The best of the press: a year in print

Every year, towards the end of December, the Tucson Local Media editorial staff takes a look at the narratives and story lines that captured the attention of our readers, and compile those stories into one (quite expansive) list.

A monumental task in itself, that list starts with nearly 50 entries from any writer part of our staff over the year. After careful consideration, we narrowed that group down to the top 15, and voted from those to create our list for the year. While some of these stories made the cut for their significance to the community of north Tucson as a whole, others were selected because of the attention shown by larger media outlets.

This edition, we are proud to present the Explorer and Marana News 2017 top 10 stories, which includes everything from on-duty police scandals to the opening of new schools in Oro Valley—and just about everything in between.

Without further ado, here is our list:

 

1. Four Marana officers caught in sex scandal

The romantic relationships between personnel led to the eventual dismissal of four Marana Police Department officers, in a case that shocked the town and quickly found a foothold in national media. 

The officers—Dionysius Cazares, Daniel Nicholas, Keith Storms and Kyla Sylvia—were involved in a series of incidents, some of which were not connected. The most serious incident occurred in the early morning hours of Sept. 17, when Cazares (who had been in a romantic relationship with Nicholas for more than a month over the summer), spotted Nicholas’ patrol car leaving his assigned region during work hours, via his in-car GPS system. 

She proceeded to drive to that location, and sent a text message to a fellow officer about what she found, after using her in-car, confidential information database to dig up the names of the owners of the other cars she spotted. A department Internal Affairs investigation found that the four each violated at least one department protocol, with Nicolas violating the department’s on-duty conduct standards and general standards of expectations. 

Cazares was later charged with two counts of computer tampering, a class 6 felony. Her case is ongoing. 

Sylvia was found to have violated the department’s standards for prior knowledge of colleagues violating department rules, in addition to violating the general standards of expected conduct. Sylvia and Storms were reported to have engaged in sexual conduct inside a patrol car; a resident reported seeing two officers engaged in intimate activities.

The alleged incident between the two officers occurred on the night of July 28; the report noted that the conduct occurred while the officer’s squad was on duty, and that the incident occurred in the same district to which they were assigned. 

The MPD investigation found that both Storms and Sylvia violated the department’s general standards of expected conduct and on-duty conduct standards, in addition to both being untruthful about certain elements of their actions on the night in question. 

Marana Police Chief Terry Rozema said that Cazares, like other department officers, is thoroughly trained on how to use the state’s confidential database, and should know not to improperly use that information. 

“It’s not a matter of not knowing, because people are terminated for it and charged seriously for it over and over again,” Rozema said. “It’s a matter of not thinking. It’s a matter of exercising really poor judgment.” 

Rozema said officers should know better than to engage in romantic relationships with one another. 

“It’s not our job to police people’s private lives,” he said. “It’s our job to make sure the relationships that they have, whether it’s with the people within the organization or outside of the organization—that they don’t bring them to work, they don’t allow those relationships to affect work.” 

Cazares is awaiting trial, while the other three officers handed in letters of resignation, though they were not charged with any criminal offenses. 

 

2. Oro Valley voters turn down Naranja Park bond

On Nov. 7, Oro Valley voters said “No” to a bond package at Naranja Park for the second time in less than a decade.

The Oro Valley Town Council voted unanimously in May to send Proposition 454, The Naranja Park bond, to the ballot for potential approval from residents. The $17 million project incorporated most of the amenities from the 2015 Naranja Park Master Plan, including a four-field baseball/softball complex, three multi-sports fields, parking lots, batting cages, a multi-use path and a playground. Of the roughly 17,000 residents who voted, more than 12,000 passed on the package.

The town has owned the entire site nearly two decades, and the park hosts a fixed and walking archery range, walking trails, two dog parks, a pair of lit sports fields, restrooms and associated infrastructure. Two additional multipurpose fields are also under construction at the park, and the town has long-adopted a “pay-as-you-go” strategy for development.

The prospect of accelerated development was first brought to public attention on Feb. 15 at a town council session. During the call to the audience portion, local youth athletes, their parents and coaches expressed a desire for more fields at the park. Two months later, town staff delivered a potential plan to council: Pay for expedited improvements with general obligation bonds, repaid via a property tax. By May 3, the proposition was put on the ballot.

Before long, two Political Action Committees formed to argue either side of the question: Yes on 454 and Axe the Tax.

Back in August, Axe chair James Horn told Tucson Local Media that he did not expect the Oro Valley Town Council to exercise “fiscal responsibility” if the funding was approved, citing a concern for recurring costs and the number of residents who would use the expanded facilities.

“What we feel is that it would be more fiscally responsible to fund this internally,” Horn said. 

Had the bond question been approved by voters, the town would have paid off the debt through a secondary property tax (the first in the town’s history) over the next 20 years. Though the town would have issued $17 million in general obligation bonds, the total tax burden would be roughly $27.2 million when including interest.

Oro Valley Mayor Satish Hiremath said despite the defeat of the bond, development at the park site will continue over time. The 2015 Naranja Park Master Plan still remains, though Hiremath said the ultimate product may not end up what’s shown in the plan. 

“This council has done very well balancing the budget, trying to create surplus funds, create things for the community, so we will continue to develop Naranja Park,” Hiremath said after the election.

Though Yes chair Brian Mitchell said he was “appalled” by the proceedings of the elections, he did not rule out a possibility of the PAC coming back “bigger, faster and stronger.”

 

3. Oro Valley becomes a hands-free town

Since Jan. 6, drivers in Oro Valley have been prohibited from holding cell phones or any other electronic device while operating their vehicle on the roadway. The ordinance was approved by the town council last December, and put the town at the forefront of fighting distracted driving.

Of the more than 29,000 collisions reported in Arizona last year, nearly 3,000 were caused by a distracted driver, according to the state Department of Public Safety. In the Town of Oro Valley, 36 of the 600 collisions during that same period of time were due to someone not keeping their attention on the road.

With the ordinance in effect, the use of any mobile phone or portable electronic device must be done “without the use of either hand by employing an internal feature of, or an attachment to, the device.” Though the use of electronic devices is limited, the ordinance does include language allowing the activation and deactivation of hands-free features. 

Restrictions apply to all driving activity across all public streets, including “being temporarily stopped because of traffic, a traffic light or stop sign or otherwise,” as stated in the ordinance. If there is an immediate need, drivers may pull over to the side of the road or off an active roadway and remain stationary while a device is in use.

Restrictions do not apply to anyone making a call to an emergency response operator, an ambulance company, fire district and rescue service personnel, law enforcement personnel, a hospital or a physician’s office or health clinic. Additionally, all emergency service personnel are exempt while operating an emergency vehicle within the course and scope of their work.

Instead of opting for banning texting while driving, OVPD Lt. Chris Olson said the wise decision—and the course of action recommended by the Highway Traffic Safety Administration—was to ban all electronic devices not in hands-free mode. Olson said that it can be difficult for an officer to distinguish whether or not a driver was texting on their phone as opposed to using a different device or using a program on their phone.

The Oro Valley Police Department began the year with an educational campaign similar to the High Visibility Enforcement Program, during which Olson said officers issued citations in just under 20 percent of the program’s 4,500 stops. Since the end of the educational phase of enforcement, the department has began issuing tickets to drivers in violation of the ordinance. 

 

4. Gilbert Davidson says goodbye to Marana

Former Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson accepted a position as the chief operating officer in Gov. Doug Ducey’s office in October. His last day in Marana was Nov. 17.

During his 12 years Marana, first as deputy town manager then as town manager, Davidson saw the town through the Great Recession and a population increase of more than 10,000. 

Among his many accomplishments with the town are helping Marana expand its water and wastewater infrastructure, enabling future growth.  He also created and implemented Marana’s Strategic Plan, enabling more focus on the direction the town takes.

In a prepared statement, Ducey said that Davidson will be working to “reduce bureaucracy and maximize efficiency” within the state government. 

“Gilbert has earned a reputation as a consummate professional, who has driven results and led Marana through growth and expansion,” Ducey said.

In an interview with Tucson Local Media on the day he announced the move, Davidson said state agencies need to work with schools and nonprofits to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of state government to better serve Arizonans.

“The governor and his team have identified some pretty bold goals for the state,” he said. “I want to be driving toward those strategic goals.”

Davidson replaced Henry Darwin, who left in July for a position as COO for the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Deputy Town Manager Jamsheed Mehta replaced Gilbert as interim town manager.

After his appointment, on Oct. 30, Mehta told Tucson Local Media that he’s ready for the challenge to maintain what Davidson has achieved in his nine years as manager and to meet the expectations of the council and community, ensuring Marana’s “competitive edge is there and maintained.”

Mehta said he is interested in the position as a permanent one. He may be the right person for the job, but Mayor Ed Honea said, back in October, they’re not in a hurry to choose a permanent replacement.

“The town wants a little more time to come up with the parameters for what we want for a manager,” he said. “We’re not going to be hasty. We feel we have tremendous leadership in place.”

Davidson said he was looking forward to applying the skills he honed during his time at Marana at the state level.

“Arizona will be the number one state to live, work, play, recreate, retire, visit, do business and get an education,” he said.

 

5. Residents fight Monsanto in Marana

Late last year, an announcement broke that multinational biotech firm Monsanto Co. planned to bring part of its highly controversial seed operation to Marana. To achieve those goals, the company purchased 155 acres in Avra Valley near Twin Peaks and Sanders roads for a proposed 7-acre greenhouse to develop new varieties of corn seed.

Monsanto is using the fully-enclosed greenhouse for “crossing” corn plants. Crossing involves taking pollen from one plant and putting it on another in an attempt to get desired characteristics from both plants. The company hopes to grow 400,000 to 500,000 corn plants annually, and said all of it will be inside the greenhouse. Monsanto said there are no current plans to grow corn outside of the greenhouse. 

Monsanto Product Strategy Lead Amanda McClerren told Tucson Local Media during protests in January that all of the corn plants will be planted in pots, reducing the chance for weeds and the need to use pesticides. It also means the plants are more water efficient, since water can be recycled and reused. Additionally, by utilizing pots, the plants can be grown closer together, utilizing less water per acre than a traditional field.

Monsanto had originally applied for a Foreign Trade Zone designation, which would have decreased the property’s tax assessment ratio from 15 to 5 percent and saved the company less than $500,000 a year. The Pima County Board of Supervisors was planning to discuss a letter of recommendation for such a move, though Monsanto removed its request before the designation was completed.

Local groups quickly found ways to publicly protest the company’s decision to come to Marana, including events at the Oro Valley Public Library, the Marana Unified School District Governing Board and the showing of films against Monsanto at local schools. The events were organized by local citizens in cooperation with GMO Free Arizona, GMO Free Baja Arizona, March Against Monsanto Tucson and Organic, Sustainable Baja Arizona.

Since the controversy rose to a boiling point, the Monsanto Fund awarded a $20,000 grant to the Marana Unified School District to provide cognitive coaching and training for its staff.

 

6. Regents approve funding for UA school in Oro Valley

On Nov. 16, the Arizona Board of Regents approved the University of Arizona’s $8 million development bond to bring a UA veterinary medicine program to Oro Valley. The money will go toward refurbishing a 30-year-old building UA already owns in Oro Valley at 1580 E. Hanley Blvd, previously used as headquarters and labs for a pharmaceutical company.

The building needs updates for its labs, classrooms and medical facilities. With the Board of Regents’ support, this process will mark UA’s first major movement into Oro Valley, possibly paving the way for more properties and programs to come.

“The presence of the university entering Oro Valley could do nothing but attract the attention of more bioscience to our community,” said Oro Valley Mayor Satish Hiremath. “It is great for our workforce, as we have so many job openings in the field, but not as many qualified people.”

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (better known as STEM) already has a strong presence in Oro Valley with companies like Icagen and Roche, and schools like Innovation Academy, but with this newest UA bond, Oro Valley will have a complete kindergarten-to-job “pipeline” in biotechnology.

“I see it as a fantastic opportunity to connect our two communities,” said Dave Perry, president and CEO of the Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce. “I believe all parties can benefit.”

While the university already teaches an undergraduate veterinary science program, the new program will host the veterinary medicine program; a professional degree program more akin to a post-graduate medical school.

These renovations will help the veterinary medicine program receive accreditation, a certification that has been elusive to the program for a few years.

“Everything we do from  this point forward keeps the information we’ve learned from our past work, and builds on it until we pass.,” said Dr. David Besselsen, interim dean of the proposed college. “The money alone will not finish the job, there is still planning to be done, but it will certainly help.  We need to have adequate facilities for our students.”

Renovations are planned to begin in July 2018 and be finished in July 2019.

 

7. Interstate 10 shuts down at Ina Road 

Work began on a massive overhaul of the Interstate 10-Ina Road Interchange at the beginning of the year. Currently, I-10 passes over Ina Road. Once the project is completed (sometime in early 2019) Ina Road will pass over the interstate and Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

The $128 million project also includes two-lane, one-way frontage roads along each side of I-10 and crossroad widening at frontage road intersections.

The project has not only affected Ina Road. Due to traffic backing up onto the freeway, The Arizona Department of Transportation closed the westbound off ramp at Orange Grove, meaning those who want to access either West Orange Grove or West Ina roads, need to exit at Sunset Road. 

Drivers can access the eastbound I-10 frontage road from the west side of West Ina Road via a new access road, west of I-10. This will allow access to I-10 via the West Orange Grove on-ramps. The eastbound I-10 frontage road between Gillette Road and Starcommerce Way is a two-way roadway. West Massingale Road is closed at the westbound I-10 frontage road through late 2018 while construction on the frontage road continues. Drivers should use Camino de Oeste instead.

In the wake of the closure of Ina Road at the interstate, the Marana Chamber of Commerce and the Town of Marana have worked to help local business stay afloat, and even thrive. The town created the Project Ina app to help businesses promote themselves and give construction updates to residents, as well as loosened sign codes and installed additional signage to try to spark interest in the area. 

 

8. Oro Valley officer fired for lewd images 

Though the actions occurred last November, news broke in January of one former officer of the Oro Valley Police Department who resigned his position after an investigation began into his use of a department-issued cell phone both while on- and off-duty to send and receive sexually explicit messages, pictures and video with several individuals using a variety of messaging apps.

Trouble began for Jason P. Lindley last fall when another officer in the department was utilizing a free social media  app, Whisper, to monitor for any potential illicit activity in the area. While browsing on the app, the officer indicated in the report that two posts on Oct. 12, 2016 were of note, both made by the same user, “five-oh.”

One message read “Do women fantasize about cops?” while the other, “Any Tucson ladies that fantasize about being with a cop?” Both posts included pictures of unidentified police officers. According to geolocation data available on the app, both posts were made in Oro Valley, only about four miles from where the investigating officer sat in a squad car in the Oro Valley Marketplace.  

The investigating officer created a fake profile to interact with the “five-oh” user and identify them. After receiving photos from the user, the officer was able to identify Lindley. By Oct. 19, 2016, Lindley was served with a memo informing him that an investigation would begin and was released from active duty with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

Lindley admitted to also sending and receiving pictures of genitalia while on duty or through his duty phone. When asked how long he had been “chatting like that,” he told investigators “about a year.”

Lindley resigned his position before the department completed its investigation and recommended any action.

 

9. Marana breaks from Pima County on animal control

Back in March, the Marana Town Council voted not to renew the town’s contract with Pima County to provide animal control services, and instead create its own animal services division. By July 1, that new service was up and running with $159,000 to back its launch.

At the time of the decision, Marana council members who voted in favor of the change (Councilmembers Herb Kai and Roxanne Ziegler did not) did so in response to a perceived sense that the service level wasn’t acceptable, in addition to rising costs. Earlier this year, Tucson Local Media reported that the town had seen the cost of animal control services from the town rise from $10,000 less than a decade ago to over $230,000 in the previous fiscal year. Marana now staffs two full time animal control officers.

In addition to personnel support, the town also launched a new smartphone app, “Marana Pets” to help reunite pets with their owners, hopefully making efforts to track down missing fur family members easier and more successful.

A resident who finds an animal can upload a picture to the “found animals” tab, drop a pin on a location (either where the animal was found or where it will be available to pick up) and a preference for how to be contacted: by phone call, email or text. Residents searching for missing animals can follow a similar process: post a photo of the animal, drop a pin on a map at the location where the animal was last seen and enter their preferred contact information. 

 

10. Two new schools open in Oro Valley

Catering to the needs of families with young children, two new schools opened their doors in Oro Valley this year: the Leman Academy of Excellence and Innovation Academy. 

The tuition-free charter school founded by psychologist, author and radio personality Kevin Leman premiered in Marana in 2015. A second location was added in Sierra Vista in 2016 and a third location opened in Oro Valley in August. There are more than 550 children enrolled in the Oro Valley location’s  K-6 grade levels, and more than 75 in the preschool program. There are 27 teachers for the K-6 grades, and eight preschool teachers. Six teachers transferred their experience and skill sets over from the Marana campus.

The Amphitheater Public School District also celebrated the launch of Innovation Academy, a STEM-based curriculum designed to prepare children for the challenges of the future.

“As they are learning a mathematical concept, or something in science, they are going to see it, experience and do it,” Innovation principal Michael McConnell told Tucson Local Media in August. “When all of that happens, there is a deeper level of understanding, and a deeper level of retention. They will also critically think and problem solve, so that their brains are always engaged.”

Even though Innovation Academy is in Oro Valley, located in the Rancho Vistoso neighborhood off North La Cañada Drive north of West Moore Road at 825 W. Desert Fairways Drive, it is open to any student. With no neighborhood attendance boundaries, the school hosts students from across Amphi, and more than two dozen schools outside of the district.

Honorable Mentions:

•Mountain Vista and Golder Ranch fire districts consolidate into one department under the Golder name.

• A new trailhead is developed at Honeybee Wash after local homeowners association installs locked gate on an easement.

• Oro Valley hires its new town manager, Mary Jacobs.

• Several students vandalize Amphi Middle School.

• Students protest after Marana High bans the confederate flag last December.

Contributions to this story were made by Tucson Local Media staff members Logan Burtch-Buus, Jeff Gardner, Danyelle Khmara and Christopher Boan, as well as former staffer Brad Allis.

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