The Nogales City Council met in a special session last Thursday that was largely dedicated to airing the mayor and some council members’ grievances with the city manager.
Led by Mayor Arturo Garino and Councilman Marcelino Varona, Jr., elected officials complained about familiar issues: City Manager Eddie Johnson’s choice of director for the Nogales Housing Authority and his decision to implement a “50-50” workforce schedule that keeps half the city staff at home, a move Johnson said was designed to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading among city employees.
Varona and City Attorney Mike Massee also appeared to be preparing reasons to fire Johnson, who seems increasingly isolated among the top echelons at City Hall.
The council eventually directed Massee to write a pair of letters to “clarify” aspects of Johnson’s work for the city and to draft proposed changes to the personnel manual that would give the council more explicit powers of oversight over some of the manager’s decisions.
Johnson sat silently throughout the meeting, which he claimed was held in violation of the city charter since the agenda had been drawn up by Garino, without Johnson’s approval.
“Please be advised that I will attend the meeting, as it is my legal duty, however, I will not participate as I will not be a party or an accomplice to illegal activity,” Johnson wrote in a memo sent to the mayor and council earlier on Thursday.
The meeting was the latest episode in an ongoing power struggle between Johnson and Garino, but it also highlighted an escalation of tensions at City Hall and showed how a feud that initially involved the mayor and city manager has now expanded to rope in the city attorney and other council members.
As both men have charged the other with overreach – Johnson has made a habit of claiming that Garino’s actions could constitute “criminal activity,” without offering any details – Massee has served as a mediator of sorts, interpreting where the city manager’s authority ends and the mayor’s begins.
But in recent weeks, Johnson has taken issue with Massee’s guidance and claimed that the city attorney has effectively been serving as personal counsel to Garino.
“He is clearly acting as the attorney for the mayor’s interest and not as an attorney looking out for the best interests of the council and the city,” Johnson wrote in the memo, which was read into the record at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting.
“The assumption that the city attorney is the subject matter expert on personnel hiring or has the authority to rule on hiring is illogical,” Johnson wrote in a separate memo, dated April 10, that was obtained by the NI.
At Thursday’s meeting, Varona jumped into the fray, criticizing Johnson for hiring a new housing authority director without doing enough to inform the council about the hiring process. The new director, a former colleague of Johnson’s from Maricopa County, was chosen over three other finalists with local connections.
“He or she is the city manager,” Varona said of the manager’s role, raising his voice and almost yelling. “He or she is not the dictator of this community.”
“I am not going to be treated like this anymore, I’ve had enough of this,” he added later.
In recent years, the mayor and council have sought to play an increasingly direct role in the hiring of department heads – a responsibility the city charter puts under the authority of the manager. Previous Mayor John Doyle (2015-2018) and his allies on the council even sought to rewrite the charter to give themselves more administrative power at the city before abandoning the plan in 2016.
During last Thursday’s meeting, Councilmen Nubar Hanessian and Joe Diaz – who rejoined the council earlier this month after Robert Rojas resigned his seat to run for the County Board of Supervisors – tried to distance themselves from the fight. But none of the council members defended Johnson.
As accusations and infighting have occupied City Hall for the past several weeks, the manager and council apparently haven’t made progress on planning for how the municipal government will continue operating in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I know that we could be spending our time with better things, Varona said at one point.
“We have a lot of concerns in our community,” he added. “COVID-19 is just one of the problems. The other great problem that we have right now is our revenues.”
“The city manager of Tucson is already talking to the mayor and council about their budget and how they’re going to have to reduce” spending, Varona continued. “The Pima County manager is talking to the board of supervisors about how they’re going to have to reduce, and forecasting. We’re not doing anything. We haven’t talked about it at all.”
At an April 1 council meeting, Johnson presented an array of spending cuts, including slashing fire and police department uniform allowances, that he said could save the city a total of $250,000. But Garino and Varona shot down the proposals and the mayor insisted that budget savings could be found elsewhere, without offering any specifics.
At the meeting on April 1, the mayor and city manager traded barbs while a few council members, including Varona, tried to calm tempers. But on Thursday, Johnson didn’t seem to have any backers left in the room and it looked like the council might be cooking up a reason to fire him.
“I find his lack of participation (at Thursday’s meeting) extremely unprofessional and cause for termination. And I would like to address that at a future meeting,” Varona said.
That probably didn’t catch Johnson off-guard. The city manager sounded like he was getting ready to dig in his heels in a fight for his job as early as March 16, when he penned a scathing memo accusing Garino of several city charter violations.
“Should you (the mayor and council) feel that I am not performing my duties effectively and believe you have decided to release me ‘for cause’ and a 5/7 vote of the council, removal is certainly a decision within your purview,” Johnson wrote in the March 16 memo. But, he added, “My insistence on everyone following the mandates of the city charter does not constitute ‘cause.’”
But during Thursday’s session, city officials raised questions about whether Johnson might be acting in violation of a charter requirement that the city manager live in Nogales.
The charter states that the city manager must “upon appointment, become a resident of the city.” What it doesn’t say is exactly how residency should be established.
On Thursday, Massee asserted that a state law used to determine voter eligibility provided the relevant test. According to the state law, Massee said, a married voter’s residence is determined by where their spouse and children live.
When Johnson interviewed for the city manager job in January, he indicated that he planned to move to Nogales if offered the position. On Thursday, council members indicated that Johnson had said that his wife and teenage daughter, who live in Goodyear, Ariz., would join him in Nogales at the end of the school year.
Among several directives to Massee on Thursday, the council told him to write a letter to Johnson highlighting the state law’s residency requirements and indicating that May 31 would be considered the end of the academic year.
It’s not the first time that the council has raised questions about a city manager that they wanted to get rid of.
During an effort to force out former City Manager Shane Dille in 2015 and 2016, then-Mayor Doyle asserted that Dille was in violation of the charter because he lived outside of city limits.
Dille lived a short distance from the city’s line, near the Nogales Suburban Fire District station.
While the April 23 meeting was dominated by the tense relationship between the city manager and elected officials, Garino also used the session to drag Public Works Director Alejandro Barcenas for what he called a lackluster response to a water outage that affected many Nogales households on April 11 and 12.
The Easter weekend water outage, which was first reported to the city at about 1 a.m. on Saturday, April 11, was caused by a pair of water main breaks and left some residents without water until Monday, April 13.
Garino said that “millions of gallons” of water drained out of city tanks during the leak.
“What happened on Saturday, I’m sorry, it was a total failure,” Garino said at the April 23 meeting, going on to credit Deputy City Manager John Kissinger – a longtime Garino ally – for working to address the problem the following day.
“There was no need for us to be without water that long,” added Garino, a former director of the City Public Works Department. “I know exactly what they should have done and they didn’t do that.”
Those accusations aren’t entirely unrelated to the mayor’s spat with the city manager.
In the March 16 memo, Johnson suggested that the mayor had overstepped his authority when Garino, rather than Barcenas, led a February meeting with a public works team.
The charter, Johnson wrote, “does not permit this overlap of legislative and administrative powers.”
And Barcenas is one of three department directors that Garino told Johnson shouldn’t be in their jobs, according to the memo.