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Steller: Zoning examiner leaves Tucson in surreal situation

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Tim Steller, columnist at the Arizona Daily Star.

Eight months ago, Linus Kafka sounded content with the political dimension of his job.

Kafka, the city’s zoning examiner, was leading a hearing Feb. 5 about the proposed historical-landmark rezoning of the Valley of the Moon property, and debate had turned hot. As it simmered, Kafka philosophized on his role.

“Ultimately, all zoning is politics. I am an adamant believer there,” he said. “As far as I’m in control of things, it’s not politics, it’s all about good planning and coming to agreement. But ultimately, outside the room, the truth is that there’s a political component to this, and I acknowledge that.”

Things apparently changed. Kafka submitted his resignation Monday and cited just this political component in deciding to leave on Jan. 9.

“Political interference with the zoning examiner’s process undermines the integrity of land use decisions,” he said in his resignation letter. “I hope that city management will continue to oppose efforts that undermine the transparency and fairness of land use processes that involve public input.”

What was this “political interference?” What are these efforts that undermine transparency and fairness? It seems relevant to the election season we’re embroiled in, doesn’t it? If council members, the mayor or their staffs are wrongly interfering, that could change our votes,

But Kafka isn’t explaining what he means. In a later statement he said that because he plans to continue in his quasi-judicial job until January, it would be inappropriate to comment beyond what he’s already said in the context of existing cases. He wouldn’t elaborate when I talked to him after a zoning hearing Thursday night, either.

That has left plenty of people around the city scratching their heads and has put the incumbent council members up for re-election in an awkward position. They can’t answer vague allegations that may not even be about them.

I spoke last week with elected officials, staff members and people who appear before the zoning examiner. Nobody could pinpoint with confidence what caused Kafka, who is a land-use attorney by trade as well as a Ph.D. in history, to quit, nor whether his decision reveals something rotten in city government.

In fact, my conversations on the subject acted as a sort of revelation about people’s rivals: Whoever some considered a rival, they considered a suspect in political interference with the zoning examiner.

Kafka’s job, you should know, is delving into proposed rezonings, conducting hearings and other fact-finding efforts, then making a recommendation to the Tucson City Council. People who appear to speak at his hearings are sworn in, and their comments are considered to be testimony.

Most of the time, the council goes along with his recommendations, but sometimes it doesn’t. Three council members and the mayor all wondered if by “political interference” Kafka was referring to the handful of times they went against his recommendation, approving rezonings that he had recommended against, or vice versa.

“His recommendations are just that — recommendations,” Councilwoman Regina Romero said. “The mayor and council have the final say. I don’t see that as interference.”

“We make the decision, because we’re the ones accountable to the voters,” Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said.

They’re right, of course, and it’s hard to believe Kafka would begrudge political officeholders making political decisions reserved for them. It would have to be some other, covert effort to affect his decisions.

Councilman Steve Kozachik said, “Given the nature of the zoning examiner’s job, if the mayor, any council member or any other person who could bring political pressure has been trying to influence his decisions, they’re wrong. And frankly, that behavior has now cost us a public official who was operating at the top of his game.”

City Council candidate Margaret Burkholder pointed to Kafka’s resignation as further evidence of a dysfunctional council.

Another idea is that by “political interference” Kafka was referring more broadly to the efforts of people with an interest in the cases before him. Demion Clinco of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation and representatives of the Valley of the Moon went after Kafka hard during that rezoning process.

In a heated exchange at the February hearing, Clinco told Kafka he should not consider neighbors’ concerns about Valley of the Moon because they’re are not relevant to the historic-landmark zoning decision. He even wished aloud that the zoning examiner wasn’t part of the process.

“My perspective is,” Kafka responded, “I need to follow my conscience in making sure everybody has a full opportunity to talk to me.”

In that case, Kafka finally told the City Council, in essence, that if they believe Clinco’s argument that he should not bring neighborhood concerns into a historic-landmark case, then they should approve the rezoning. The council did. Perhaps that sort of undermining of his authority is what Kafka was referring to, but of course that happened almost half a year ago.

In another of Kafka’s cases, the controversial proposal to build a McDonald’s on the northeast corner of East 22nd Street and South Alvernon Way, Kafka also took the side of residents who didn’t want the developers to be able to knock down a house to make room for a parking lot. The developers gave up on the plan before the council could consider it.

Scott Soelter, who represented the seller in the failed deal, left unimpressed with Kafka, in part because he spent pages of his recommendation explaining why the project merits approval, then in the last two paragraphs said he would nevertheless recommend against it.

Kafka, Soelter said, “is part of that institutional ineptitude that makes it challenging. We have too many rules and too many rules that are made up in the middle of the game.”

Could be that Soelter’s broad explanation is really the one — that there’s a problem with the city’s institutions and Kafka’s situation is just a symptom. But is it possible Kafka himself was the problem — that he was a poor fit for the job, considering its intensely political nature and his struggles with conscience?

”I’m steadfast in the notion that I have to do this job,” Kafka said in February as he debated his role in the rezoning with Clinco.

Kafka’s steadfastness apparently eroded, though. Now, by the time we find out what drove him out, it seems, it will be too late to have an influence on this election, if it should. The situation he has left Tucson citizens in, you could say, is Kafkaesque.

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


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