Supervisor Steve Christy is scrambling to explain his support for the highly controversial donation of the failed Canoa Hills golf course to Pima County. The golf course will be “repurposed” and go “back to a natural vegetative state,” to provide “hiking paths, walking paths, and the ability to get out in an open environment,” according to Christy.
Christy aggressively addressed the deal, his rationale, and his resentment of Supervisor Ally Miller in an interview on KNST’s Garret Lewis radio show on Thursday. Miller was the lone “no” vote on Tuesday when the Board of Supervisors accepted the donation.
Miller opposed the purchase due in part to the anticipated cost to taxpayers for needed repairs, future maintenance, and the fact that the property will no longer generate tax revenue. Miller also questioned why the County would assume a costly asset when County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and Christy are pushing for higher taxes in order to afford desperately needed road repairs.
Christy’s tone with Lewis and convoluted explanations surprised listeners of the early morning show, who were left with even more questions about the deal.
The controversy surrounds the property owned by Christy’s long-time friend, Morgan North. Christy told Lewis that the course was already closed when North bought it in 2014. “I have no idea what his motivation was for purchasing it four years ago, and … uh… he owns another golf course that is doing quite well here in Green Valley, and as you know the golf industry has changed, and it hasn’t been good, so apparently a business decision was made that it was not a sustainable way for the owner to own two golf courses, so he decided not open the already closed one.”
North’s operatives first shopped the donation to Pima County Parks and Recreation personnel in June 2017. At the time, staff made no commitment to take the property “as it did not fit in with any plans that the Department had for the area.”
North then formally proposed the donation in a letter to Christy dated August 23, 2017.
In response, Pima County Parks and Recreation personnel advised Huckelberry against accepting the donation, in a memo dated August 28, 2017:
Subject: August 23, 2017 Letter of Intent to Donate Real Property-Canoa HIiis Golf Course
“In reference to your memorandum dated August 28, 2017 concerning the above-referenced subject, NRPR Planning staff Steve Anderson and Greg Hagen met with Derrick Sinclair and Terry Klipp of Terramar Properties one time on Tuesday June 20, 2017 at their request to discuss the future of the Canoa Hills Golf Course. The meeting was reportedly cordial and potential uses for the closed golf course were generally discussed. However, there was absolutely no commitment given that NRPR was interested in accepting this donation of property as it did not fit in with any plan that the Department had for the area. They indicated that NRPR was their first stop and that they were also going to discuss the situation with Green Valley Recreation.”
“Planning staff informed me of this meeting on June 22, 2017. I indicated that NRPR would definitely not be willing to accept this donation. The maintenance costs of this facility would be extremely high and the level of public complaints pertaining to this facility would likely be extreme. In addition, the facility does not connect with any existing or planned trails or other NRPR facilities or conservation lands in the Green Valley area for which we have programs or responsibilities. Therefore, it would not be in the best Interests of the Department to accept any of this property.” [Read memo here]
Christy’s relationship with North became an issue during the acquisition process. As a result, Christy sought an opinion in the matter from the County Attorney’s Office. On Tuesday, the supervisors voted to release the legal opinion written by Chief Civil Deputy County Attorney Andrew Flagg. The memo reads:
“You asked whether you have a conflict of interest with respect to a proposed substantia l donation of real property to Pima County for park purposes. Based on the information you provided, and as further explained below, it is my opinion that you have no legal conflict of interest and are not legally required to disqualify yourself from voting on the matter, should it come before the Board. If any of my understanding below as to the facts is incorrect or incomplete, please let me know immediately, as it could affect my opinion. Additionally, please note that I am providing you this advice in your official capacity as a Board Member, which means that the County is the client. Accordingly, this memorandum may not be released to the public and its contents may not be discussed with anyone other than County employees who have a “need to know,” unless the Board were to vote to do so.”
“Your concern arises from your relationship with Morgan North. Mr. North is a member of Borderland Investments, LLC, which owns the real property proposed to be donated to the County. The real property is a golf course that, as I understand it, has not been used for several years. The LLC, and presumably Mr. North by extension, stand to benefit financially from the donation at least insofar as it would relieve the LLC of the obligation to pay property taxes and may qualify for a tax deduction.”
“You and Mr. North are close personal friends, have previously been neighbors, and are both involved in some of the same community activities. He contributed substantially toward your campaign. He is also the CEO and Owner of Borderland Construction, which has frequently been a construction contractor on County projects.”
“The conflict-of-interest statutes preclude a Board Member from participating in Board action if the Member has a “substantial interest” in the Board action. For an interest to be “substantial,” it must be both “nonspeculative” and “pecuniary or proprietary.” The prohibition on voting extends to relatives, but not to friends. The type of personal relationship you have described to me is not a substantial interest under the statutes. The only possible financial interest would be future campaign contributions from Mr. North. It would be a felony, however, to arrange for a vote in exchange for a financial benefit, and what you have described to me certainly doesn’t fall into that category. Because you have no substantial interest in the decision on the proposed donation, you are not legally required to disqualify yourself if the matter comes to the Board for a vote.” [Read opinion here]
Although Flagg found no actual conflict-of-interest, many public officials would recuse themselves from a vote in which there exists an appearance-of-conflict. Most states prohibit public servants from acting in a manner that would make a reasonable person think you can be, or have been, improperly influenced. Christy ignored the appearance-of-conflict and failed to disclose his relationship with North and a campaign contribution from him before casting his vote in favor of acquiring the golf course.
In Thursday interview, Christy justified the deal by claiming that Green Valley is “under-parked.” While it may lack parks, the unincorporated retirement community has a largely elderly population, that would likely have difficulty navigating the grown-over golf course. Less than 4 miles away, the Desert Meadows Park offers residents level paths and the “ability to get out in an open environment.”