During a public meeting on Dec. 6, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors (BOS) voted to approve leasing a 278 sq. ft. office space at the historic 1904 Courthouse in Nogales to Arizona Minerals (AMI), a subsidiary of South32, for $1,000 per month. Needless to say, renting space in an iconic County-owned property to a controversial, foreign owned, for-profit entity raises several questions.
The PRT reached out to Supervisors Manuel Ruiz, Rudy Molera and Bruce Bracker, County Manager Jennifer St. John, and Chris Young, Chief Deputy at the Santa Cruz School Superintendent’s Office, for some clarity on the many issues surrounding this vote. Of these five County officials, only Sup. Bracker and Manager St. John responded to our inquiries. Chief Deputy Young referred us to St. John, and Supervisors Molera and Ruiz did not respond.
Issues of Concern Presented to County Officials
Did the Board of Supervisors have the legal authority to lease the office space to South32?
When asked if Arizona Revised Statute (ARS) 11-256 gives the county the authority to lease office space to a foreign, for-profit company (AMI and South32 are listed as foreign entities; the use of the term ‘foreign’ in this statute means ‘out-of-state’) in a county-owned building occupied by County staff, St. John’s brief answer via email was, “The County Attorney’s Office has reviewed the lease and approved it as to legal form.”
ARS 11-251, which outlines the Powers of the Board, provides for counties to lease for public purposes any real property. St. John was asked how this lease to a private business meets the standard for the public purpose requirement. She replied that “public purpose” is not actually defined by the statute.
St. John also stated that since “the County will be paid 2.5 times the market value of the space, which maximizes unused county resources,” the lease serves a public purpose. In an email to the PRT, she wrote, “Supervisor Bracker stated the public purposes…included bringing back businesses to the downtown Nogales area and advancing an innovative/jobs corridor in the County.”
At the Dec. 6 BOS meeting, Bracker appealed to South32 to “make Santa Cruz County the home of your either North American or Worldwide Headquarters for South32. Keep these things in our community so that we will see the maximum financial benefit from this.” South32 corporate offices are located in Australia. The company has mines in Australia, South Africa, South America and is exploring in Arizona and Alaska. The PRT has been unable to locate any expression of intent to move their corporate office from Perth, nor to establish a corporate office in the United States. If the Board is aware of such a move or potential move, that information has not been made public.
Why does the County have a double standard on the use of County-owned buildings?
SCC Resolution Number 2008-07 was adopted by the county in May 2008 to establish a Facility Use Policy for County Facilities in Sonoita and Tubac. In Sonoita, this policy, which prohibits any for-profit use of a county building, applies to the building that houses the Sonoita Library. The resolution states that the primary use for these facilities is to assist in providing certain governmental services, such as law enforcement, the courts, and public works. The county “desires to continue the limited use of the facilities in a manner which provides other needed services to the public.” The resolution allows these facilities to provide governmental services and space that may be utilized by non-profit community organizations and specifically states, “the facilities are not available for private social functions or commercial purposes.” Also, “The county shall not enter into long term use agreements which require formal lease or rental agreements.”
This resolution, if applied to the Nogales Courthouse, would have precluded the AMI/South32 lease arrangement approved by the BOS in December. St. John wrote that the present board is not governed by the 2008 resolution, because “a Board may not adopt policies that restrict, in perpetuity, a future Board of Supervisors.” If this were the case, why have Sonoita residents been told on numerous occasions that activities such as farmers markets and other for-profit activities cannot be held at the County owned Sonoita facility?
Was the public properly notified of the lease process and Board vote?
The County listed the proposed lease in a legal notice buried in the Nogales International (NI). County officials are required by state law to publish in a local newspaper at the beginning of the 15-day posting period “a summary of the proposed lease that provides information on the process for an interested person to request that the proposed action be submitted to public auction.” In this case, the county submitted a notice entitled “Public Auction” which was embedded in the part of the paper with other required paid legal notices such as divorces, summons, notice to creditors, etc. According to the NI, the ad was not submitted through, or seen by, its news department.
County Attorney Kim Hunley stated that County property transactions below $5,000 do not automatically go to a bid unless requested by an interested party. However, the title “Public Auction” implied there would be a bid. Had the paid legal notice read “County proposes to lease office space in the 1904 Courthouse” it would have communicated to the public the true intent of the County and would not have been printed in a section of the NI that fewer people read. Hunley also stated that no people showed any interest. That may be because the PRT, which serves the area where South32’s controversial mining business operates, and where a large proportion of the residents who are opposed to the development of South32’s Hermosa Project reside, did not receive any notification.
ARS 11-256 requires that, “the board posts a notice in a conspicuous place on the affected property.” To comply with this requirement, the County posted a notice, in regular type on an 8.5 by 11-inch piece of paper placed in a document protector and taped to a north side door of the Courthouse, informing the public that commercial office space was available. This notice would not be “conspicuous” unless someone was directly in front of that door.
Why did the School Superintendent’s office request that the proposed lease be included on the BOS agenda?
Chris Young, Deputy Supervisor at the County School Superintendent’s Office, declined to comment about his request to have the lease to AMI/South32 included on the Dec. 6 agenda, referring all questions to the County. The School Department, which has received significant financial support from the mining company, has voiced strong public support for AMI, giving at the very least the appearance of a quid pro quo relationship between a private company and a County department.
Elected officials and County employees failed in their duty to keep the public informed about matters of significant public interest regarding South32. Questions about the
County’s legal reasoning, inadequate public noticing, lobbying efforts by County employees, and pro forma proceedings are further eroding the public’s confidence in local government, which seems to be deaf to concerns about persistent County favoritism towards South32.
As Patagonia activist Carolyn Shafer acknowledged when she addressed the Board at the Dec. 6 meeting, “I want you to vote no, but I anticipate that you will approve this contract.”