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Passing the Buck

Tucson's city manager works to hand off downtown planning responsibilities

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Ex-City Manager Mike Hein had a reputation among political insiders for deals "written on the back of a napkin." As a result, he was fired.

As he exited, a call for transparency was trumpeted, and a new way forward on downtown development was proclaimed.

But neither Hein's dismissal nor the pledges of accountability have erased the leftover promises, real and perceived, many of which centered on Tucson's beleaguered and decades-long efforts to revitalize downtown.

The keeper and occasional scribe of Hein's metaphorical napkins—the deals that were supposed to jumpstart downtown and defy expectations of development malaise—was left behind when Hein packed up in April after three years on the job. Assistant to the City Manager Jaret Barr, Hein's longtime right-hand man and his point man on downtown, still holds his title, though his boss has changed, and it's unclear what his current duties are.

The mention of Barr's name now has the potency to kill a deal. An agreement that would have formalized a consulting relationship between the city and the nonprofit Downtown Tucson Partnership was quietly withdrawn earlier in August after Barr was revealed as the would-be public-finance specialist and right-hand man to the proposed new downtown planner, partnership CEO Glenn Lyons.

In interviews, City Council members cited a variety of reasons for revising the contract with the downtown booster group, including the need for clearer boundaries between the city and the partnership, a more explicit description of the services to be provided, and spelled-out procurement practices.

By all accounts, Barr, who makes an annual salary of about $106,000, will not be part of the revision. He's not part of City Manager Mike Letcher's new downtown team, and no one on the council or in the City Manager's Office is willing to talk about what he is, in fact, doing.

Barr himself demurred, saying that the negotiations over the contract were between the City Manager's Office and the Downtown Tucson Partnership, and did not involve him. As a political appointee, he works at the will of the city manager, without the security of civil service protection. He would not say what he anticipated doing next.

City Council members promised after firing Hein that there would be no purge of municipal employees close to him—and no one was closer than Barr.

Fran LaSala, who oversaw the Scott Avenue streetscape project as an assistant to the city manager, was also included in the earliest iteration of the agreement with the partnership, but he has since been assigned to a position in the city's Environmental Services Department. He has civil-service status.

Despite the wrangling, the deal between the city and the Downtown Tucson Partnership will likely live on.

"We'll be contracting directly with Glenn," said City Manager Mike Letcher. "Otherwise, I'd have to hire someone. We just don't have that expertise."

Letcher has designed a downtown team without the usual suspects, and they've been meeting weekly since April. The team is envisioned in three overlapping parts: finance, led by the finance director; operations, led by the director of the General Services Department; and planning, led by Lyons, even though the city is not paying him. (He continues to draw an annual salary of about $130,000 from the partnership.)

Under Letcher's plan, Lyons' list of tasks is long. It runs from downtown master planning to customer service and quality assurance to negotiating development agreements and designing a standard agreement form.

Critics of the plan say it would contract out decisions to the Downtown Tucson Partnership that should be made inside the city bureaucracy, to ensure transparency and minimize unfair influence.

Bill Risner, president of the Community Development and Design Center and a longtime activist on downtown issues, has been one of the most vocal opponents. He thinks the contract would increase the influence of developers and political insiders. Among the suggestions Lyons made in a draft downtown master plan is that the city and county review their land holdings and sell off the surplus downtown land for development, in an effort to guide downtown revitalization over the next 15 years or so.

"It's simply a mechanism to loot the city," he said. "This is how you do it if you're trying to rip the public off."

Risner said the draft version of Lyons' vision for downtown shows that his goals aren't consistent with the city's, and that they favor developers over the taxpayers. Risner said by advising the city to sell the land now, while the real estate market is struggling, is analogous to looting. "It just doesn't make sense," he said.

Risner is also concerned that the deal would result in more trouble for the public to obtain records. The contract specifies that all records requests must go through the city.

Members of the City Council argue that hiring Lyons would actually have the opposite effect to what Risner suggests.

"It would provide a set of checks and balances that up until now, we've not had," Council-woman Karin Uhlich said.

"Glenn would report to the city manager as a consultant," Councilwoman Regina Romero said. "It's not just the Downtown Partnership making the decisions."

The contract will specify that the city is hiring Lyons himself, Letcher said. In that scenario, the partnership's board, which includes several power brokers who have been involved in Tucson's downtown for decades, would have a say only in approving the contract, not in Lyons' specific duties.

Lyons is keenly attuned to the controversy.

"I understand conflict of interest," he said. "I understand that you work for your client."

Letcher is betting on Lyons to rescue a project beset by a public perception of failure and inside dealing; an attempt by the state Legislature to sever the sales-tax stream that funds Rio Nuevo; and a recession that has all but eliminated the funds that were expected.

Before becoming city manager, Letcher knew little about these Rio Nuevo issues, despite being deputy city manager under Hein. Minutes after Hein was fired, Letcher received a stack of papers—an introduction, if you will. But that was only part of the picture.

The other bit was on napkins.

"Having both a planning and finance background is what makes Glenn unique," Letcher said. "He has experience, and I've had a chance to kick the tires and see whether it works. ... This is a forward-looking contract."

The council is scheduled to review the revised agreement in September.

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