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Changing of the Guard

The races for Pima County constable fall far down on the primary ballot. Here’s why you should pay attention this year.

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It's hard enough for most voters to keep track of their state lawmakers and offices like county recorder or county assessor. When you get so far down the ballot that you hit the county constable, you might not even know what the job entails, much less who is running for office.

But this year, it's worth paying attention to three of the constables running for the job in next month's Democratic primary. Constables Joe Ferguson (who is facing George Camacho), Bennett Bernal (who is facing Roberto Ponti) and Kristin Randall (who is facing a write-in candidate) have been working to address problems in the eviction process and keep people in their homes.

Constables have a tough job. They deliver orders of protection. They deliver court summons. And they deliver a whole lot of eviction notices—a topic that's big in the news these days, as Gov. Doug Ducey last week extended through Oct. 31 a moratorium preventing residential evictions for those who can show they have a hardship related to COVID-19.

That moratorium—along with a lengthy shutdown of most cases in Justice Court—has delayed many evictions, although it does little good for renters who fail to demonstrate to the court that they have a COVID-related hardship.

The nature of the constable's job means they often find families at their worst moments, especially when it comes to evictions, typically for missed rent due to a variety of reasons—losing a job, unexpected hospital bills, necessary car repairs, you name it. These days, it could be that you can't find work because a pandemic is ravaging huge sectors of the economy.

The eviction process is linear and quick. The rent is due on the first of the month, and tenants have a five-day grace period. By the sixth day, rent is officially late and an eviction notice can be delivered, meaning that a tenant must pay or leave within the following five days.

By the 11th day, a court complaint can be filed, with a hearing scheduled within six days. If the tenant loses that court hearing, they have five days to leave. If they're not out of the house by then, a constable comes to the residence and gives the tenant just hours to pack up all the belongings they can take with them, before the locks are changed.

While they have a right to fight an eviction, most people don't attend their court hearing, whether it's because they don't have transportation or they can't find someone to watch their kid or they can't take a day off from a low-wage job. Many are intimidated by the legal or system or figure they won't win—and indeed, the majority of cases are decided in favor of the landlord.

But when they don't show up to court, tenants don't receive vital information about their eviction. There's no service of the judgement, there's no notification, and they don't know they have six days until a constable will show up to evict them.

In hopes of giving people more than a few hours' notice to gather their belongings, Randall, Ferguson and Bernal have worked to launch a program where the court gives them the paperwork that tenants missed at their hearings, and they deliver it to the tenants, in order to keep them apprised of the situation.

Both Randall (a former hydrologist who launched herself into political advocacy by forming Indivisible Southern Arizona after Donald Trump's 2016 presidential victory) and Ferguson (a former journalist who covered politics and Pima County government for the Arizona Daily Star) were appointed to their jobs in the last year, while Bernal has been on the job for about a decade.

Between the three of them, they serve roughly two-thirds of all evictions in Pima County's 10 precincts. Their jobs require them to be on the front lines, encountering people who often have nowhere to go and no plans for what to do next. Depending on the time of month, they serve anywhere from five to 15 evictions each day.

"I've had 26 come in on one day once," Randall said.

The constables have had to make tough decisions on the job. Each tells stories of being faced with the responsibility to kick vulnerable people out of their homes. Some were in their 80s, some used the assistance of wheelchairs, some had to leave in the summer when temperatures surpassed 105 degrees. Recently, some have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and cannot find a new one.

"This (program) is a Band-Aid," Bernal said. "It allows us to give them four to five days, possibly six. They've got that much time to realize they need to leave. ... This basically gives us an opportunity to let them know when the actual eviction is going to occur."

The constables try to show up at a tenant's door when they're likely to be home. If they're able to make contact, they'll walk them through the court minutes document and explain the most important information.

All three constables say that before the COVID-19 outbreak hit, they were seeing some positive results from their efforts, with more tenants able to vacate the premises before they arrived to change the locks. While they were still finding tenants dangerously close to homelessness, they also were working with local nonprofits and shelters to find emergency housing, despite limited options in many situations.

By the time constables deliver these court minutes to the tenants, the judgement has already been made against them. Randall said they can only try their best to connect them with the proper resources, and work with the property managers to become more proactive, rather than reactive.

Their work has been well received by many landlords.

"I have a very large HSL property, they do a bunch of evictions all at once every month," Randall said. "I would go out at night with my flashlight trying to find these doors to knock on. It was about the second or third month in, when they finally realized what we were doing because at the same time every month, there would be a line waiting for the office to open in the morning with people wanting to pay up or to come up with a payment plan. They loved the program after that."

Aspen Wolff has been a property manager since 2016. When she worked at Navajo Hills Apartments near Stone Avenue and Fort Lowell Road, she interacted with Bernal during every eviction. She likes his program because it helps tenants become more informed, and they're no longer caught off guard by the process.

"They can be aware and try to make arrangements because it's no fun to have the constable showing up at your door that day and giving you five minutes to get your most important documents and things," Wolff said. "It's very stressful, especially if you have children, especially if you have pets. I've had people leave their pets behind in the apartments and it's heartbreaking. It really is."

In order for their program to be successful, Bernal said their efforts need to be supported by the property management companies.

"It's got to be a partnership of everyone helping each other, we can only do so much. They can do more," Bernal said. "The key to this is the private sector, because if they buy in on this, they can do so much good in the community for everybody."

Besides providing more advance notice ahead of evictions, Randall, Ferguson and Bernal have worked to link up people facing evictions with agencies that help find housing for the homeless. There are numerous agencies with the means to help, but they have various grants, which may or may not have funding at certain times of the month, and they may have certain stipulations, so finding the right fit for a tenant about to be evicted in a matter of days can be nearly impossible.

Earlier this year, the Constable's Office created a part-time position for a resource coordinator, whose entire job is to figure out how to navigate this maze of resources.

The two largest homeless shelters in the region are Salvation Army and Gospel Rescue. Both of them split the population by gender, and both don't take people who aren't considered "self-sufficient," which may include certain types of disabilities.

If a family is being evicted from their home, both shelters have very limited space where they can keep families together. And it's a no-go for some people because shelters don't allow pets.

When situations such as these arise, the constables see no other solutions for an evicted tenant on the brink of homelessness. Earlier this year, Ferguson asked the City of Tucson to back the constables on another program, to provide 30 Section 8 housing vouchers per month, which are in extremely high demand.

They worked out an agreement, and the constables have used a handful of these vouchers when all other options have been exhausted.

"We're hoping that by using some of the city's emergency vouchers for this purpose, we can avoid homelessness altogether," Ferguson said.

Ferguson's opponent is George Camacho, who worked in the Constable's Office for 18 years and also sought the appointment to the Precinct 9 office when Constable Colette Philip retired in January.

Camacho was fired from his job in April based on a harassment complaint that accused him of threatening and degrading behavior towards women in the office.

Ferguson, who posted about the investigation on Facebook, said the initial complaints and HR report were filed months before he became a constable.

"It is our duty to keep men who abuse women out of the constable's office, and to hold them accountable to their actions," Ferguson wrote. "Mr. Camacho should not be given a gun and badge. He should not become the boss of the women he harassed. He should not be in a position of authority while working with vulnerable women in our community."

Camacho said he is being attacked by his political opponent. On Facebook, he said he never received negative reviews from his employer until he decided to run for the constable position.

Camacho said he was accused of bullying by an employee in the Constable's Office and Human Resources responded with "informal discipline and mediation between me and my co-worker."

He blames Randall, the presiding constable who signed his termination letter, for firing him because she has a "longstanding personal relationship" with Ferguson.

"I believe this was a political ploy, retaliation, and abuse of power by the presiding constable," Camacho wrote. "My opponent and the presiding constable will stop at nothing to keep their power and privilege. They are desperately trying to smear a strong Latino's name and reputation."

Bernal is facing Roberto Ponti, an Italian immigrant who works as a process server and private investigator. He hopes to facilitate resolutions between landlords, tenants and courts and improve logistics in tracking papers and communications between these parties.

"As a process server and an officer of the court, I have served thousands of civil and criminal papers in Pima County," Ponti said. "As a private Investigator licensed by the Department of Public Safety, I have done thousands of hours of civil and criminal investigation while closing multiple cases in the pretrial releases of defendants in guaranteeing their presence in court hearings. I see myself as the liaison between the courts and the community, and I believe I will be good at it."

Ponti is multilingual in Italian, English, Spanish and French and said his experience serving papers in the private sector has taught him the importance of working efficiently and being accountable.

If elected, Ponti is interested in identifying existing grants that can be repurposed to help renters most affected by COVID-19.

"This is a national emergency and should be treated with that level of solemnity," he said.

Randall will face Republican write-in candidate Ron DeSouza.

She says she brings a personal perspective to the job.

"When I was 18, my parents threw me out of the house," Randall said. "I lived in a tent. I had nothing but the clothes on my back. I know what it's like. I know what people are going through. So to be able to be in a position to do something about it is my mission. It's more than just a job to me."

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