to Chuck Huckelberry?

Shortly after the election integrity meeting, Pima County realized that it's not a good idea to suggest that the elections department is too busy for such a small election day count. Pressure from Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller, Richard Hernandez, various recall candidates and election integrity advocates led to Pima County's 'magnanimous gesture' of counting all the ballots on election day.

While this one concesssion alleviates early counting concerns, adequate oversight is denied in key areas where the vote can still be manipulated. One suspicous location is Apollo Middle School, which has been designated as a 'ballot drop-off area'. Acting in conjunction with the political bureaucracy, Ann Rodriguez's office provides a handy excuse for barring election observers.
"The room that will be used is directly adjacent to space used daily by the students and we are required to maintain the secured environment of the educational institution."
Nothing beats the emotional appeal of children's safety when when it comes to eroding civil liberties. Those fighting corruption through the recall effort find the Apollo location suspect because Louie Gonzales, the Sunnyside Board President being recalled, has a son whose office is located inside Apollo Middle School.

Last Tuesday, Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller was denied her request to hold an emergency meeting over various concerns for the integrity of the Sunnyside election.   The rest of the elected supervisors publicly voted against further actions to protect the integrity of the Sunnyside election. We should question their wisdom as this vote was witnessed by those who succeeded with holding a recall election against their own district's corrupt elected officials.

In this non partisan election, Chuck Huckelberry ironically mandated that only representatives from the two major political parties can observe the tabulation. These two are EIC members Barbara Tellman and Benny White.  Surprised?  Perhaps another watershed moment surrounding the Sunnyside election is the decision to ban EIC member Mickey Duniho as an observer. Transparency advocate John Brakey requested from Brad Nelson that Duniho observe the tabulation process like he has in previous elections. Nelson replies "Absolutely not".  Although the bureaucracy seems to be leaning on the idea that Duniho's political affiliation is Independent, many recognize Duniho's exclusion as a retaliatory and vindictive decision against one committee member known for asking the right questions.

Like forever following an unhousebroken dog through an unfamiliar home, election integrity advocates have trailed the Pima Elections Division through every conceivable contrivance and opportunity to manipulate the count. This type of relentless oversight requires an abundance of tenacity and vigilance that few can afford to sustain for any significant length of time. Pima Elections can only be tamed through Attorney Bill Risner's legal pursuit of prospective relief through the courts. To get an idea of what this dog has left behind over the years, check out Bill Risner's Statement of Facts, which informs the court what integrity proponents intend to prove. Once evidence is presented through the discovery process, the court can proceed to clean house.

Friday, May 16 marks the eight-year aniversary of the RTA debacle. Despite Pima County spending milllions of dollars to prevent an adequate examination of those RTA ballots, we still have the opportunity to begin the process of disentangling corporate influence over key elections. Those RTA ballots are still at Iron Mountain and people are beginning to ask, "How many more temper tantrums can Benny White throw?"

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Communication is key to Pima County’s economy

"Good Article. This firms up what Bill Risner, others and I know about our local media and its getting worse."   
          --John Brakey, AUDITAZ

pima county communications departmentWhen government becomes one of the largest employers in an area, the desire by the unemployed or underemployed populace to maintain and grow its size grows as well.

Pima County is not shy about expanding, and the desperate are happy to help it.

Last week, officials announced that Dave Hatfield, soon to be former editor of the failing Inside Tucson Business magazine, would be joining Pima County’s public relations team. Hatfield will be replaced at Inside Tucson Business with Mark B. Evans, editor of the failing, an online “community of bloggers.”

Hatfield joins a Pima County government communications team headed up by former small advertising business owner, Jeff Nordensson. Nordensson replaced Sam Negri in January of this year.
Prior to being hired by Pima County, Nordensson’s firm had previously held the contract for Pima County’s media buys.

According to Nordensson, the Communications department consists of “3 writers here. We had one, but she decided that Barcelona was more fun than Tucson. Her departure opened the job sometime in mid to late May. We have 2 1/2 graphic designers, 3 1/2 videographers, and 2 ½ art directors, 1 social media editor/creative director.”

Including Nordesson, Pima County Communications Department employs 9 ½ full-time and part-time employees, yet still has the cash and apparent need to farm out media buys to the Bolchalk Frey Marketing Agency.

Hatfield’s base salary will be $55K.

According to Nordesson, the writers spend “a lot of time trying to figure out what is going on at different departments and also make what Pima County is doing more transparent.” Nordesson offered an example of the thought process behind the writers’ work. As an example, he explained that one of his writers, Diane Luber, did not mention in a press release issued last week that the Pima County Board of Supervisors gave $10K to the Borderlands Theater Group because it would not be “of general interest to the public.” On the other hand, she did mention that the County would be able to keep its lease with the Tucson Padres for a little bit more time until the team leaves town for good.

“Lots of things go on that before I took this job that I was not aware of. We determine whether something is note worthy, by whether it is in the general interest. It’s all available online, but it doesn’t generate a lot of interest. It is not a matter of trying not to bring something up. I don’t know if we would bring up the Raytheon lawsuit; that would depend on the issue at the time. We have tried to publicize the Michigan left turn because we know people have to change behaviors. It may not be controversial but it is something people need to know about.”

Nordensson said that despite being a government entity, they were making “subjective decisions about general interest, and we depend on media to take a look at what they think is of interest. There is a difference between what is available to the public and what we think is important for wider distribution.”

Luckily for the County, local media is shrinking, and few writers want to “expose” the corruption of what might be their only future chance for employment in Southern Arizona.
Evans has overseen the slow death of the Citizen after it went out of print. Hatfield, not known for his accuracy, has overseen Inside Tucson through its steady decline in readership and relevancy. According to insiders, Hatfield was anticipating a turnaround by Inside’s owners, Wick Communications.

According to the, “Top executives at Gannett Inc. don’t have a contingency plan for Evans leaving. Evans described the Citizen as an “orphan” despite being part of “the largest media company in the world.”

The Sentinel reported that Evans’ last day working for Gannett is Sept. 20; he starts with the Wick Communications-owned ITB three days later.

According to Nordesson, he hopes Hatfield will begin working for the County by October 1.
From the communication department’s webpage:

“The Communications Office proactively supports Pima County’s mission and strategic objectives. The Office provides creative services including editorial support, graphic and web design, logos,
photography, publicity, and media relations for all departments. Our communications products enhance the County’s visibility, image, reputation throughout the state, U.S. and internationally.
Videos, brochures, press releases, maps, and bike helmet stickers for kids — if it has words, pictures, or graphics, we create it for the County.
Check out some our recent work below and use the tabs to discover how we promote the County’s identity, people, and programs.”

In one of his most ironic opinion pieces at Inside Tucson Business, Hatfield wrote in July of this year, “By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth…” and advised his handful of readers that “more of us should question what we’re being told.”

The Pima County taxpayers can at least say Dave warned them.