Steller: Huppenthal's Dem challenger gets gifts, a setback

2014-06-27T00:00:00Z 2014-07-10T20:44:56Z Steller: Huppenthal's Dem challenger gets gifts, a setbackTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

It’s been like Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and Eid al-Fitr and a golden birthday all wrapped into one happy week for David Garcia.

He’s a Democratic candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, which means his potential general-election opponent, Republican incumbent John Huppenthal, has just handed Garcia all the negative material he could dream of for the upcoming race. In fact, Garcia has quickly tried to raise money off the revelations in Huppenthal’s anonymous blog commenting.

“Friends, if you’re tired of this type of shameful conduct from our elected leaders, then I ask you to support David’s campaign by donating $30, $60, $120 or more today,” Garcia’s campaign manager, Ian Danley, said in an email Tuesday.

But it turns out Garcia also has a primary opponent, Democrat Sharon Thomas. Things aren’t going quite as well in his effort to oust her. A Garcia supporter, Patricia Anne Dowd, filed suit on behalf of his campaign on June 11 in Maricopa County Superior Court, challenging 5,001 signatures on Thomas’ petitions.

Because the petitions were from around the state, officials in Pima and other counties had to carry out the necessary inspections. Here, that fell to longtime Pima County voting-law attorney Chris Roads.

His opinion, issued in a June 14 memo, was that Garcia’s challenges, not Thomas’ signatures, were bad.

“In all of the candidate challenges we have been involved in, I do not recall any case where the number of incorrect challenges has ever exceeded the number of disqualified signatures,” Roads wrote. “Clearly no case I have seen has resulted in a 3-to-1 margin of good signatures compared to disqualified signatures in a challenge.”

Phoenix attorney Joe Kanefield, who spearheaded the challenges, said in a written statement that Roads’ comments were “inappropriate, gratuitous and incorrect as a matter of law.”

He noted that there were many bad signatures found on Thomas’ petitions in Maricopa County, where most of the challenges occurred, just not enough to disqualify her.

“Given the large number of bad signatures Ms. Thomas filed in Maricopa County, in addition to the fact that we had evidence to prove that she falsely signed numerous circulator affidavits, there was more than substantial justification for bringing this challenge,” Kanefield said in the statement.

However, looking from a Pima County perspective, Roads suggested that the county could pursue reimbursement for its expenses in checking out the challenged signatures. Arizona law allows that “if the court determines that the challenge was without substantial justification or was primarily or solely for delay or harassment.”

Maybe that’s one place all of Garcia’s Huppenthal-inspired donations could be spent.

Whose $1.8 million is it?

The new South Tucson government deserves credit for discovering that previous officials had imposed what seems to be an illegal secondary property tax, and for repealing it.

Unfortunately for that troubled little city in the heart of the Old Pueblo, they can’t stop there.

If the last government charged $1.8 million in illegal taxes, then the current one owes that money back to the taxpayers. People like Manny Valenzuela deserve that money back — in his case, about $735.

“South Tucson had a property tax, as I knew,” Valenzuela told me Tuesday. “But then when that came about, there was a secondary tax that was more than the primary tax. I went to investigate and they never could give me an answer.”

That was a couple of years ago. He’s still looking for answers.

Pima County Treasurer Beth Ford says she doesn’t even know for sure that the tax was illegal, though South Tucson has received a legal opinion that this is the case, and the legal justification used for imposing the tax was flimsy on its face. She also doesn’t have a stash of South Tucson money that she could refund to property owners there.

“It’s not so simple as taxpayers being able to file a claim and me being able to refund their money,” Ford said. “Since it’s such a large dollar amount, the city of South Tucson would have to levy another tax to pay for this issue.”

Now that would be silly: imposing a new tax on the same people who paid the old, illegal tax in order to pay them back. Yet South Tucson is strapped and doesn’t have $1.8 million sitting around to use for refunds.

We don’t know what the remedy is,” City Manager Luis Gonzales told me. “We’re not going to voluntarily reimburse any of that because, first, we don’t have the financial capability to do that. Second, we don’t know if there’s any legal way of handling that.”

It looks like it will come down to whether a South Tucson property-tax payer is willing to sue. Then a judge can rule on whether the tax was illegally imposed and how the city must repay. Of course, that wouldn’t be the end of the story either. Gonzales told me that if the city is held liable, it will consider whether other people should be held liable. He wouldn’t name those particular targets, but it would naturally be the officials who imposed the tax.

I don’t care much how they do it, but over the long run, South Tucson must pay those taxpayers back.

Huppenthal on StarNet?

Some readers have asked us at the Star whether Huppenthal commented on stories at our website, azstarnet.com. It’s been a difficult process finding the answer because we switched to a new, Facebook-based method of commenting on stories online last June.

But staffers have gone through archives of comments from the old system and haven’t found any commenters using the pseudonyms Huppenthal employed. He seems to have been more interested in the give-and-take with individual bloggers on smaller political sites.

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

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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