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Cozy Relationships

Tucson Convention Center actions lead to an investigation and complaints

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The memo was cautious to a fault—the kind crafted precisely to avoid lawsuits.

Dispatched to Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor by his special investigative division on Feb. 29, it gingerly detailed findings from a financial probe of the Tucson Convention Center, one prompted by a suspicious TCC employee, and begun at the insistence of Assistant City Manager Liz Miller.

"The areas where possible criminal conduct was alleged involved cash handling, including parking revenue and payments for the use of hockey ice at the arena," the memo says, "as well as unauthorized use of city equipment and vehicles ... ."

"On the surface, there did not appear to be any one particular act or omission to link any one employee or contractor to specific criminal conduct," the memo concludes. "Instead, what was discovered were policies and practices that need to be strengthened in order to prevent the appearance of the misappropriation of resources to include cash income generated."

The first step in "strengthening" those policies and practices came with the temporary appointment of two police officers to run the TCC, a move city officials call largely coincidental. No doubt placing two officers in charge—one a veteran captain—fell deeply within the cultural comfort zone of City Manager Richard Miranda, who served as police chief for a decade before moving into City Hall.

Regardless, the installment of TPD Captain Mark Timpf hiked more than a few eyebrows, particularly since it signaled what amounted to a demotion for longtime TCC chief Tommy Obermaier. Through the years, Obermaier has served in various capacities at the center, including as acting director from 2008 to 2010. He was deputy director when Timpf was made his boss, and it was under Obermaier's watch that allegations of skullduggery were raised.

Of course, all of this occurs at a terribly sensitive time, as the city and the Rio Nuevo Board tussle over control of the TCC and the tab for its badly needed renovation.

But even if the investigation resulted in a tepid memo and the reassignment of two cops, it's hardly the only nettlesome detail surrounding Obermaier's tenure. There's also the fact that for the past 11 years, the local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, has largely been shut out of handling TCC productions. Officials of Local 415 blame their exile on what they claim is Obermaier's anti-union stance, and the fact that his son works for Phoenix-based Rhino Staging, which they say has held the TCC contract for all of those years. According to Assistant City Manager Miller, Obermaier did not make city officials aware of this cozy little connection.

Although Obermaier is no longer deputy director—he now oversees event management and promotions—he still enjoys a salary of approximately $100,000.

He did not return numerous phone calls from the Tucson Weekly seeking comment for this story.

IATSE isn't the only union that has battled Obermaier. Two years ago, he knocked heads with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees after attempting to lay off 14 members of TCC's maintenance department—12 of whom were AFSCME members.

"Out of all his departments, maintenance is the one he decides he needs to contract out," says Michael Coiro, executive director of AFSCME's Local 449.

In so doing, Obermaier may have made a strategic blunder. "Let's just say he kicked a sleeping dog, and AFSCME bit him," Coiro says. "We made an inquiry into why he was just focused on one particular department, and why it wasn't a fair and so-called equitable layoff."

Obermaier's move was ultimately reversed by the city manager's office, Coiro says, and the dozen AFSCME workers kept their jobs.

Regardless of reversals, investigations and demotions, Obermaier's imprint seems to remain on everything that happens at TCC, including the procurement process for hiring outside contractors such as Rhino.

According to correspondence from a City Council office obtained by the Weekly, TCC's previous procurement-selection committee process was one in which Obermaier—while not a voting committee member—nonetheless made strong recommendations for folks sitting on that committee. Others contend that he hand-picked the committee itself.

As a result, the correspondence says, the selection committee has been reconstituted, with new members far from Obermaier's influence. "This should theoretically ensure greater objectivity in the process," it says.

But has it? Susan Whitaker is the business agent for IATSE Local 415. She says her union was first shut out of the TCC in 2001, and has fought to get back in ever since, to no avail—even when union workers were requested by touring productions like those brought in by Broadway in Tucson, which have contracts with IATSE International.

According to Whitaker, Obermaier "has been very publicly anti-union for quite some time now."

Meanwhile, the TCC's new interim director, Mark Timpf, dismisses the notion that he and Lt. Paul Tosca were brought in to crack heads following the criminal investigation. "I'm not here as a police officer," Timpf says. "I was brought in as a manager. At the police department, we receive a lot of leadership and management training. We manage large groups of people, and we operate within an organizational structure. So it's not uncommon for the police department to offer its personnel—because we are city employees—to take temporary assignments in various areas to help the city in some issues that it's dealing with."

Still, the questions that prompted the investigation did not simply evaporate with its conclusion. And Timpf concedes that he is "examining all of the processes and all of the policies, the objectives, the operations—assessing them and making changes where I see they need to be strengthened."

Regarding Obermaier's history and allegations of his meddling with the procurement process, "I don't know anything about past processes, because I was not here," Timpf says. "But I can tell you that he's not involved in the (current) process."

That would include the contract, long held by Rhino, that is now up for a new bid. While Whitaker hopes her union will now have a fair shot, an April 24 visit to the TCC was not encouraging.

She had set up a meeting with Timpf to discuss the long-delayed request for proposals for the new contract. But when she arrived, Timpf steered her toward another room—where Tommy Obermaier was waiting. "We felt ambushed," she says. "It was very awkward."

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