Tucson’s 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 situated in a strategically important location for future development, gentrification, and displacement.  We are conveniently located between Pima Community College West and the University of Arizona.  Our eastern boundary is the I-10 freeway which includes an important transportation access point at Speedway Boulevard. Pima County developed the beautiful Santa Cruz Riverpark for bicyclist and pedestrians which also runs through our neighborhood.  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 which provides programs 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 over 100 acres to a private company: Grand Canyon University (or GCU), while these elected officials were 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 quickly mobilized against it.  The Council still voted 5-2 for the deal (with council members Richard Fimbres and Steve Kozachik in opposition), but the community was outraged enough to launch an aggressive campaign against the plan with the support of other neighborhoods and with the (free) help from a community conscious lawyer. In the course of our legal battles and through demands regarding the right of public access we acquired some documents — although most had been “lost” by the city attorney’s office — which revealed how bad the plan was, not just for westside residents but for every taxpayer in Tucson.  

The public documents we acquired revealed that the private appraiser hired by the City of Tucson was directed to purposefully degrade the actual value of the property by being ordered, by the city, to base their appraisal as if the property were a bare, vacant lot and to purposefully ignore the real value of the beautiful tree-infused parkland with several buildings (including a youth center for golf and a clubhouse) and a fully developed water/sewer/electric infrastructure system. Being willing to devalue the land was an attempt to sweeten the deal for the developers, but it was also a violation of Arizona’s State gift clause which attempts to prevent a rip-off of the taxpayers)

Eventually, the attempt to sell this public land 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 new conscience, and reversed their vote.  Rather, it was the public pressure on GCU that skewered the deal, and it was the private corporation that withdrew from the lucrative public subsidies offered by the city. They eventually bought some private land for their new campus in another part of Tucson — which is what they should have done from the start. But before the scheme was revealed by neighborhood activists, the deal offered to them by the City of Tucson was too good to refuse.

The collapse of the GCU/El Rio Plan was one of the very few times in recent history that an economic development plan, promoted by some of the biggest power brokers from Phoenix and Tucson, was stopped by popular power.  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. 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. But you can learn the lessons we learned for free.

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 public park.  Or a basketball court. Or a library.  But in our neighborhood, like in most neighborhoods, residents like those public things. In Barrio Hollywood we 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.  The land was originally bought by those of the Jewish faith who were prohibited from membership in the established country clubs at the time. When the anti-Semitic rules were finally rescinded the city offered to buy the land and keep the golf course. Residents in the area protested: demanding that if the city had enough money to buy a golf course there should be enough money to have a public park for non-golfers and a center to provide services to the community. People went to jail to make these demands. It is why the El Rio Neighborhood Center and Joaquin Murrieta Park exist today.

Suffice to say that those who are aware of the historical struggle over El Rio that are also those who want to preserve the fabric of our neighborhood community and who lead the second El Rio Coalition when it was needed again.  Although its opponents labeled their efforts as “anti-business” (for having the gaul to oppose a tax rip-off), and even “anti-Christian” (because some residents raised the issue of the schools anti-gay policies) the coalition persevered.

With the project killed many there was 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 our public green space, we soon to realize that the war was far from over.  The next Barrio Hollywood election saw a slew of individuals, many whom had never been 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. The leadership and many members that had spent many years working in the association were replaced and new folks took over, even if under questionable voting irregularities. 

Those who had opposed the sale for development were now out.  Those new folks who were friendly with city and who supported what a scheme that would have guaranteed 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 initial excuse for the sale of the public property a majority of residents opposed!

Our members were outraged, not only by the City of Tucson’s attempt to broker a very secret deal to sell off public land and which could have enormously detrimental effects on our community, but also at suspected city interference in our neighborhood election — what many of us viewed as 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. Period. No family members of family businesses of families that did not live in the hood.  Residents, and residents only, should have the power to vote — “just like only city residents can vote in city council elections” some said.  If you don’t live in the city you don’t get to vote in city elections. Why should someone who doesn’t live in the neighborhood get to vote in our elections? It seemed logical.  But it quickly turned confrontational.

In response to the threat of democracy, the new neighborhood association board in conjunction with various city staff, (including the City Attorneys Office that “lost” its records on the El Rio deal) 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 their own 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 other city resources would be prevented for use by Barrio Hollywood.  The City, we were warned, would cut off cooperation with our barrio if we voted to provide integrity to our elections.

In the face of these threats — actually in response to these threats — the overwhelming majority of Barrio Hollywood residents voted for the new bylaws.  In reaction to this outward defiance the city soon retracted its own position and acknowledged our right — and the right of all neighborhood associations — to change our bylaws for the benefit of our residents representation.  

After successfully changing our bylaws to prevent outsider from voting the entire Barrio Hollywood board was taken back by the residents, replacing the stooges who were put in by an overwhelming and unanimous vote of the residents. Once non-residents were prevented from voting the old phony board didn’t even bother to run.  Barrio Hollywood now has new leadership and our members 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.