October 4, 2006 - Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat recently scheduled a two-hour meeting with longtime employee Jennifer Christelman, the brains behind much of the town's environmental planning.
A graduate of Marana High School, the 29-year-old Christelman landed her first job 13 years ago as a lifeguard at the town pool and eventually helped created Marana's environmental division. On Aug. 29, she turned in her resignation and accepted a higher-paying job with the city of Tucson.
Christelman brought a summary report outlining her progress with the town's Habitat Conservation Plan and other projects to her meeting with Reuwsaat. When she handed him the report, the town manager flipped it over and slid the stack of papers back across the desk to his employee.
"Meeting's over," he said. "You're staying."
After discussing the issue, Christelman decided to turn down the offer to work in Tucson's recently-created Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development, overseen by Leslie Liberti, who left Marana in 2004. Liberti reports to Tucson City Manager Mike Hein, Marana's town manager from 1998 to 2003. Hein's assistant, Jaret Barr, worked for three years under both Hein and Reuwsaat in Marana.
Bureaucrats come and go in every municipality, but recently turnover has hit Marana where it counts - mid- to high-level positions and department heads.
In the past 15 months, nine high-ranking officials have left their posts with the town. In all, 73 people have resigned or been fired from the town since Jan. 1, 2005. This includes about 20 part-time or temporary employees. Extreme growth has eased some turnover concerns for officials, as the town continues to add positions. In fact, Marana has made more than 100 hires since Jan. 1, 2005, again including about 20 part-time and temporary employees.
"I don't think we're done," Reuwsaat said. "I think there are possibilities that more staff will go. We've done great things and (Marana is) a good place to look for talent."
Mostly, it seems younger bureaucrats view Marana as a stepping stone to higher-paying, more visible jobs with the city of Tucson, Pima County or the private sector.
"It's tough, but that's natural," Reuwsaat said.
Private companies have stolen more than a few town employees away with larger paychecks, Mayor Ed Honea said.
"I know a couple people who didn't want to go," Honea said. "But if you're young and have a family, it's common sense."
Turnover, particularly in lead positions, can disrupt continuity and wear management down, Reuwsaat admitted, adding he now needs "to figure out how to replace Kevin."
The town will lose Assistant Director of Public Works Kevin Thornton on Oct. 13. Thornton has accepted a job with MMLA, a Tucson-based engineering firm.
He and fellow assistant director Keith Braun have overseen the public works department since former director Harvey Gill's semi-retirement in June. Gill still works part-time at the town, which has employed him for more than 10 years.
The town recently hired a new finance director to replace longtime moneyman Roy Cuaron, now the controller for the Pima Association of Governments and the Regional Transportation Authority. Erik Montague will start Oct. 9, after almost five years as controller for Avondale, a city just west of Phoenix with a population of 67,000. He will oversee Marana's annual budget of $128 million.
For almost three months the town has relied on a handful of staffers with no management experience to run the finance department, while the hunt for Cuaron's replacement loped along.
"It's hard," Reuwsaat said. "Especially when you lose someone like Roy who was so good at what he does."
Montague beat out 12 applicants, including two Marana employees. After graduating from the University of Arizona in 1995, Montague worked for six years as a senior auditor in the Office of Auditor General before taking the job with Avondale. The 33-year-old father of two will attend his first meeting in Marana on Oct. 3.
"Marana is well-positioned financially," Montague said. "I look forward to the opportunities and challenges as sociated with a growing community."
Cuaron resigned in July after 15 years as the town's finance director. He now oversees funds for RTA's 20-year, $2.1-billion plan for road improvements, many of which will benefit Marana.
"There has been some turnover (in Marana)," Cuaron said. "Ultimately, people leave in their best interest. I have nothing but fond memories of Marana, but (PAG/RTA job offer) was much too attractive."
Cuaron earned $91,700 his final year in Marana. He will make $95,000 this year as controller for PAG and the RTA. Nearing retirement, Cuaron could not pass up the fringe benefits and retirement package that came with the new position.
"It was time for a new challenge," he said. "It's a highly-visible position with a lot of responsibility."
Hein left Marana for Pima County in 2003. Before he left he created the assistant town manager position specifically for Reuwsaat, who planned to leave his seat on the town council after a falling out with his then-in-laws, who own Kelly Green Trees. Reuwsaat then replaced Hein as Marana's chief.
When Hein left the county for the city's top spot in early 2005, he asked Barr, his former assistant in Marana, to join him. Barr obliged.
The 31-year-old wanted to experience planning in an urban environment after reviewing 100- and 1,000-acre projects in rural Marana. Barr lives in Gladden Farms, a residential development he worked on while at the town.
One morning last week, he strolled over from his nearby home to Marana's town hall for a regional meeting about impact fees.
"I had a blind assumption when Reuwsaat came on that I would be offed," recalled Barr, who took a pay cut to work for Hein. "I didn't think he would want to inherit a right-hand man, which is what my position was."
Reuwsaat, however, assured Barr that he wanted the former intern to stay on.
"He showed a lot of faith in me," Barr said. "He has a huge heart and is a good person."
After joining the city, Barr gave Reuwsaat a heads-up, letting the town manager know that the city wanted to talk to Marana's Development Services Director and Assistant Town Manager Jim Mazzocco about working for Tucson.
Mazzocco spent 12 years with the county, where he eventually headed the planning division. He began work for Marana in July 2004 and resigned less than a year later to take a job as planning administrator in Tucson's department of urban planning and design.
The 55-year-old also served as an assistant to Reuwsaat, specializing in policy and development. He played a critical role in the town's planning of its future Town Center, a vibrant mixed-use development for a downtown-starved northern Marana. The one-time English teacher enjoyed "looking at the fields and filling them in."
His city job gives him an opportunity to plan in tight quarters, developing neighborhood overlay zones with the region's most complicated set of land-use standards.
"I never made a decision of staying in one place," Mazzocco said. "I like to move around. It's just fascinating to see another way of approaching land-use problems. I have no regrets about anywhere I've worked and I've had a really good time everywhere I've been."
Three years ago, former Marana Economic Development Director Dick Gear might have felt the same way. However, he essentially forced the town to fire him in June, with retirement no more than a couple of years down the road.
He simply stopped coming into work, according to town records.
Gear began working for the town in 1997, overseeing community development and annexation projects. In 2002, Hein created the department of community and economic development and appointed Gear as director.
Reuwsaat slowly, but surely stripped Gear of certain responsibilities, beginning with an nexation projects, the former employee said.
This year, Gear seemed to have only his title left, as Assistant Town Manager Jim DeGrood took the lead in economic development. Gear continued to work on housing projects but became angry when he learned town officials held meetings without him to discuss affordable housing issues, according to town records.
Gear thought his superiors had an agenda to sneak a relatively new employee into a position above him. The employee, T. VanHook, now oversees the town's department of community development.
Reuwsaat called the split with Gear unfortunate but necessary.
"We needed to take a much more aggressive approach to affordable housing," the town manager said. "You can't do that by just building two homes a year."
VanHook continues to work on a project for a 62-unit affordable housing complex along the Santa Cruz River behind Honea Heights, Reuwsaat noted. The town launched the project with Gear still on staff.
Town intern Eric Hockins in June wrote a letter to town management officials, relaying to them some comments Gear had made about DeGrood and Reuwsaat. Gear referred to Reuwsaat as "a weak manager that manages out of fear" and dubbed DeGrood "a 'yes' man . . . with an inadequate management background that includes only a very technical education base," according to Hockins letter.
Shortly after Gear's termination, the town got rid of Hockins. The intern "was very opinionated and too demanding of department heads," Reuwsaat said. "Eric didn't fit in, and I had gotten so many complaints from department heads. But I'm sure he'll do fine somewhere else."
Hockins could not be reached for comment.
Reuwsaat's "iron fist" management style frustrated some employees, Gear said.
"I like Reuwsaat. He's an easy guy to get to know and a genuinely good person," he explained. "But it's basically CYA management. Adhere to his policies or pay the price."
No other former Marana employees interviewed for this story echoed Gear's sentiments. Town officials partly view it as sour grapes, Reuwsaat said.
Rumors have swirled around the town's human resources department, beginning with former director Jane Howell's departure in August 2005. The town called her resignation voluntary, as it did with her replacement Lisa Jones, who lasted less than eight months. Current director Regina Fleming has been on staff since September 2005, according to records.
Howell, who now works for D.R. Horton Homes, did not return a phone call and e-mail seeking comment.
Parks and Recreation Director Ron Smith quit this past spring, according to town officials. The town called it "mutual," though Town Attorney Frank Cassidy began an audit of Smith's department before his resignation. Cassidy interviewed the entire parks and recreation staff, though the town refuses to release the results of the audit.
Superiors expressed concerns about his leadership skills, Smith admitted. However, the town also refused to release his annual performance evaluations. The EXPLORER is suing Marana for the right to inspect those and other records related to his departure.
The town almost immediately promoted Tom Ellis to the parks and recreation director position.
Geographic Information Systems Manager Jack Avis left last October for Austin, where his wife had a handsome job offer. The town replaced Avis with Joe Lettrick in January.
"I'm a bum," Reuwsaat joked. "I can't keep anyone."
Turnover becomes a pain when training, interview and advertising costs get factored in, said Deputy Town Manager Gilbert Davidson, who the town hired in June 2005 and promoted to second-in-command this year. Davidson came from his hometown of Willcox, where he served as city manger for three years.
"There's always going to be fluidity. People are going to come and go," Davidson said. "We got lucky with the changes over the past year and a half."
He cited the town's absorption of Mazzocco's position into the planning department and the immediate spark provided by Ellis in the parks department.
Come the first of the year, the town will lose its first-ever public information officer. Jessica Ziegler will pursue a master's degree in international development at Glendale's Thunderbird school. The town hopes to have a replacement on board before Ziegler leaves.
"We do good work here," Reuwsaat said. "I think it's a compliment to our organization that they want us."
The town manager holds no grudges against his former boss Hein, though many of Marana's former employees went to work for the city. Marana poaches, too, Reuwsaat said.
"I'm doing the same thing," he said. "When I go to a conference, I'm looking at people. I had a discussion with (Davidson) a year before I asked him to come here."
If the town cannot match a salary offer, it can improve an employee's work environment, officials said.
"Hopefully, we can create good enough programs and a dynamic environment to maintain people for the long run," Davidson said.
Honea added: "Anytime you have a change in department heads, you're going to have an effect. It can be good or bad. Every department head has their own style of management. Some people are more personable and some are more aloof, but they both can do a good job. I think we have good people heading our departments and are doing fine."