Steller: Big Rio Nuevo project falters on procurement politics

2014-08-14T21:30:00Z 2014-08-15T09:21:41Z Steller: Big Rio Nuevo project falters on procurement politicsTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The bland details of a procurement policy are causing problems for the Rio Nuevo district as it moves toward its biggest decision of the current era.

The board decided Tuesday to wait until later to choose between proposals to develop a key downtown site, proposals made by Allan Norville of Nor-Generations and by Ron Schwabe of Peach Properties. The two are angling to develop the 8 1/2-acre “arena site” along the east side of Interstate 10 between West Congress Street and Cushing Street.

Before they made the decision not to decide, though, Rio Nuevo board member Alberto Moore had something he urgently wanted to say. In a flowery, five-minute speech, Moore proclaimed this project “our legacy,” noted the challenges presented by the site and concluded by naming his favorite bidder.

“I believe that the Nor-Gen project stepped up to these challenges, responds beautifully to the site, its context and its purpose. It would be an exciting and appropriate gateway and wonderfully complements existing purposes. It could become the true urban heart of Tucson,” Moore said.

I attended the meeting but left before this part, relying on my colleague Darren DaRonco’s recorder for this account.

After a minute or so of Moore’s endorsement, Rio Nuevo board chair Fletcher McCusker pounded the gavel and asked him to stop. By attempting to influence his fellow board members before they scored the two developers’ presentations that day, Moore may have been violating the procurement code adopted by Rio Nuevo, he warned.

It turns out that the procurement code they adopted in 2013 requires the board itself to act as the scorers of projects, unlike in a municipality. There, the scoring may be assigned to a panel of staff members who work apart from each other before turning their scores in for a decision ultimately made by elected officials.

Moore initially objected angrily when McCusker and Rio Nuevo attorney Chris Schmaltz told him he couldn’t speak in favor of one of the proposals. But eventually he was persuaded to hold off until after the scoring had occurred. The board members’ score sheets are due Monday.

Ironically, his intervention might end up hurting the developer he’s trying to help. If the board scores Nor-Generations’ proposal higher than that of Peach Properties, Schwabe could now have grounds to protest the decision, arguing that Moore wrongfully tried to sway the board.

“I didn’t realize at the time,” Moore told me Thursday. “I thought being in a public meeting would allow discussions like that.”

But fellow board member Mark Irvin said they had all been told not to talk to each other, the developers or the press about the proposals.

“I was very dismayed at Alberto Moore’s outburst. It was inappropriate,” Irvin said.

In fact, I think Moore may have a point about the process being bass-ackwards for a board like Rio Nuevo’s.

“What good does it do to make a comment after the results are in?” he said.

Perhaps members of the board should be given the freedom of discussion, at least in a public meeting, before they score the developers in what will ultimately decide which developer is chosen. What’s the harm?

Who wants Pierce elected?

One of the enduring mysteries of this year’s Arizona political season has been: Who so desperately wants Justin Pierce to be elected Secretary of State, and why?

The question returns us to the same dark-money group that has been influencing the race for Arizona Corporation Commission, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club. The club has spent about $660,000 so far in favor of Pierce or against his opponents. It’s been the only outside group spending significantly in the secretary of state’s race.

As I reported last week, Arizona Public Service Co. has not taken multiple opportunities to deny the widespread belief that the company is contributing to the “club”; on the contrary the company has trumpeted its right to defend itself from solar-industry critiques when asked about it. This and other factors have led me to conclude that APS is, in fact, funding the club.

If that’s so, why would APS want Justin Pierce elected? We don’t know. All we know is what Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts wrote a month ago and what Pierce opponent Wil Cardon said in a mailer this week: That APS is supporting Justin Pierce because his dad, Arizona Corporation Commission member Gary Pierce, cast a key vote in APS’ favor last year.

Cardon drove the idea home in his mailer. It featured pictures of Pierce father and son, each with a “For Sale” sign over his head. Of Gary Pierce it said, “Accused of selling his vote on the Arizona Corporation Commission to APS in return for money to support his son Justin.”

Pierce called the mailer “defamatory” and said Cardon himself had admitted previously that this was not the case.

The current Arizona Secretary of State could clear up the questions surrounding the Arizona Free Enterprise Fund. The office has demanded proof that the fund is not primarily involved in electioneering. If it is, the group would have to file as a political committee and disclose its donors. The fund has until noon today to answer the secretary of state’s questions.

Tesla’s high price

It’s too bad Tesla hasn’t yet pointed to Tucson as a finalist for its so-called Gigafactory. But we can be thankful that we’re not facing the tough choice that Nevada is if it wants the factory in Reno, the only finalist Tesla has named so far.

Tesla is demanding at least $400 million in incentives for the $4 billion-$5 billion factory to be put there. Nevada’s legislature may have to go into a special session to consider such a package.

I argued a few months ago that Tesla’s plan to pick multiple finalists for the factory appears to be a set-up for a competition to see who will give the most incentives. It’s playing out that way.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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