The City of Nogales Housing Department has a new leader: a former cop who has spent time as a fill-in in administrative roles at City Hall over the past two years.
Robert Thompson, who is set to retire from the Nogales Police Department at the rank of lieutenant, was appointed to the position by John Kissinger, the acting city manager and former police chief. Kissinger said he chose Thompson for the job because he had already worked with the housing authority during his time at City Hall.
Thompson’s appointment, which comes with an annual salary of $80,000, was approved by the Nogales City Council last Wednesday by a 4-3 vote.
Thompson has worked roughly two decades at NPD. And he’s fallen into the good graces of powerful figures at City Hall, including Kissinger and Mayor Arturo Garino. But his hiring was met with skepticism from some members of the council, which, following changes to the City Charter last year, must approve the appointment of department heads.
“I’m not questioning Mr. Thompson’s ability,” said Councilman Hector Bojorquez. “It’s just the process looks kind of shady.”
The job opening wasn’t advertised and the city didn’t consider any other candidates, even though the position had been vacant since January. Last Wednesday, the council approved a rewritten job description in a way that accommodated Thompson, who otherwise wouldn’t have been eligible for the position. And multiple council members didn’t learn about the plan to appoint Thompson until they received an agenda for the June 9 meeting, which seemed to contradict the city’s established hiring process.
Councilman Jorge Maldonado said the appointment process wasn’t fair to other people who might have applied for the job, particularly longtime employees of the housing authority.
“We’re giving those people a slap in the face,” he said.
But Garino, who has consolidated his own power as mayor by working closely with Kissinger, defended the appointment.
“Mr. Thompson is more capable than anybody else,” the mayor said on Wednesday.
The hiring will place another former NPD employee in a prominent role in the city government and it raises questions about how the city chooses department heads. The debate over Thompson’s hiring last week also helped expose fault lines emerging within the seven-member council.
Maldonado, Bojorquez and Councilwoman Liza Montiel all voted against the appointment.
While council members didn’t question Thompson’s ability to do the job, he technically wasn’t properly qualified to be NHA director, at least according to the city’s own rules. The NHA director was required to hold a bachelor’s degree, which Thompson doesn’t have.
Last December, Garino said that Thompson aspired to retire from NPD and work for the city, but wasn’t yet eligible for some positions because he didn’t meet the education requirement.
“He told me that he wants to complete his education and become a director with the City of Nogales, but with the bachelor’s degree that he needs,” Garino told the council at the time.
But instead of Thompson getting a degree, the council got rid of the requirement in another contested move last Wednesday.
“I do not believe that changing job descriptions to favor a certain employee is good policy,” Montiel said.
The vote to change the job description was also split 4-3. Garino was joined in voting “yes” by the same allies who backed Thompson’s appointment: Councilmembers Esther
Melendez-Lopez, Saulo Bonilla and Jose “Joe” Diaz.
It’s not the first time the city – and Thompson in particular – has run into disputes over diploma requirements.
In 2017, the Nogales Police Department came under fire from then-City Manager Carlos Rivera for promoting one officer to the rank of captain and two to lieutenant, despite the officers not meeting minimum education requirements for the jobs. One of the lieutenants was Thompson.
When Thompson was made a lieutenant in August 2015, it was on the condition that he obtain an associate’s degree within three years. If he didn’t get the degree, according to an agreement he signed at the time, he would be demoted to the rank of sergeant.
But by 2017, he hadn’t earned any credits, and told the NI that he was talking with advisors at Pima Community College about what courses he needed to take. Last week, Thompson said in an email that he hadn’t earned the associate’s degree and is nine credit hours short.
He never lost his lieutenant rank.
Prepared for the job
In justifying Thompson’s appointment to the NHA director job, Garino and Kissinger both noted that Thompson has experience working in city administration, specifically with the housing authority.
Garino and Kissinger have a lot to do with Thompson’s experience. Going back more than a year, the two have quietly elevated Thompson into high-ranking and highly-compensated jobs in the city administration, without considering other candidates for the roles.
Kissinger, who also had a job description effectively drawn up for him at City Hall upon his retirement as police chief, hand-picked Thompson to be his assistant in October 2019, during one of several stints that Kissinger has served as acting city manager. The job, acting deputy city manager, paid an annual salary of more than $80,000.
A year later, after the city had hired and fired a full-time city manager within a five-month span, and Kissinger had served another six-month term as acting city manager, Garino chose Thompson to serve as the acting city manager.
At a December 2020 meeting, the mayor said his choice of Thompson for the task was largely motivated by “what (he) saw in the performance that Lt. Thompson did while he was in that office,” in reference to Thompson’s work with Kissinger.
Garino added that, if not for Thompson’s experience working with Kissinger, “I would have (had) a different thought about it.”
In that case, too, the mayor made the decision without consulting the full council. Then-Councilman Marcelino Varona, Jr. said he didn’t like the move.
“It’s not the individual, I have a concern on the process,” Varona said at the time.
In response, Garino indicated that an open discussion about the position would have been too time-consuming: “If I had put it on a study session, that means there would have been three or four people we would have been selecting from.”
The council approved the appointment, and Thompson earned an annual salary of $104,000 during his six months as acting city manager, which wrapped up earlier this month.
Thompson’s appointment follows another controversial hiring of an NHA director, which caused some elected officials to cry foul about what they saw as an improper hiring process.
Micah Gaudet, who eventually served in the job for less than a year, was appointed by then-City Manager Eddie Johnson in early 2020. Gaudet and Johnson had previously worked together at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
Johnson and Garino clashed quickly and dramatically, with both accusing the other of acting beyond their own powers at City Hall. Johnson eventually left the job after just five months.
Among the points of contention was Johnson’s hiring of Gaudet, which came after Johnson considered three other candidates with local connections. Garino complained that Gaudet wasn’t qualified for the job and that his hiring was evidence that Johnson was “doing the good-old-boy thing.”
Johnson hired Gaudet at a salary of $80,000, up from the $68,000 that was allotted for the role in the city’s 2019-20 budget. Thompson’s salary wasn’t discussed last week, and the NI learned that he will earn $80,000 after requesting the information from the city’s HR Department.
In response to Gaudet’s hiring, the city council voted last May to change the personnel manual and establish a six-step process for hiring department heads, seeking a more active role for elected officials in the hiring process.
The process includes the city manager and Human Resources director preparing a job description and advertising the position, appointing a committee to interview and score finalists for the job, and forwarding all finalist applications to the mayor and city council before making a hiring decision.
At the time, City Attorney Mike Massee said the effect of the rule change would be to “make the (hiring) process more transparent.”