Tucson’s neighborhood associations poison pill

The Poison Pill in Tucson’s Neighborhood Association Bylaws

Like many other residents who have formed a neighborhood association, those of us who created the Barrio Hollywood Neighborhood Association back in 1989 used a template provided by the City of Tucson to formulate our bylaws.  We wanted to follow as closely as possible the guidelines the City was looking for to get approval as an officially listed neighborhood association.  

Why is official city recognition needed?  Obviously, it is good to be listed with the city so that we can receive official notices of information of interest that can be shared with residents, such as the Brush and Bulky program or other beneficial programs or city-sponsored events.  Back 30 years ago, having an official city listing meant that monthly neighborhood notices to residents were paid for by the city bulk mailing system.  As we know, the neighborhood mailing notices are now only sponsored once a year, yet it is still an important cost-free way to notify our fellow residents about the association and available services (and minimal support is better than none).  We have just recently been informed that the City also is discontinuing mailing notices to remind residents when to put out their stuff for Brush and Bulky.

Just a few years ago (2013-14) the City of Tucson threatened to un-register Barrio Hollywood from the public rolls, denying us mailing privileges or any cooperation with us on Brush and Bulky and other neighborhood programs.  We fought and gaining the right to keep our listing, but it is important for other neighborhoods to understand why we were being threatened, as such threats could be used against other when the City disapproves of what neighborhood associations might engage in for the benefit of fellow residents.  This is especially relevant to inner-city residents who may feel the need to fight city hall on issues like gentrification — which was the cause of the City’s conflict with our association.

The attempted de-registration of Hollywood is important to understand in context.  Our neighborhood is situation in a strategically important location for future development, gentrification, and displacement.  We are between Pima College West and the Downtown Campus, close to downtown and not too far from the U.A.  Our eastern boundary is the I-10 freeway, an important transportation access point off of Speedway, while Pima County developed the beautiful Santa Cruz Riverpark for bicyclist and pedestrians.  We have a host of great mom and pop type restaurants on Grande Avenue as well as St. Mary’s Road, and available community resources at the El Rio Neighborhood Center for seniors and day care needs.  Uniquely, we are also across the street from over 110 acres of critical urban green recreation space at the Trini Alvarez El Rio Golf Course, the targeted area for what was planned to be a major effort for extreme gentrification for the area.

In 2012, the Mayor and City Council were conducting secret negotiations to sell those 100+ acres to a private company: Grand Canyon University (or GCU), while publicly claiming that no such deal was in the works.  They tried to rush the agreement though on a last-minute council agenda, but the area residents were already informed of the deal and mobilized against it.  The Council still voted for the deal (with only council members Fimbres and Kozachik in opposition), but the community was outraged enough to launch an aggressive campaign against the plan and with the help of some (free) lawyerly services we acquired some of the public documents — the ones that had not been “lost” by the city attorney’s office — and revealed how bad the plan was, not just for westside residents but for every taxpayer in Tucson.  

Eventually, the attempt to sell this critically valued public land (at below market value) for the benefit of the developers and to the detriment of the citizens fell through.  But the collapse of the deal did not happen because the Mayor and Council saw the evil of their ways, grew a conscience, and reversed their vote.  Rather, it was the public pressure on GCU that skewered the deal, and they withdrew from the offer (of lucrative public subsidies) and bought some private land for their new campus in another part of Tucson.  It was from this loss that the City turned it’s attention to Barrio Hollywood and our neighborhood association which — along with a number of other neighborhoods who stood in solidarity with us — lead the resistance against the city plans.

It is critically important for neighborhood activists to understand what happened next in the power games that emanate from city hall.  Some business owner in the hood, many of whom we had worked productively with in the past, were angry that a development that could bring them enormous financial benefits was derailed by the residents.  They were told, after all, that up to 7,000 students would flood into the area.  How great is that for business?  Think of all the hot dogs that could be sold!  There are probably similar arguments being made wherever the city plans for more gentrification.  From their perspective they are right:  redevelopment can provide more tax revenue than a golf course.  Or a park.  Or a library.  But in our neighborhood we like those public things, and believe they are worth fighting for.

In our specific case, the land that the city was trying to give away— where the El Rio Golf Course  is located — has an important significance in the history of Tucson’s barrios.  That rich history is not the subject here, but suffice to say that those who are aware of struggle over that land are also those who want to preserve the fabric of our neighborhood community.  This might mean that on occasion local residents may not place as their highest priority the financial needs of the business community.  That does not mean we are anti-business.  But that is what we were labeled as, and worse.* 

[*Because GCU is a “Christian” for-profit educational institution our opponents claimed we were anti-religious and wanted to drive the churches out of Hollywood because someone raised the issue of GCU’s anti-gay policies!]  

One important fact we uncovered, after we took the city to court and won our public records request, was how the city tried to fix the assessed value of the land to give the developers an even juicier deal.    The appraiser that was hired was directed to value the land as if it were a dirt lot — without electricity, water, a clubhouse, an a virtual urban forest of trees.  We can only wonder how many other such deals they city engages in to the detriment of long-term residents.  If you can’t afford a lawyer or get on for free you will probably never know.

With the project killed many there was lots of talk about letting “the healing begin” and the need to reconcile with the few business folks who were most irate about losing potential future profits.

And then came our neighborhood election.

Although our residents won the battle to preserve the park, our neighborhood was soon to realize that the war was far from over.  The next Barrio Hollywood election saw a slew of individuals, many whom we had never seen before, who showed up to vote for new candidates.  Since the neighborhood association bylaws allowed voting by any resident and any business owner, certain business people showed up along with family members — who all claimed owned part of the “family” business and therefore demanding a right to vote!  The new slate won by three (questionable) votes and successfully changed the entire leadership of the association, a leadership that should be noted had spent many years working in the association.  But new folks took over, even if under questionable voting irregularities. 

Those who had opposed the sale for development were now out.  Those friendly with city who lead the fight for gentrification won.  The new “business and church friendly leadership” (!) was awarded by the city with appointments to various city committee’s and commissions — including a seat on the “Greens” committee charged with looking at the privatization of city golf courses, the very essence of the excuse for the sale of the public property we opposed.

Our members were outraged, not only by the secret deal to sell off public land but also at city interference in our neighborhood election — a virtual coup.  

A majority of residents then made a move to change Barrio Hollywood’s bylaws which would restrict elections to residents only.  Under the proposed new rules, those who but did not live in the neighborhood would not be given a vote on whom would represent those who do live in the neighborhood.  Residents, and residents only, should have the power to vote — “just like only city residents can vote in city council elections” some said.  It seemed logical.  But it turned confrontational.

In response to the threat of democracy, the new neighborhood association board, in conjunction with city staff, claimed that neighborhood associations had no right to change their own bylaws if that would exclude those who did not live in the neighborhood from voting in neighborhood elections.   

We were threatened that if we dared to change the bylaws — restricting voting to residents only — that our official city recognition of Barrio Hollywood would be stripped and we would be denied access to city services.  

We were told that there would no longer be any cooperation with residents on neighborhood clean ups, brush and bulky programs would be eliminated , and any other city resources would be prevented for use by Barrio Hollywood. 

In the face of these threats, in spite of these threats, the overwhelming majority of Barrio Hollywood residents voted for the new bylaws.  In reaction to this defiance the city retracted its own position and acknowledge our right to change our bylaws for the benefit of our residents.  

Then, after successfully changing our bylaws to prevent outsider from voting the entire Barrio Hollywood board was taken back by the residents.  While we have some new leadership we can feel confident that our association is run by residents and for residents.

And now we come to the point:  why is all this important to you?

And the answer is that any of this could happen to your association.  

Like Barrio Hollywood, your bylaws probably state that residents AND business owners can vote in your elections.  If so, you should consider changing them.  You may not think anyone from the outside can come in and take over your board, but that is what we thought. What would happen if the city was pushing something you didn’t support, and then they took over your association by using your own bylaws against you?

In our case, related family members of the business owners showed up to vote against the residents, claiming they as family all had a stake in the one business in our hood.  Do you bylaws clearly indicate only one vote for each business?  Or can it be interpreted by the city attorney’s office in a different way?  How do you determine legally who can vote?  

Neighborhood associations have an important part to play in our city.  We need to value our independence, especially as the City of Tucson’s economic priorities run into conflict with neighborhood values.   

Protect yourself.T