Legal challenge over charity donations creates controversy at county board meeting

Published: Oct. 14, 2014 at 9:32 PM MST|Updated: Oct. 28, 2014 at 9:32 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The battle over a long-standing Pima County Board of Supervisors' policy took a nasty turn on Tuesday, Oct. 14 when the board's weekly meeting was adjourned sooner than some had wanted.

"Corruption! Corruption!" shouted some citizens in the audience at the end of the meeting.

"What's the pleasure of the board?" Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bronson asked.

She was the one who had just adjourned the meeting.

"Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!" several people shouted.

The issue revolves around how some tax dollars are spent. The board voted unanimously on Tuesday to release a county attorney's opinion whether supervisors can give excess money from their office budgets, tax dollars, to nonprofit organizations of their choice.

The attorney's conclusion was supervisors may legally make small monetary awards under certain conditions. Each supervisor gets just under $400,000 a year to manage his or her office.

Some of them give excess money to the county's general fund. Others give some of the excess to nonprofits in Pima County.

The county attorney's opinion has not ended the controversy. Supervisors can't agree on what the opinion says.

The whole thing came to a head when Bronson adjourned the meeting.

"If there are no further speakers, this meeting stands adjourned," she said, and immediately sounded the gavel.

Audience members jumped to their feet.

"Excuse me! I'm speaking!" one shouted.

"That is outrageous," Supervisor Ally Miller said from the dais.

"Corruption! Corruption!" others shouted from the audience. "We stood up before the gavel went. She said is there any other speaker and bam!. That is not fair. You gave us no chance to respond."

While a few people against giving the excess money to charity were called to speak, others were not.

"They should have filled out cards for call to the audience, which they did not," Bronson said. "That's our protocol."

Those angry they were not called are supporters of Supervisor Ally Miller and agree with her and with the opinion of the conservative watchdog group, The Goldwater Institute, that the gifts are illegal.

"The Goldwater Institute issued their opinion that it is a violation of the Arizona State Constitution to gift monies without receiving a service in return," Miller said. "Look at the citizens that came. What disrespect to not let them have their chance to speak publicly."

Supervisors Richard Elias and Bronson donate some of their excess funds. They disagree with the opinions of Miller and The Goldwater Institute.

They say it's the county attorney's opinion that they can legally give a share of their office budgets to local nonprofits.

"I think it puts us on pretty strong legal standing for making donations to legitimate nonprofits who serve a public purpose in our community," Elias said.

"I think it justifies our practice. It has been a policy since before I was on the board in 1997," Bronson said.

Deep divisions among the supervisors have been growing as Republican Ally Miller and the three Democrats on the board often butt heads.

More and more angry comments came from the audience.

"Give the taxpayers' money back. Cheaters! Cheaters!"

Miller was angry about the adjournment.

"This is an outrageous abuse of power, along with the outrageous expenditures," Miller said.

Elias and Bronson commented on accusations and the tenor of the Board of Supervisors meetings.

"She (Miller) continues to make allegations and to date, they've been unfounded," Bronson said.

Elias said, "It does seem to be getting nastier and nastier and I think that's bad for all of us."

Bronson said Miller and the speakers got what they wanted, which was the release of the county attorney's opinion. However, what Miller and her supporters also want is an end to the practice of donating excess office budget funds to nonprofits.

Miller said she will take action by placing an item up for discussion and vote on the Oct. 21 agenda. She said she wants the board to discuss the Goldwater Institute's threat of legal action if the board does not end the discretionary giving policy.

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