Court Sanctions City of Tucson for Withholding El Rio Records and Lying About It

J.T. Waldron

Judge Christopher Staring

Judge Christopher Staring has ordered the City of Tucson to fully comply with plaintiff Cecelia Cruz’s public records request by June 4th, 2014.  Judge Staring made clear in his ruling last Friday that the city lied to plaintiff Cruz and to the court about “fully responding” to the records request in a hearing on July 8th, 2013.  This misrepresentation altered the ruling and outcome of continued hearings over this matter and earned a sanction by Judge Staring against the city.   On behalf of a variety of concerned Tucsonans, Cruz sought documents and correspondence surrounding the ill-fated attempt to sell off the historic city-owned El Rio golf course to a private university. 

Last year, Tucson citizens concerned about the predicament of the historic El Rio Golf Course were surprised to discover a fast-track deal that would fork over 100 acres to a private university for a fraction of the market value.  Citizens formed a powerful well-organized grassroots campaign waged by the newly formed “El Rio Coalition II” that managed to convince the Mayor and Council to forego the sale of El Rio Golf Course.  In spite of the public scrutiny, these elected officials insist the city’s offer was a good idea and refuse to revoke their original approval for selling the land to Grand Canyon University (GCU). 
This exchange warranted further investigation to determine how El Rio found itself up for grabs, who was involved and who were the true beneficiaries.   On behalf of the coalition, Cruz filed a formal request from the City Clerk for all records surrounding the solicitation and proposal to sell El Rio.   Was this deal a beneficial development for all Tucsonans or only a few wealthy players?   The presence of TREO (Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc.) requiring tens of thousands of dollars for membership suggests the latter.  With Mayor Jonathon Rothschild as a board member, this corporation helped solicit GCU and worked with the city to develop incentives for an enticing offer.  A full view of the circumstances involving the sale of El Rio will always be occluded because, unlike the city, corporations are not required to show their records. 
Records that have seen the light of day indicate the need to fully understand the extent to which city officials were forfeiting valuable assets for the benefit of wealthy investors.  Using a dubious appraisal that ignored existing development and infrastructure of El Rio’s land, the city’s offer would have yielded a purchaser’s windfall of around 45 million dollars for a quantity of land that is five times the space needed to construct the university. 
Due to the careful attention of Tucsonans like Cecelia Cruz, Tina Pacheco, Bill Risner, John Brakey and Salomón R. Baldenegro, the city couldn’t seal this deal faster than the public outcry that shouted it down.  Litigation arose out of the city refusing Cruz’s request for information on May 12th, 2013.
One of the more popular excuses used by city officials involved an elusive “non-disclosure agreement”.  Assistant City Manager Albert Elias claimed as he met with concerned citizens that his office was prevented from discussing the El Rio proposal because of a confidentiality agreement.   Some of the records finally acquired from the city indicated that GCU formally released Tucson from the confidentiality agreement three months earlier.  Bill Risner has become frustrated with their dishonesty:

“Whose responsible for the lies?  Do we have a Mayor and Council that is responsible to the citizens?…Maybe the city manager was a cop too long and thinks that that’s what you do.  You lie about everything all the time.  I don’t know.  We do know that he’s a party to the lies.  That we know for sure.  We know the city Clerk is a party to the lies.  We know the Mayor and Council are party to the lies.”

Staring’s judgment contains a provision that opens the door to further litigation should the city fail to make its deadline:

“nothing in this ruling should be construed as precluding Ms. Cruz from making additional requests for public documents pursuant to ARS 39-121, or from seeking any remedy provided for by law.”

The city must certify to the Court that they have completely fulfilled Cruz’s request that was made over a year ago.   Judge Staring sanctioned the city $15,800 for the false statement on July 8th to Cecelia Cruz and the Court that it had essentially fulfilled the records request and was waiting to finish processing a mere seven documents to complete the task.  The Court later discovered that there was actually more than 800 pages of documents left to provide to the plaintiffs and the city’s misleading statements led litigation down an errant path. 
Few are sympathetic to the city’s newfound difficult circumstance, especially if Tucson officials continue to lie and withhold information past the June 4th deadline.  We shouldn’t expect any complaints from the city about its small window of time given that brief moment afforded to those who successfully challenged the El Rio giveaway.  

Plaintiff’s Attorney Bill Risner discusses the ruling.
Video courtesy of John Brakey

One thought on “Court Sanctions City of Tucson for Withholding El Rio Records and Lying About It

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *