FIRE A 'COMEDY OF ERRORS' - The Explorer: Import

FIRE A 'COMEDY OF ERRORS'

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Posted: Tuesday, April 30, 2002 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

CONTRACTOR EMBROILS MARANA IN ILLEGAL DUMP

A politically-connected trucking contractor working for the town of Marana dumped tons of smoldering and potentially hazardous debris near a Marana neighborhood April 23.

The debris, which may have been burned illegally, was taken from a privately owned property that houses a derelict cotton gin where pesticides and other chemicals were believed to have been stored for more than 50 years.

A three-year-old boy from the Honea Heights neighborhood was taken to the hospital after suffering an asthma attack after the debris was dumped on land owned by Marana near the 12000 block of West Sandy Road.

Marana officials said the material was taken to the property, which abuts the Santa Cruz River levee east of Sanders Road, to serve as fill for three low-income homes the town plans to build there.

Marana officials said they have no reports indicating the fill was contaminated with pesticides from the gin site.

The town has been negotiating with property owners Yankee Pointe LLC for more than two years to preserve the Depression-era Producers Cotton Gin office at 13864 N. Sandario Road that sits on the 23.79-acre site.

Mike Carlier, a local real estate broker who represents the California-based developers, said the site had received an initial environmental inspection shortly after it was purchased in 1999 and no pesticide contamination was found.

"They did find some hydraulic fluid contamination from the pumps and rams that operated there, but for the most part it's a clean site," Carlier said. "There's no doubt that chemicals were stored on the site, you can look into one of the buildings and there's empty barrels still in place. But we have no evidence that there's any contamination from it. It's checked out pretty clean."

A copy of the report obtained from Carlier indicated that there was not enough contamination found on the site to trigger a cleanup order from state pollution regulators.

Trash that has accumulated on the property over the years may be another concern. Residents and a reporter from the Northwest EXPLORER found a smoldering can of household insecticide fogger and a box marked "DeCon Rat Poison" along with other trash embedded in the mounds of debris.

Richard "Rick" Westfall, who was working for Marana's public works department, set fire to the brush and debris to make it "easier to compact for transport" to Honea Heights, said Marana Town Manager Mike Hein.

"It's a simple one to characterize from our standpoint," Hein said. "It was a screw-up. It was supposed to go out to our site. It certainly wasn't supposed to go out there in flames. Obviously, burning debris should not have been transported. Debris should have not been burned without a permit. And burning debris should not have been placed in a residential neighborhood."

Westfall did not return requests for comment before the EXPLORER's deadline.

Hein said the clearing of the land was authorized by the town, but the burning was not.

"We certainly had people with their heads in parts of their anatomy where they don't belong," Hein said.

Westfall, a friend of Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. and a contributor to Sutton's 1999 mayoral campaign fund, has an open-ended, "as needed" contract to perform work with the town's Public Works Department, according to town officials.

Between April 2000 and March of this year, Westfall was paid $103,522 for materials and services he performed for Marana that did not go through a competitive bidding process.

"Rick has done a lot of work for the town and this is a an unfortunate incident," Sutton said. "But he has not got any of his contracts because of me or any undue influence he placed on anyone in the town. It doesn't work that way in Marana." (see related story page 1)

Sandra Pappas, a registered nurse whose backyard is about 20 yards from the debris, said the debris smoldered for more than 24 hours after it was dumped.

"It was just awful, the smoke and the smell was just really strong. My son has asthma and started having an attack and we had to take him to Northwest Hospital. The whole situation is just unbelievable, that they would just dump this in a residential neighborhood," Pappas said.

"There's children that play on that lot all the time," said Millie Chavez, whose backyard is also across the street from the debris. "What were they thinking?"

The Pima County Department of Environmental Quality responded to the dumping and has begun an investigation, said PCDEQ spokesperson Frances Dominguez.

"We contacted the town of Marana and did tell them that this was illegal and that they couldn't do it. No dumping and no burning, and to please stop until we got hold of them again," Dominguez said.

Burning refuse in Pima County is illegal except for burning tumbleweeds and even that requires a permit, Dominguez said.

"They didn't have a permit on this," she said "Our main concern would be the dumping and then of course the fact that it was set on fire. We're pretty sure this was the town of Marana that did this. My understanding was that they were trying to burn the brush out of it so they could use it as fill. But this is all speculation on our part, since the inspector has not finished the report."

Northwest Fire and Rescue District responded to 911 calls from neighbors living near both the gin site where the material was ignited and in Honea Heights where it was dumped, said Katie Heiden, a spokesperson for Northwest Fire.

"The cleaning and burning was done by the town of Marana under the direction of Rick Westfall. We were not at the site at the time but we did respond after the fire was lit," Heiden said

According to reports obtained from Northwest Fire, the burning at the cotton gin site was classified as a "controlled burn," although neither Westfall nor the town had a permit from the county to do so.

"I don't know how they knew that it was a controlled burn, but apparently the firefighters at the station had information that a controlled burn was planned behind the old cotton gin and that Rick Westfall was in charge," Heiden said. "The note was up on the message board that there was going to be a controlled burn. Somebody informed them that this was happening and they just put it up on the board for the next shift. They don't know who notified them, just that it was for the town of Marana and that Rick Westfall was the person that was in charge of it."

Northwest Fire did little when they responded to Honea Heights, Pappas said.

"They responded out here in (hazardous material) suits and then didn't really do anything. A fire captain told me it was no big deal, which I thought was kind of incredible. They just had the town come out and spray it down," Pappas said.

Jim DeGrood, Marana's development services administrator, said the town's emergency response person used a water truck to spray more than 10,000 gallons of water on the debris.

While no one in Marana was able to give a precise estimate of how much material was dumped in the neighborhood, a Marana Police Department report described it as "several tons."

Ron Smith, Marana's Parks and Recreation Department director, said the town was clearing the developers' property to use as a parking lot for Marana's Fourth of July celebration.

Last month the town decided to move the popular festival, which has averaged an attendance of about 15,000 people over the last five years, from the Marana-Northwest Regional Airport to Ora Mae Harn Park at Lon Adams and Barnett roads.

"The developers are giving us permission to use the property for the parking," Smith said.

"My understanding is that we had no knowledge as a town that there was going to be any burning done."

Carlier said the town paid the cost of clearing the private property.

In a Marana town council meeting Jan. 16, 2001, Councilmember Ed Honea, who was born and raised in Marana, expressed concern that the gin's warehouse building, which was in use from 1938 to 1995, might be contaminated.

"That building was used to store a lot of chemicals over the years. We would probably have to do an assessment before taking it over," Honea said at the meeting.

David Wilson, an architect with PAA architects and planners who was studying the feasibility of saving the gin, said at the same meeting an environmental study would be of "paramount" importance.

Both DeGrood and Hein said they didn't have any reason to believe the gin site was contaminated, but that no environmental studies have been done.

"We have no record of any kind of attempts to classify the material, nor are we knowledgeable of any hazardous material on the site," DeGrood said." There is a report on the old cotton gin buildings, and I think there may be a little asbestos in the gin buildings themselves. Customarily, we would not see a more extensive phase two (environmental study) until they filed a development plan or preliminary plat."

Hein said that, despite his confidence that the debris is not contaminated, it will not be used for fill for the low income housing the town plans to build at Honea Heights.

"I have no reason to believe there is any contamination, but we're not going to use (the debris) for fill and plan to move it to an appropriate location," Hein said. "We are working with the (Pima County) Department of Environmental Quality to ensure that from here on out we do the right thing in the right way. It was a comedy of errors in the sense of well intended people not clearly thinking this through. I believe we erred and we'll hear from PCDEQ."

TOWN RECORDS SKIMPY ON CONTRACTOR'S WORK

A trucking contractor with ties to Marana's mayor has done more than $100,000 of work for the town without having to compete for it.

Richard "Rick" Westfall, owner of Westfall Industries, was paid $103,522 from the town's operating budget for work done at Marana-Northwest Regional Airport between April 2000 and March 2002, according to records obtained from the town.

The work done by Westfall's trucking firm included a road construction project that Marana building officials say they had no construction plans for and which they kept no records of, building a dirt berm that cost the town $10,000, and work on the airport's fire suppression system and security fencing that was paid for largely through an Arizona Department of Transportation grant and remains unfinished.

"It appears that none of the work done by Rick Westfall was competitively bid," said Roy Cuaron, Marana's finance director.

Westfall, a contributor to Mayor Bobby Sutton's mayoral election, organized a citizen's committee last year that unsuccessfully attempted to provide the unpaid mayor and council a salary from the town's general fund.

Westfall's friendship with Sutton emerged after he allegedly threatened KE&G Construction foreman Bill Campbell May 24, 2000 during an argument over road work in front of one of Westfall's businesses at 5300 W. Ina Road, according to Campbell and Marana police.

"He threatened to kill me three times, and admitted to a police officer that he said it," Campbell, 67, said of the 40-year-old Westfall. "He told me that he was friends with the mayor and that he would have our construction shut down."

Westfall reportedly called Sutton after Campbell called Marana police. The police report languished for more than five months in Marana without being acted on.

Westfall's case was transferred to Oro Valley Magistrate Court in September 2000 after an article in the Northwest EXPLORER detailed the lack of action on the case in Marana. Westfall was cleared of the disorderly conduct charge after Campbell dropped the complaint in Oro Valley. Both Westfall and Sutton adamantly denied that there was anything improper in their actions in the Campbell case.

Westfall did not return calls requesting comment by the EXPLORER's press time Monday.

Sutton, who in 1999 became the town's first elected, rather than appointed, mayor, said his friendship with Westfall played "absolutely no part whatsoever" in Westfall's obtaining work for the town.

"I knew as soon as I heard about the $100,000 worth of work that I was going to pop up as "the mayor's friend in this," Sutton said. "The truth is that Rick is still a good guy, he's done a lot of charity work for the town and no one is giving him any favoritism. He knows a lot of people. He's been in town for like 30 or 40 years and I've only been here 10 years. He knows everyone, so it's easy to link his name to just about anyone or anything in Marana."

Sutton said that the town was in the process of re-examining its procurement policy and he was confident that no wrongdoing on Westfall's part or the town's would be found.

"I think part of the reason that this information is being put forward is because this is an election year," Sutton said.

According to records obtained from the town, the vast majority of the work done for Marana by Westfall was authorized by Roger Dougan, Marana's airport manager.

Dougan was placed on administrative leave with pay three weeks ago for reasons apparently unrelated to Westfall's work for the town, and was unavailable for comment.

Marana Town Manager Mike Hein said it would be "inappropriate" for him to comment on Dougan's removal and refused to say anything else.

Jane Howell, Marana's human resources director, said the decision was mutual for Marana and Dougan.

"He wanted to look for other employment. It was a mutual decision. We were trying to give him the opportunity, since he said he wanted to look at something else. He had done a pretty good job for us and we try to be fair," Howell said.

Several of the invoices obtained from the town that were paid to Westfall and authorized by Dougan offered only vague descriptions of the actual work performed.

One invoice had four entries totaling $6,867 that were each titled "Avra Valley Airport work."

Other invoices were paid for "fire suppression" without any detail of what work was done on the airport's water system by the trucking contractor.

Farhad Moghimi, Marana's town engineer, who oversaw a road project last year at the airport that paid Westfall almost $39,000 for road building material and hauling, said competitive bidding was not used and his department "shopped around for prices from three or four vendors" before settling on Westfall.

Moghimi said neither Sutton nor anyone else suggested Westfall should do the the work, but added that Dougan wanted the project expedited.

"Roger Dougan indicated that this was something that he wanted done as quickly as possible. So we went into our operating budget to get that done as quickly as possible and our own staff did the actual construction. The material was paid for out of our operating budget. The prices we checked varied between $6 to $12 per cubic yard and that didn't include the hauling.

"We typically check with three or four vendors. But I'm not sure because the person who handled that is on vacation," Moghimi said.

State procurement laws and guidelines generally require governmental entities in Arizona to go through a sealed bidding process when obtaining goods or services worth more than $25,000. The process is intended to allow taxpayers to get the best bid price for their money and to ensure lucrative government contracts are awarded fairly, said John Adler, director of Arizona's state procurement office.

"Bidding is competition, and competition is good. That's how you get the best performance for the taxpayer's dollar. You don't just go out and give it to whoever you want to. There are very specific laws and requirements that cover a municipality's procurement of goods and services," Adler said.

The road building project was the first ever done using town staff to do the actual construction work rather than a contractor, Moghimi said. He defended the use of an open-ended contract with Westfall for the material and hauling because it was an "in-house project."

"One of the issues with that project was that since we were doing it in-house we didn't have a set of plans, we didn't have quantities, we didn't know exactly how much we were going to need, so we ended up buying the material as needed and taking it out to the site. It was the first project that we ever attempted to do in-house and utilize our own staff to do it so we ended up design-building it out in the field. So the quantities varied. It went from like one or two truck loads at a time to, as the project proceeded, we would go back and get additional material as needed. Typically when you have a set of plans, you know what the quantities needed are. In this case we determined the quantities as needed out in the field," Moghimi said.

Moghimi said the fact that the town contracted with Westfall on "as needed basis" because of the lack of plans for the project exempted them from state bid laws. Adler disagreed.

"No, you can't do that," Adler said. "This still sounds like it very much should have been a bid situation. Even if they are claiming that this was design-build and material as needed, a good town engineer or project manager should be able to do the math and figure the material that will be needed for a particular project and then procure the material through a bid. There's no real magic to it. You look at the road and say I will need 'X' amount of material."

The town was unable to produce any documents after the EXPLORER filed a public records request for the airport road project file.

"There is no file," Marana Development Services Director Jim DeGrood said. "Under a normal bid and build situation, it would more than likely be a pretty elaborate file on the project. I would say that we are going have to be more careful in the future when we do these in-house projects."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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