News & Opinion » Currents Feature

Open-door Policy

It may be hard to meet legitimately with elected officials, but if you're up to no good in the County administration building, walk right in.

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On the eve of Pima County's long Columbus Day holiday weekend, 24 days after the terrorist strikes at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, we roam free under and in the county government complex.

It is just 11 days after the Tucson Citizen wrote glowingly of the city-county Office of Emergency Management, located in the basement of the county administration building. It is here that officials would coordinate responses to terrorist or simply criminal attacks or natural disasters. Adjacent to Jim's Place, the cafeteria, the operations center is conspicuous only for its sign, a narrowed window and a doorbell.

It is well after closing time for 2,000 workers (one-fourth of the county workforce), politicians and bureaucrats who inhabit from 8 to 5 the three county buildings along West Congress Street.

The four doors on the east and west sides of the administration building have long been locked. So have the eight doors to the adjacent Health & Welfare building and the eight on the Superior Court building at Congress and Church.

No matter. There are some three dozen entrances. We enter unimpeded through a walkway off of Congress Street and between the old county morgue, the squat building at the west end of the county complex, and the health building. We walk past the county mail room, past boxes of florescent lights, to the elevators. We ride up. Get out on each floor. Some offices are locked. Others are wide open even though we're nearly an hour past closing time. We finally walk down via the stairwell and emerge at street level.

We repeat the walkabout, this time through two vehicle exits of the two-level garage under the three main county buildings. This time, we head to Administration. We ride one of the four elevators (only three are working this day) to each of the 11 floors. Again, we wander on each; for variety, we use both of the building's stairwells, which have become cigarette-littered smoking coves for the desperate.

Then we ride down to the basement--"A" level, the upper garage floor. This is the parking haven for the locally powerful. The five spots for the members of the Board of Supervisors are closest to the elevators, as if they can't readily walk, and are ridiculously emblazoned not once, but twice, with their names. Top staff, judges and prosecutors also park on A. We walk east to the northeast corner, take seven steps up to a door that opens onto Pennington and Church. For the first time in years, this door does not open from the outside, but it can be propped open for long stretches.

When they flee, the pols and bureaucrats can exit west or drive through a big gateway on Pennington that is covered after hours by a metal, roll-down door. Although a guard from the county's contracted security company takes a seat here in the afternoon, there's virtually nothing to prevent someone from speeding in.

We walk west; the exit gates now are shut. Those wanting to leave now must drive the wrong way through the building's vehicle entrance and past the only guard station. Guards here have limited means to restrict entrance: There is a traffic arm that is supposed to be lifted only after guards check through officials with parking passes or county identification.

Earlier in the week, we repeatedly sailed through with a borrowed parking permit. When we used a rented white Blazer or borrowed white Chevy half-ton truck--similar to the ubiquitous models in the county fleet--guards simply waved us through without leaving their chairs behind their glass-enclosed office.

The county said it was going to crack down on outside vehicles. Visitor parking has been chopped to just six spots on the north wall of the A level. But supervisors frequently extend courtesy to their benefactors, who can drive in without hassle.

Parking, with a permit or hourly or daily ticket, also is available through the El Presidio garage, with entrances off Pennington or Alameda. It is connected by a walkway to the county B-level garage. Elevators and stairs from El Presidio Park take you down to the El Presidio garage and to the easy, usually unobserved walk back under the county building. That's what we've done this night. After our stroll, one of the county's rent-a-guards is walking toward us. Could be the end of his shift. He says nothing.

Other county contractors--the cleaning crews who work for a company hired by the county--gather shortly after closing time near the elevators. Some wear ID badges. Most don't.

Only the elevators in Superior Court have restricted access and are monitored. But into the evening hours, doors on the east side of Superior Court are open for the harried runners of lawyers to file papers. The Superior Court does not follow the federal model of a secured box with a time stamp into which late filers can deposit lawsuits and motions outside. Members of the court swing shift also leave and return with pizzas and drinks.

Security was stepped up in Superior Court only after a Nov. 19, 1985 incident exposed serious flaws. Lee Artis Befford, a 22-year-old, two-time escapee and convicted burglar, was being transported by deputies for a court appearance. He overpowered Deputy Ed Romero, snatched Romero's .357-Magnum and fled. It caused panic. Many workers locked themselves in their offices. Befford was captured by Los Angeles County deputies three days later.

The building was sealed off. Yet the late John F. Rawlinson, the funny and smart reporter then with the Arizona Daily Star, found easy access and prowled the garages and buildings much like we're doing on this night.

We could linger in stairwells. We could easily stay in offices. It reminds us of the oddball who was found to be living in the county's Kino Community Hospital years ago.

Judges demanded better security after Befford's escape. The court building now has limited access, monitors and sheriff's protection in addition to the metal detectors, also cherished by supervisors at their weekly meetings, on the first floor of the court building.

Security sometimes went overboard. After a rare Saturday meeting with health workers in 1987, Sam Lena, the beloved Democratic chairman of the Board of Supervisors, had great difficulty persuading a rent-a-guard to let him out of the building. Lena, who died in 1996, left office in 1988 well before supervisors tightened access on their top-floor perch.

That was done not in response to any security risk or incident, but out of the supervisors' desire for insulation from constituents. The county had historically been a more open government, in literal senses of access to officials and documents, than the city. Well before security checkpoints, ID checks and sign-ins were installed, most City Hall offices viewed citizens as intruders.

During a City Council meeting last spring, city Finance Director Kay Gray told a reporter who was seeking a response to a single question that he could not ride up an elevator with her and several representatives from a bond rating agency.

At the county Assessor, Recorder and Treasurer offices in the Old County Courthouse, 115 N. Church Ave., security waxes and wanes depending on who is outside or inside. A deputy was posted in the Assessor's Office during the recall-shortened term of Democrat Alan Lang and his abusive chief deputy Tom Naifeh in 1993-94. Lang showed off his gun to try to intimidate people. The late Arnold Jeffers, a Republican who served as Assessor for a decade, ordered up a deputy in 1983 after a couple of irate taxpayers, who happened to be carrying sidearms, strode in to protest high property values. Security also has been increased during the homeless protest camps set up there in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

There is something not too serious about all that. When Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Pima County--to its credit--continued to provide the public with ample access even while restrictions were placed on the neighboring Tucson federal building.

Things have changed in Tucson, which touts its diversity. It is a city where on Easter two years ago, a group of Cypriot students at the University of Arizona defeated some Turks in a city soccer-league championship. A city that attracts all sorts of foreign students to the UA and its Center for English as a Second Language. A city with an air base and a huge "used-plane" lot.

And a city that has provided temporary homes for at least two Al-Queda terrorists--Hani Saleh Hanjour, a Saudi who is believed to have flown the hijacked jet into the Pentagon on September 11--and Wadih El-Hage, a former city janitor and Van Tran driver, who is in prison on charges related to the terrorist bombings in 1998 of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

County security rests with Dick Kohlman, a retired sheriff's deputy, who oversees the performance of the county-contracted security guards. Kohlman, who is paid $40,560 a year in his security job and provided a county car, is often more like a babysitter to supervisors.

Unlike his quietly effective predecessor, Steve Sherrick, Kohlman takes an active, sometimes meddling role in weekly supervisors' meetings. He takes a seat at the press table, directs citizens who want to speak and snaps at any sign of discomfort for supervisors. Seven years ago, Kohlman tossed from the meeting room a mother whose three-year-old child got a little fussy briefly. The child was the son of Scott Bradley, a Three Points man who was addressing the Board at that moment about their help in financing his heart transplant. Kohlman has tossed those who have brought in signs. And he removed a longtime taxpayer, Gwen Portnoy, when she complained about a transportation plan and a supervisor's support for former Mayor George Miller.

Kohlman also took it upon himself to protect supervisors, particularly three-term Democrat-Republican Ed Moore, from the press. Kohlman on several occasions attempted to shield Moore from reporters and once bounded up to an open civil service commission meeting when Moore complained a reporter was harassing him.

So Supervisors are nicely shielded from nattering constituents--far more effectively than the County buildings and employees are protected from after-hours intruders.

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