Every year, Tucson Local Media staff write the most significant news stories to hit stands, and then compiles those tales for the final edition of the year as a way to remember the year that was before the new calendar gets pinned on the wall. From elections to business development, grant funding or the unfortunate loss of a beloved community member, The Explorer and Marana News have found a way into everything going on across the region. 

While significant political events like the passing of Sen. John McCain, the election of Kyrsten Sinema and the selection of Martha McSally to the Senate are in their own right significant stories, this top 10 list focuses solely on news which affected the northern sections of the Greater Tucson Metro Area: Oro Valley, Marana, Pima County, SaddleBrooke and everything in between.

Without further ado, the top 10 stories to grace these pages in 2018:

 

1. Oro Valley voters choose new mayor and council

Change, or at least the desire for it, is one of the great driving forces of any political environment, a reality made apparent to four former members of the Oro Valley Town Council earlier this year.

Tuesday, Nov. 6 brought with it the winds of change after eight years of office for then-Mayor Satish Hiremath and councilmembers Lou Waters, Mary Snider and Joe Hornat, who saw their time in the public eye come to a close after voters instead chose Joseph “Joe” Winfield to fill the top spot, and for Melanie Barrett, Joyce Jones-Ivey and Josh Nicolson to take a seat at the dais for the next four years. Winfield and company join sitting councilmembers Rhonda Piña, Bill Rodman and Steve Solomon, whose terms end in 2020.

Winfield first made a name for himself in town running against Hiremath during the unsuccessful 2015 recall attempt (a three-race from which he withdrew in deference to the other challenger). Winfield returned this year as the sole challenger for the mayor’s seat, and would go on to win with 58 percent of the vote.

Oro Valley’s current mayor told Tucson Local Media on election night that his win over Hiremath was the result of a six-month, door-to-door campaign to better understand the town’s residents, their needs and desired direction for the town’s governance.

“I never came away from the canvassing thinking that the community wasn’t looking for a change,” Winfield said.

Barrett, who’s since been selected by council to serve as Vice-Mayor for a year, previously sat on the Planning and Zoning Commission before moving up to council. Though Nicolson hasn’t served on a board or commission, he’s served as the vice president of his local National Air Traffic Controller Association, a position in which he began working with local legislative representatives. Both Nicolson and Barrett are 36-years-old, and represent Oro Valley’s growing family and young professional demographic. 

Jones-Ivey, a retired nurse, said she ran for council because of what she saw as a lack of “transparency, honesty, trust and respect” on the part of the previous members of council.

All four of Oro Valley’s new councilmembers campaigned heavily on the concept of change, and vowed to curtail operational losses at the town-owned golf courses, stimulate improved public cooperation in the planning process and prevent what some in the community have called rampant development—among other changes.

After their initial council meeting, at which Barrett was selected as Vice-Mayor, the new councilmembers have participated in one regular session, Dec. 5. At that meeting, Winfield and his fellows voted to reverse a decision by the previous council to allow for a third consecutive term for members of the town’s various boards and commissions, and ended the terms of two third-term volunteer members. 

At the same meeting, council approved financials from September and October. Jones-Ivey abstained from the vote, and stated publicly that she believed the financial situation at the community center was unacceptable, and said she would be add items relating to its improvement to the council agenda in the future. Winfield added that the council would soon look into the financials in a public study session.

 

2. Marana joins Tucson in water contamination lawsuit, begins cleanup 

After the presence of elevated chemical levels in wells servicing residential and commercial areas of the Town of Marana and the City of Tucson, the two municipalities jointly filed a Nov. 7 lawsuit against the five companies they deem responsible.

The complaint was filed against 3M, Buckeye Fire Equipment, Chemguard, Inc., Tyco Fire Products L.P. and National Foam, Inc, companies that produced and sold aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a firefighting product containing the chemicals PFOA and PFOS. Although these chemicals are present in everyday products such as non-stick pans, the lawsuit singles out AFFF because Davis-Monthan Air Force Base has used the product for decades.

That activity is believed to have contaminated three wells just north of the base, and seven in Marana’s residential areas. Officials shut down these wells to treat existing water systems or establish new ones.

The marketable qualities of PFOA and PFOS are also what make it hazardous; these chemicals are resistant not only to heat, water and stains but also to normal environmental degradation, which means they can accumulate in the soil, plants and air overtime to levels dangerous to humans and wildlife.

There is currently no federal regulation on the amount of these chemicals in drinking water, but the EPA recommends the chemical levels should not exceed 70 parts per trillion.

When sampled in March, two of the three Tucson wells showed elevated PFOA and PFOS levels of 97 and 2,950 parts per trillion. Marana received sample results in January ranging from 68 to 101 parts per trillion.

Tucson and Marana are represented by the New York-based law firm Napoli Shkolnik, PLLC and the Phoenix-based firm Gallagher & Kennedy, PA—two companies that have experience with chemical lawsuits.

In the complaint, the attorneys argued that “Defendants were aware in the 1960s and 1970s that PFOA and PFOS were toxic, do not biodegrade, are persistent in the environment, move readily through soil and groundwater and pose a significant risk to the public water supply, human health 

and safety but elected to use these chemicals and place profits over human health.”

In a November interview, Tucson Councilmember Steve Kozachik said he was very confident Tucson and Marana will win the lawsuit.

“When 3M was sued by the state of Minnesota, they settled before they even went to court,” he said. “As a part of that settlement documents from 3M including memos and emails and internal memorandum that were made public made clear that 3M had known about the effects of this stuff for literally decades … It would not surprise me if we won before litigation even began.”

As of deadline, attorneys working this case could not be reached for updates.

The Marana Town Council also authorized the creation of the Picture Rocks Water Treatment Campus and Airline/Lambert Water Treatment Campus capital projects to begin removing the chemicals, allocated $2 million to begin the work, and applied for a low-interest government loan to fund the project, which will cost between $12 million to $15 million and take 18 to 20 months to complete.

 

3. Pima County Rejects Stonegarden Grant

On Sept. 4, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to end the Pima County Sheriff’s Department involvement in Operation Stonegarden, a federal grant funding collaboration between federal immigration enforcement agencies and local law enforcement. 

Pima County and local jurisdictions participated in the program and received the federal grants for more than 12 years. In that time, the county accepted about $16.5 million in federal grant funds. Of that, $10.4 million went to overtime to deploy deputies into underserved rural areas, and about $6 million went to equipment. Until the Trump Administration increased the efforts of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Stonegarden grant was a consent agenda item, approved without debate. 

“We have previously accepted federal Operation Stonegarden funds. So what is different now? Quite simply, the present federal executive position on immigration policy causes my desire to not be associated with these less than rational or humane policies,” said District 3 Supervisor Sharon Bronson, in a guest opinion column for Tucson Local Media. “While we can do little to influence these policies, we do not have to be compliant in carrying them out by participating in Operation Stonegarden.” 

Another reason for the Stonegarden rejection was the presence of ICE agents at the Pima County jail. ICE agents were at the jail since early 2017, shortly after Sheriff Mark Napier took office. ICE agents were present so Pima County did not have to hold people arrested for local crimes on federal immigration charges. Over the course of six months, ICE agents at the Pima County jail took nearly 250 people into custody. However, as of October, ICE agents are no longer operating at the Pima County jail.

“We believe that given the very low number of undocumented persons in the jail and the low number of detainees subject to ICE detainers, it is workable to return to prior practices with respect to communication and collaboration with our federal partners,” Napier said in a letter to to the Pima County Board of Supervisors on Oct. 16. “[I]t is infrequent that the Sheriff’s Department proactively contacts Border Patrol regarding a suspected undocumented person.”

As for the gap in funding due to rejecting Stonegarden, Napier stated his plans to re-submit the grant in future meetings.

“If I did not believe Stonegarden had public safety benefit, I would not advocate for it.” Napier said. 

 

4. Students march against mass shootings, #RedforEd shuts down schools

On the one month anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland, Florida students across Pima County (and the rest of the nation) participated in “walk-ins” and assemblies at which they voiced a desire for Congress to act on behalf of the victims of school shootings.

Counting both middle and high schools, more than 40 sites hosted student-led events on March 14 calling for a way to prevent further shooting deaths, and to remember the lives of 17 students killed at Parkland.

Locally, students at Canyon del Oro High School held a walk-out to their football fields as students nationwide held 17 minutes of silence. The CDO walk-out was organized by student leaders who told Tucson Local Media their movement was not about gun control, but a call to Congress and local leaders to act on behalf of students to stop mass shootings in schools. Students who attended were welcome to share their views on how to accomplish that, and the event included a handful of students expressing an interest in protecting Second Amendment rights. 

A handful of Dorados shared a personal connection with mass shootings, having gone to elementary school with Christina-Taylor Green, a victim of Tucson’s 2011 mass shooting during then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords “Congress on Your Corner” event at a local Safeway.

Roxanna Green, Christina-Taylor’s mother, attended the event at CDO, silently standing in solidarity with the students and victims of gun violence.

March was a busy month for school administrators, as the #RedforEd movement was beginning to build momentum just as students planned their own demonstrations. Fueled by historic cuts in education funding at the state level and low teacher and staff pay, educators throughout Arizona walked out on the job, culminating in more than 50,000 supporters marching on the state capital in a flurry of red t-shirts and signs in hopes of forcing a change.

The teachers (and their supporters) were successful in efforts, which led to Gov. Doug Ducey signing the “20x2020 plan” into law—providing a 20 percent boost to teacher pay over the next three years. The legislation also resulted in an immediate 10 percent wage increase.

 

5. Union Pacific train derails, drugs found during cleanup

During the monsoon rains of Tuesday, July 10, a Union Pacific train derailed between Twin Peaks and Avra Valley roads, scattering 27 rail cars across the train tracks and surrounding area. First responders also uncovered a package containing drugs during the cleanup.

“Union Pacific Police recovered a package of suspected narcotics from the wreckage,” said Jeff DeGraff, Arizona director of media relations at Union Pacific. “There was no identifying packaging. It was turned over to Marana PD for destruction.”

The derailment caused no injuries. Two crew members were on board, however they were at the front of the train, whereas the derailment occurred toward the middle. Preliminary investigations pointed the cause of the derailment to be flooded tracks, with first responders even noting water flowing on the tracks. 

“Preliminary investigation results show a track washout from flooding was to blame.” said Union Pacific media relations representative Hannah Bolte, “All investigation results are sent to the Federal Railroad Administration, which issues a final derailment cause. This typically takes about a year.”

The derailment obstructed two sets of tracks. Responders cleared one set of tracks on July 11 and sent some trains through in an attempt to prevent any further delays. The second set of tracks was cleared on July 12. 

Because of the intensely busy day for emergency calls caused by monsoon rains, numerous local agencies assisted Northwest Fire due to mutual aid agreements. The Marana Police Department, Tucson Fire Department, Golder Ranch Fire District, Town of Marana, Pima County Sheriff and the Arizona Department of Public Safety all joined the effort.

 

6. eegee’s sold to 39 North Capital/Kitchen Fund

Everyone’s favorite (or least favorite) sandwich and sub shop changed hands this year when eegee’s was purchased in October by New York-based venture fund 39 North Capital and long-time food investment firm Kitchen Fund. The move, which was announced on Oct. 10, meant the Tucson-based fast-food chain, which has 24 locations in Southern Arizona, has the capital needed to expand to new locations, said company CEO C. Ron Petty. 

“Over the next 24 months, our focus is to grow that Tucson market and make sure that we have eegee’s everywhere,” Petty said. “We need to deliver the convenience factor to the customer.” 

The goal for the chain is to expand into the Phoenix area first, building on the success of its lone non-Tucson location in Casa Grande. Petty told Tucson Local Media in October that 39 North’s bid was the most lucrative one offered, with the New York firm taking over control of the company, which had previously been held under a trust. 

The goal is to add six to eight more locations within the Tucson region over the next two years, focusing on the market that’s sustained the enterprise since its inception in 1971. A spokesman for 39 North described the move as a “no-brainer,” given the brand’s loyal following in Southern Arizona. 

“eegee’s has established itself as a restaurant leader in the Tucson community and has built a loyal customer base of true brand enthusiasts,” said Jacob Roffman, co-founder and managing partner of 39 North, in a release. “We are thrilled to partner with Ron and the broader eegee’s team to provide operational and financial resources to support the continued growth of an already iconic brand.” 

The chain will continue its fundraising operations to benefit local charities, Petty added, maintaining a focus on environmentally-conscience initiatives, and keep its current management team in place. Petty said that eegee’s plans on maintaining its ties to the University of Arizona, with its iced drinks remaining on sale during Wildcats football games.

 

7. A new plan is unveiled for the Foothills Mall

Once a popular Friday-night hangout spot for high school-aged children filled with various retail stores, a bustling food court and a movie theater, the current state of the Foothills Mall is a far cry from its (relative) glory days—most of the storefronts now lay vacant, with only a handful of anchor tenants roughing things out. 

All is not lost for the 68-acre site, however, as the retail revolution is on its way in the form of a rezoning request which changed the mall’s designation from Local and/or General Business to Specific Plan, allowing owners to develop an “urban, mixed-used development” that would include retail, residential, restaurants and entertainment uses, and possibly even a hotel or two.

Developer Don Bourn told Tucson Local Media that his company, along with FHM Partners, are interested in turning the site into “a town center,” for the region that’s developed into a site interesting to the modern world.

Pima County officials expressed a similar opinion of the site.

“We could see a combination of uses here,” said Chris Poirier, deputy director of Pima County Development Services. “In theory it would be a place where people could live, work and play in the same location.”

Foothills Mall, at West Ina Road and North La Cholla Boulevard, opened its doors in 1982 as a small upscale niche outlet, though maintained frequent empty floor footage. The mall was sold in 2002 for $54 million, though suffered during the economic downturn several years later.

While final estimations are not available, developers project the Foothills Mall overhaul could take a decade to complete at a price tag of $500 to create an “amenity for the whole community.”

 

 8. Marana voters place their faith in incumbent candidates

While voters in Oro Valley ushered in a new era for their leadership, Marana residents used their time in the voting booth to support the sitting council’s vision for the town’s future.

Four seats were up for grabs this year, with incumbent councilmembers Patti Comerford, Herb Kai, Jon Post and John Officer defending their spots against challenging residents Jack Neubeck, Mace Bravin and Jeff Gray. Comerford, Kai and Post were long-tenured candidates, while Officer was a recently-appointed member of council chosen to fill out the term left behind by the passing of Carol McGorray.

Marana’s sitting council have produced results for voters in recent years, which is why Mayor Ed Honea, who was not up for re-election, told Tucson Local Media after the election he was “thrilled” with the outcome. Honea mentioned the opening of Tangerine Sky Community Park and the splash pad at Crossroads at Silverbell District Park, work on hiking trails, Tangerine Road and the coming end to work on Ina Road.

“They’re not all exactly alike, but they seem to work together and do good things for the community,” Honea said of his fellow councilmembers.

 

9. Marana Councilmember Carol McGorray passes away

March 22 brought with it significant news for the Town of Marana and its Town Council with the unfortunate passing of longtime member Carol McGorray.

McGorray was elected to her first term on Marana Town Council in March, 2001 and served for 17 years. She had also served on the Marana Health Center board and was active in the Dove Mountain Civic Group and Dove Mountain Rotary Club. She was also active with the Marana Chamber of Commerce, and helped spearhead the Marana Heritage River Park, among other efforts. 

A great grandmother and considered by many to be a true altruist, McGorray is survived by a huge family, including 13 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

“Carol was a very determined person,” Mayor Honea said at her April 4 service. “She always had an end in mind, and she had a means to get there before she ever told you about it. And I think that sticks with us today.”

McGorray’s place on council was filled by longtime resident John Officer.

 

10. Ed Stolmaker announces retirement from Marana chamber, Audra Winters hired as replacement

After 15 years leading the Marana Chamber of Commerce, president and CEO Ed Stolmaker announced his retirement this year. 

With nearly 600 members, several awards and a growing network throughout Tucson, Stolmaker told Tucson Local Media that he’s proud of everything the chamber has accomplished over his 15-year tenure.

“All of this was achieved thanks to the Chamber’s outstanding membership and staff,” he said. “The organization’s success has always been a team effort.”

In November, the chamber named its new leader, Farmington, New Mexico native Audra Winters, who’s been the president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce since 2013. Winters will start at the chamber Feb. 4, 2019. Stolmaker said he would remain on staff through March 1 to ensure Winters is able to settle into town, and to ensure a smooth transition.

Contributions to this story were made by Logan Burtch-Buus, Jeff Gardner, Kathleen B. Kunz and Christopher Boan.

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