A disagreement over next year’s liaison assignments has caused some Oro Valley council members to distrust one another.
During their last council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 16, Mayor Joe Winfield and councilmember Melanie Barrett proposed changes to the council liaison positions. Each member of the council serves as a liaison to a specific board, commission or external group in order to increase communication between local government and various causes or interest groups.
Liaisons generally attend the board or commission meetings and provide input.
Winfield and Barrett wanted to assign councilmember Joyce Jones-Ivey to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (which Barrett is currently assigned to) and keep her current assignment with the Amphitheater School District.
They wanted to move councilmember Josh Nicolson over to the Budget and Finance Commission, and councilmember Bill Rodman to the Stormwater Utility Commission, which is currently held by Jones-Ivey.
The two proposed Barrett take Rodman’s spot with the Planning and Zoning Commission, and Winfield take up responsibilities with the Legislative District, Visit Tucson and the Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce, which is held by Nicolson.
Winfield would also maintain his liaison assignments with Pima Association of Governments and the Regional Transportation Authority.
They decided to keep councilmember Steve Solomon’s positions with the Board of Adjustment and Historic Preservation Commission, as well as councilmember Rhonda Piña’s position with the Water Utility Commission.
Ultimately, their proposed changes failed in a tie vote. Rodman, Solomon and Piña voted against the decision, while Winfield, Barrett and Nicolson voted for it. Jones-Ivey was absent during the vote.
Winfield and Barrett received sharp criticism from other council members on their decision to make the new assignments effective immediately, which would have cut short the current assignments intended to last through the end of the year.
“I don’t know why we are deciding that we should change this on Oct. 16, the term has always been the calendar year,” Rodman said at the meeting. “If I’ve done something to get fired, then I need to know what that is.”
Winfield said he wanted to change the liaison assignments to coincide with his recent retirement from the National Parks Service.
Rodman was offended that Winfield never notified him of the change beforehand or that his term would be cut short. Rodman made reference to the mayor’s previous decision to enact term limits on board and commission members, which caused Thomas Drzazgowski, a longtime commission member of planning and zoning, to be dismissed prematurely.
“I thought we were done with that,” Rodman said.
Piña said she was grateful to be retaining her position with the Water Utility Commission, but said the mayor’s move caused the other council members to be caught off guard. She told Winfield he should give Rodman the respect and let him finish his term through December.
“My concern is why now? And it looks suspicious, it really does,” she said.
Barrett said there was no ill-intention in their decision to create the changes, and said the mayor didn’t notify the other council members beforehand because he was trying to follow Arizona’s open meeting laws.
After being asked by Winfield to confirm their conversation publicly, town attorney Gary Cohen said Winfield consulted with him on talking to council members about the new liaison assignments beforehand. He replied that “in an abundance of caution” the communication should go through the town manager.
Rodman said he was notified via email, but disagreed with the idea that telling him ahead of time would have been an open meetings law violation. He said it is common practice for the mayor to meet with council members individually.
Arizona Open Meeting Law states public bodies cannot discuss official actions outside of a public meeting in a quorum, which means including four or more members of a seven-member council.
“It’s not an open meetings law violation for individuals to meet,” Cohen said.
Cohen added that when Winfield discussed with him multiple council liaison assignments, he was cautious about involving too many people in those behind-the-scenes conversations, and recommended Winfield go through the town manager instead.
“I was following our attorney’s advice,” Winfield said. “My preference would be to have had that conversation with each of you individually.”
Rodman said the mayor has “hid behind” the concern of an open meetings violation before, particularly within the Budget and Finance Commission. He pointed out that Winfield and Barrett discussed their proposed changes individually before the meeting with no such issues.
Solomon said the concern over open meetings violations was “not a justifiable answer” and the whole issue was a “tremendous blow to transparency.” He said it was acceptable that the mayor wanted to change his own liaison assignments because of his retirement, but not that he wanted to change all the other council members’ assignments as well.
Solomon said Winfield and Barrett showed a “lack of cooperation” and an “obvious disdain for the other council members.”
“Never before in the history of this community have boards and commissions been politicized,” Solomon said.
Nicolson came to the mayor’s defense, saying he didn’t know that he was being prematurely removed from his positions with the Legislative District, Visit Tucson and the Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce until the agenda was posted, and that he holds no grudges toward Winfield for it.
“Hopefully you don’t take it personally from Joe [Winfield],” Nicolson said to Rodman. “Obviously Joe would definitely tell me as a friend, I’ve known him for a year, I mean I wouldn’t take it personally as Joe trying to attack me or anything.”