Negotiating the learning curve - The Explorer: Import

Negotiating the learning curve

Print
Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Tuesday, October 5, 2004 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Sept. 29, 2004 - While most political campaigns are a whirlwind of promises, when the balloons and confetti settle the most difficult work is yet to be done.

In Oro Valley, it has been four months since five new councilmembers took office. It is the first time in the short history of the town that such a large turnover in members has occurred.

While it may be too soon to evaluate how many of the promises have been fulfilled, the councilmembers - Conny Culver, Kenneth "K.C." Carter, Helen Dankwerth, Barry Gillaspie and Terry Parish - are proud of what they have done so far and are looking forward, energetically, to the next months of their terms.

It is a time of change for the council, not only in its turnover, but also in its size, moving for the first time from five to seven members. The changes have proven to be a challenge so far, with some murmurs of unrest shaking through the ranks of the town.

But in the more than a dozen interviews conducted for this story, feelings about the direction this new group is taking have been optimistic for the future.

Perhaps one of the most qualified to weigh in on the progress of the new councilmembers is someone who has worked with a number of councils in the past. Mayor Paul Loomis has been in office for six years and has seen a lot of councilmembers. He said what strikes him about this council during its first months is the enthusiasm with which they meet every task.

The challenge for him, he said, is to not "hold the reins too tight," while at the same time keeping the group focused. Several of the council meetings have been long, reaching until 11 p.m., midnight and once, even 2 a.m. There also have been a number of study sessions, retreats and special sessions called.

Loomis said because there are so many new members, a fair bit of time has been spent training and familiarizing them with the procedures and policies. He knows there have been more meetings than usual, but hopes that the number will decrease as everyone settles in to their positions.

"All of us have things we want to get done," he said. "But we end up reprioritizing them as we go along."

He said he, too, believes this council has had its "eyes opened" to the realities that guide all their decisions. After working with previous councilmembers for a few years, Loomis said he was able to predict the kinds of questions that would be asked and the way the vote would go in most cases.

He said that has not happened yet with this council, and in a way that is good. He is not seeing any obvious division or side taking with the new members, he said.

Residents who frequent meetings and watch how the vote goes each week, also have an opinion on how the council is doing.

A supporter of many of the new members during their campaigns, Tortolita resident Barry DiSimone said the new council has "lived up to their promises almost uniformly." He pointed to several recent actions that illustrate his opinion.

A rezoning of 17 acres in the newly annexed area near Tortolita to allow higher density housing was denied at the Sept. 8 regular council meeting and DiSimone said the "old council" would not have voted to preserve open space as these new members did.

"It is very representative of a new direction," he said. He said the council denied the item to discuss the needs and wants of the people there and for that, DiSimone said he is "very proud of them."

He also has been impressed with the "forward looking" of at least two council members who have requested resources from the governor's office to explore the use of alternative energy sources in the town.

He said both councilmembers Dankwerth and Culver are concerned about Middle East oil dependence and are looking into ways of developing solar and other energies in the town.

Chet Oldakowski is another regular at the council meetings and ingrained in the business of the town, after he and of a group of citizens decided to sue the town for the right to refer to a vote at least two of three economic incentive agreements passed by the previous council.

He said five new members were elected because voters felt "a complete disconnect" with the old council, specifically in regards to economic development agreements.

While so many new faces means playing a lot of catch up, Oldakowski said the new council has already addressed many issues that are important to the residents of Oro Valley.

"They had a steep learning curve and no time to learn the ropes," Oldakowski said.

He cited as a success approving a budget that "got close" to be being balanced in the wake of "days of loose spending," although he said long-range fiscal planning is something he thinks the council should consider to become more responsible with tax dollars.

Oldakowski also said the denial of an extension for Beztak - a company seeking to build a combined commercial and apartment complex on the southeast corner of Lambert Lane and La Cañada Drive - based on noncompliance to pre-agreed conditions, shows that the council is looking out for the interests of the town. The town is now being sued by the company.

The willingness of the members to look at a big box ordinance also shows that "we are starting to see a new vision and direction emerge," he said, saying a shift from considering developer interests to residential interests seems to be taking place.

Oldakowski said the new council members still have a lot of learning to do as far as the policies of government are concerned and that they must work to strengthen community relationships.

As an example, he pointed to Ventana Medical Systems, a business that is "ready to leave Oro Valley because the town did not recognize their importance" when they approved a high density housing development adjacent to its facilities. The town is now moving to acquire that land for relocation of the town's maintenance facilities.

But not everyone is seeing a bright future after a look at how this new council has conducted business so far. Don Cox, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission and a candidate for Oro Valley council who lost to the five new members, said there is some frustration coming from the commission, and from citizens and applicants, when the council denies projects and "nobody knows why."

He said the commission bases its decisions on town code and policy and some members feel their decisions have been disregarded. At a September meeting, when commissioner Ken Kinared expressed concern about making a decision he felt the council might not agree with, Cox responded by saying "even though you feel that way, we can't rubber stamp everything."

In terms of development, Cox said the new councilmembers, through their votes, have put a halt on the building of new homes on two-acre lots, three-quarter acre lots and medium-density building in Rancho Vistoso. As an example, he pointed to the motion to deny Bill Dallman a General Plan amendment to build three houses on six acres of land in the Linda Vista Citrus Tract. Cox said there was "no logical reason to do that."

He said the council is limiting housing development so much that there will not be any homes on the market for new residents to move into.

"By shutting down the population, you are cooling the sales tax," he said, and combine that with the loss of revenue in the decreased number of building permits that will be needed, and he said that could lead to a property tax, something many new councilmembers said they were against during their campaigns.

Cox said he does not want his criticism to come across as "sour grapes" having run for a seat on the council himself and lost.

"Unfortunately, it has gone exactly as I expected," he said in regards to the first months of the term. "If anything, it is even worse. So far the new council has done nothing they can hang their hats on. It's only been 100 days, maybe it's too early."

From the developer's point of view, Vistoso Partners' Dick Maes said any time there is a new council, there is going to be a learning curve, but he is hoping to work in cooperation with the council as it moves forward.

"It's a team effort," he said. "We want to be part of the town and continue to do good development."

Although Maes is in a unique situation where many of the properties he is dealing with are hard zoned, with entitlements already in place, he has had two items rejected by the new council and said he was not expecting it either time.

One was a rezoning request and another was a General Plan amendment. He said he hopes to develop good lines of communication with the new councilmembers, and believes those lines are beginning to open.

He said it is difficult at times to be posed questions while standing at the podium that are unanticipated, and to be expected to have the answers right then and there, and he hopes that can change.

He said "as long as we have the ability to be asked questions and have the opportunity to answer them" he believes a good working relationship can exist between the developer and the council.

It is not just a new approach on development that is upsetting some. One staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the morale among town staff is "very low" since the seating of a new council.

"It's hard. Things were going pretty well and then they came in and said 'No, you're wrong, You're doing everything wrong.'" the staffer said. "It's do what they want, according to their political agenda, or we will find someone who will."

The staff member said if things did not change, the town could start to experience a high rate of turnover and a few already are looking around for other positions. Another town employee, who sought anonymity for similar reasons, said the council was "always second guessing what we do."

Cox said one town employee expressed frustration to him as to the current working climate saying, "We don't know what we're doing from one day to the next."

Several other staff, when asked about the working environment created by the change of council, did not wish to comment.

Loomis commented on feelings of frustration by some town employees, saying there are people who "maybe feel they are victims" of this growth and change, but the staff and council are trying to work together.

He said with the addition of people comes that many more questions, adding length to the meetings, and adding to the "frustration" of some staff.

He realizes staff may be feeling "bogged down and overwhelmed by the change" but the town has had retreats in order for everyone to learn about what the others' job is and he hopes that as things move along, all of that will settle.

Having been involved with the town in different ways for 20 years, new Councilmember Barry Gillaspie said he knows that kind of change can cause grumbling among staff members.

"I was a staff member once," he said. "I know what it feels like to have people come in and say they are going to change things."

Gillaspie said there may be some growing pains in Oro Valley. He said the small town staff and government "has it pretty good" but now that they are getting bigger, it is time to make some changes and hold everyone more accountable.

"I believe in the long run, they will do their job and they will work to make the community better," he said.

There are a lot of changes Gillaspie said he would like to make in the way the town does business, and said the issues he ran on during his campaign have not changed.

Gillaspie said he knew much of what the job was about and realized the commitment he was making in running for office, and yet nothing could really prepare him for "the tremendous number of issues that get thrown on your plate at the same time."

He said it is hard to find the time to deal with everything, but is still "optimistic." He said there are times when the papers stack up and the phone messages get backed up, but he is doing his best to get back to everyone in a timely manner and welcomes the chance to talk with constituents.

And if he looks a little haggard behind the dais as times, it is because he said he puts in 40 hours a week as a councilmember on top of the fulltime job he holds at Pima Community College. He said he recognizes that the extra meetings and study sessions are putting increased de-mands on the staff and town manager's office, but that the council is trying to stay informed and make the best decisions.

"The council is working very hard and doing due diligence," he said.

He believes the council has accomplished much, and tops the list with getting the budget passed and cutting $1 million out of it.

"I feel I've played a big role in getting that done by saying let's let the professional team identify where it could be cut instead of trying to go about it in a piecemeal way," he said.

Most importantly, he said, was that this budget process "began to build a dialogue about how it could be done differently in the future."

Financial Director David Andrews acknowledged that it took many meetings and extended discussions to get the final product in place, but added that the budgeting process is complex, and he complimented the council's willingness to put in the extra time to learn.

"The way elections and budgets happen each year, a new council is seated one, two maybe three meetings and then it's time to get to work on the budget," he said. "I'm glad they wanted to get involved and have taken interest to learn.

"The budget's important, and they should understand it," he said. "What's in is it what gets done."

He said the extra time put in was tiring, but said it was "a sacrifice on their part to take the time. It's what I do, my career. They are volunteers."

Gillaspie said while the council may not have finished a lot of issues, they got several important ones in motion, including convening a new General Plan committee to make changes that will hopefully get the document passed next November.

The council also initiated discussion of a Big Box Ordinance.

"It is important the community has a debate about that," he said. "They need to have a say about what happens."

The process to form a historical commission to oversee historical sites within the town also was started.

Approving fire performance standards and moving toward acquisition of a new site for the town's maintenance facilities are other positive actions he cited. In the future, he said he would like to work on a strategic plan for the town staff that would give direction as to how the town plans to deliver services and funds for the future "so that we don't build bureaucracies that continue to spend and grow," he said.

The plan also would help "create a dialogue" between the council and the administration of the town. As far as the actions taken by council in regards to rezonings, development plans and other building project related items, Gillaspie said he may have developed a reputation with some developers as being "too environmental" and that he will not sacrifice the high standards established by Oro Valley for the sake of development.

He said he owes upholding those standards to the residents, current and future, "so they don't move to crappy communities that don't have parks, that don't have quality services."

He said the town needs a recipe so that developers can get their projects done and know their costs without sacrificing standards.

"It will take some of the subjectivity out of it on our part," he said. "We want clean, high paying, positive, productive development."

It also will be important to look at ways to diversify the economy in Oro Valley going into the rest of his term, he said.

Culver agreed with Gillaspie in saying that this council is trying to move forward on issues that have sat stagnant, including the General Plan and the town's fire standards.

"This council is not afraid to act," she said. "I think in our first 100 days, we have accomplished a lot."

Among the things she cites as top priorities heading into the rest of her term, Culver listed finding ways to conserve water, doing something in Oro Valley to stop doctors from leaving the field because of the high costs of malpractice suits and insurance and following through on the beginnings of a historic commission.

Culver also has been making some noise about long sessions, saying no one is served after 10 p.m. She moved at one summer meeting to have the it end at 10 p.m., but was voted down by the council, which said she could make the motion to adjourn, a privilege motion, at any time.

She does believe agenda planning and shortening the time for some to present, particularly applicants who can be at the podium up to an hour, could help to alleviate the situation.

Councilmembers Dankwerth and Culver have embarked on several initiatives together during their first months, one of the most important of which, they said, is bettering communications between the town and council and the citizens.

"I am very interested in building relationships with the community," Culver said.

"I want to have a give and take dialogue," Dankwerth added. "I may put my foot in my mouth at times, but how can we make decisions if we don't hear from as many people as possible."

The two will soon be holding "town hall meetings" in Sun City Vistoso to give the residents there an opportunity to ask questions about what is going on in the town. They hope to expand the idea to more neighborhoods and hope also to have increased communication through newspapers and newsletters.

The pair object to the idea that the council only hears from those who attend meetings and make a lot of noise. They say they are inundated with e-mail and phone calls each week from new people.

Culver has made it one of her goals to meet everyone in Oro Valley. Dankwerth said she is looking forward to beginning an economic development committee, comprised of local citizens who can help the town "think outside the box a little" in terms of tourism, housing, retail and other areas to build development in the town.

She said she also would like to see more happen with the fine and performing arts in town and will be looking for opportunities to make more of that happen here.

In response to some of the development issues she has opposed, Dankwerth said she feels strongly about safety issues, such as building high density housing near La Cholla Airpark and also thinks the town needs to offer diversity and transition areas between developments.

That is one of the reasons she opposed some project proposals in the Citrus Tracts.

She said she has not always been able to vote the way she would "if given her druthers" due to existing policies and ordinances. Culver made similar statements, saying there is often very little leeway given to the council on issues where previous decisions tie its hands.

She pointed specifically to the BP Magee development plan for Oracle Crossings.

"That one was heartbreaking," she said. "It's a good development, but when you look at the cost to neighbors, it was just heartbreaking."

She said in situations such as that, the council will do what it can in terms of reducing heights, increasing setbacks and other mitigating factors to make it the best development possible.

Dankwerth offers no apology for extra sessions for long meetings if that is what it takes.

"I want to know before I cast a vote that I'm making the best decision possible," she said.

Overall, Dankwerth said she has been approaching the position as a full time job with her duties on her mind "25 hours a day." "I find myself looking forward to coming in everyday," she said.

Kenneth "KC" Carter said he has enjoyed his work on the council saying it's tough, but added, "it's not the toughest job I've ever done."

He said he believes he is "learning quickly and adjusting to the processes of town government."

Carter said he sees the constant involvement in lawsuits as a problem that needs to be addressed by the town.

"I wish this could be avoided," he said. "And to that end, I plan to take a strong hand in resolving these issues without lawyers."

He outlined what he views as accomplishments in a prepared statement for this story, which included: having 50 percent of the pipes laid for the use of reclaimed water in Oro Valley; moving forward to complete the last phase of the library construction; establishing long term hospital insurance for town employees with more than 10 years on the job; and continued road improvements, including bridge construction at Pusch View and First Avenue. However, most of those were programs and projects begun by previous councils.

The biggest task the council faced so far was adopting a budget, he said, adding he was glad they were able to get it done and come "very close" to achieving the goal of having it balanced.

In his statement, he said he believes strategic planning that includes annexations, business expansion and construction spending is needed for the future, as well as financial planning that reaches five to 10 years into the future, to provide for "growth and stability."

Councilmember Terry Parish, a Pima County Sheriff's deputy, husband and father, said serving on the Town Council is "the hardest thing I've ever done, but one of the most rewarding."

He said the sheer number of hours and amount of research that goes into making just one decision is sometimes overwhelming, and he is glad to be sharing an office with fellow councilmember Gillaspie, who he said he has learned a lot from.

He agreed with Gillaspie and Carter in saying adopting the budget was the one of biggest tasks for the council so far.

"It took wisdom in allowing the staff to recommend where it could be cut and I'm proud of how we dealt with those recommendations," he said.

He admits some meetings have been unwieldy and said the difficulty comes from having seven individual councilmembers, with "at least four very different political ideas," come to an agreement.

He said the council has at times experienced "paralysis by analysis" and believes that comes from a group that never feels they can have too much information.

He said, at times, that way of thinking can be "onerous on staff and nonproductive as far as the council is concerned." He recognizes that the additional meetings called over the past few months have been hard on not just staff, but their families, as well as councilmembers and their families, and hopes to limit those meetings in the future.

In regards to the economic future of the town, Parish said he believes the council needs to "work harder" with people wishing to develop in Oro Valley.

"Maybe, in the first 100 days, we've been a little too hard on developers," Parish said. "Instead of taking on an adversarial role we need to be more solutions-oriented."

He said that means allowing development to move forward when it lives up to all the town requirements. He sees an advantage in commercial development, saying that when people from the surrounding areas can be attracted to Oro Valley to shop, they bring in money and leave without using services.

He said without promoting quality development in the town, the future likely will hold a town property tax and/or cuts in services. He also said he thinks it is "terrible" when land owners are denied the right to develop their own property "because we say so."

"Somehow we turned into the bad guys," he said, adding that while he thinks there is plenty of room to grow, the town should never accept less than it deserves, as outlined in its policies and ordinances.

Overall, he said the people of Oro Valley "don't have a whole lot to complain about" and that he hopes his actions as a councilmember help to maintain the high quality of life residents expect.

Vice Mayor Paula Abbott did not respond to repeated requests for interviews for this story. Former councilmember Dick Johnson said the council may have come into office "with guns blazing" but he believes they have "settled down" as their eyes have been opened to the everyday realities of the job. Johnson was one of two councilmembers voted out of office when this new council was seated.

He said after all the campaign rhetoric settled, the council realized they are restrained by laws and policies and he does not second guess any of their decisions. His advice is to "be aware of the silent majority," those who do not attend meetings but may feel strongly about some issues.

He also suggested the councilmembers make every possible effort to prepare for meetings, in order to keep things moving, as well as to not catch staff off guard with detailed questions.

"Do your homework, be open-minded about all sides," he said.

He also suggested agenda management might be considered to keep meetings from running late into the night.

"I don't think any good decision occurs after 10 or 11 at night," he said, adding that if the agendas are too full, the council may want to consider an additional meeting some months.

He said although the council he sat with had been labeled "pro-development" and this new council has been abeled the alternative, he doesn't see the two as very different. He said because the town has hard zoning in place in 85 to 90 percent of the property, the council's options in restricting development are limited to holding those projects up to high standards.

"Unless you want to keep going to court," he said. "You have to work with developers to get the best possible development. I think this council understands that's the best way to go."

Johnson wishes them luck as they move into the rest of their terms.

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

Welcome to the discussion.

Kino College

Kino CollegeEnroll today: http://www.kinocollege.com/

Facebook

explorernews.com on Facebook

Twitter

explorernews.com on Twitter

RSS

Subscribe to explorernews.com via RSS

RSS Feeds

Spacer4px

MOS: Storms and Floods

We asked the community about the coming floods and storms.

MOS: Back To School

We asked the community about the new school semester starting.

More Featured Videos
Spacer4px

Follow us on Facebook