On his 10th anniversary March 1 as Oro Valley's Town Manager, Chuck Sweet became the longest serving town manager in the town's 29-year history. In that time he has clearly made his mark as a survivor.
"I'm not much for believing in miracles, but he's achieved one," said John Clarke, a frequent Sweet and town critic. "I don't know how he's done it."
Sweet, 53, attributes his success to a management style based on openness with elected officials, staff and the town's residents.
It's a participatory, empowerment approach, focusing on the issue at hand, determining whether a certain action is meaningful and whether it has long-term value to the town, Sweet said.
That means bringing in and working with a broad spectrum of volunteers and council members, conducting a thorough analysis to determine whether a certain action is the right thing to do, Sweet said.
Sweet cited as a case in point the town's purchase of the Canada Hills Water Co. and Rancho Vistoso Water Co. in 1996.
In that instance, the town was in a strong negotiating position in one sense because the private water companies were anxious to sell and avoid the costly process of applying to the Arizona Corporation Comm-ission for rate increases for the first time in several years.
The companies also would have incurred expensive capital improvement costs if the sale had not gone through, Sweet said. Oro Valley would not have been required to seek ACC rate approval.
The water companies, meanwhile, were in a strong position in that they had the water rights Oro Valley wanted.
In Oro Valley's negotiations toward the purchase of the water companies, "it wasn't just one person, just me, making the decisions," Sweet said. "It was bringing together all these people to the point where the ultimate decision ended up being in front of the council."
Oro Valley got what it wanted, but opponents were critical of the price the town paid for the water companies and of the subsidized water rates the water companies received.
Former Mayor Cheryl Skalsky and former Councilmember Rudy Roszak clashed bitterly for months over the price of the water companies and whether their purchase should be put to a vote. The town paid $13 million for Canada Hills and $10.5 million for Rancho Vistoso and the issue was never presented to voters.
Although those decisions left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, the town, by gaining control over its water resources, was in a much stronger position in 2001 to settle a 22-year-old dispute with Tucson and gain rights to water to sustain its growth.
Under the settlement, Oro Valley gained access to additional Central Arizona Project water and sole rights to the effluent it produces.
Thus, Sweet said, although the participatory process promoted heated debate, long term needs were served.
Other keys to his success, Sweet said, have been a work ethic developed from childhood to do whatever needs to be done to accomplish a goal and to devote whatever time it takes to get it done.
"But above all, the key is understanding people, understanding everyone has a different personality, and an ability to interact with people based on the approach that everyone has a common goal in trying to do what is best for the community,” Sweet said.
As far as dealing with the Town Council, Sweet said, "as long as I give them all the information I have concerning a certain issue, the research, the history, and my own professional judgment as to what we ought to do, if three councilmembers say no, we're going this way, then I have my marching orders. We do what we do at the staff level, but they're the ultimate decision makers."
"When there's strife on the council, when there are personality conflicts or difficulties, that's their responsibility," Sweet said. "I think if a manager were to try to interject himself into it you get caught up in the fray and I don't see that as part of my responsibility."
Sweet has seen more than his share of Town Council strife and he himself has been the subject of substantial criticism over the years. He's been viewed by some as not taking enough of a leadership position v's-a-v's the council and by others, at times, for subverting the council's role in setting policy.
Sweet has had to confront these criticisms during trying times when membership on the council was practically a revolving door affair.
Beginning in May 1992, before Sweet was hired, the council consisted of Cheryl Skalsky, Cathy Hufault, Paul Hermes, Ken Karol and Lee Elliott. By the winter of 1994, all but Skalsky would be gone.
Hufault resigned in the fall of 1992 and Valerie Hoyt was appointed to take her place. Karol lost his job to Richard Parker in a June 1993 recall election in which both Hermes and and Elliott were also subjects of recalls, but barely retained their seats. Elliott chose not to run for re-election in March 1994, and Bill Kautenberger won her seat while Skalsky, who was also the subject of a recall, won her seat running unopposed. Hermes resigned in the winter of 1994 to be replaced by Marty Wells.
The council in the winter of 1994 consisted of Wells, Skalsky, Parker, Kautenberger and Hoyt. Parker lost to Rudy Roszak in a 1995 recall; Hoyt was defeated by Paul Parisi in the same recall; and Al Jakubauskas won a May 1996 election when Wells decided not to run.
Roszak resigned in July 1996 and Frank Butrico was appointed to take his place in September of that year.
By the time the council appointed current Vice Mayor Dick Johnson to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Jakubauskas in 1997, 14 people had served on the council since the March 1992 elections due to recalls, resignations and appointments. In contrast, had every council incumbent lost re-election during those years there would have been only eight new faces on the council.
Despite what former Oro Valley Town Council members refer to as a merely cursory review of Sweet's background, he wasn't the council's first choice for the job. The council went through two selection cycles. The first was in August 1992 when the council offered the job to Curtis Shook, a candidate from Page, who turned it down because of the conflicts that existed on the council at the time.
In a second selection cycle, Sweet and another finalist were invited back for a second interview. Sweet was chosen then. At the council's first meeting following his appointment, however, he wasn't even introduced to the public at large.
In assuming the job, Sweet became Oro Valley's fourth town manager, succeeding former Pima County Administrator James Riley, who served as acting town manager from July 14, 1992 to March 1, 1993 John Devner served as town manager from Sept. 11, 1986 to July 2, 1992 and former Oro Valley Town Clerk Patricia Noland, who served as town manager from Sept. 4, 1979 to March 1, 1983, although there was no officially designated town manager position at the time.
"The first indications I had of any strife on the Oro Valley council was during the interview process from exchanges between council members," Sweet said. "I wasn't discouraged though, and actually didn't think about it that much. It was their issue, their situation and I felt that as long as I kept the manager and the manager's staff out of that I would be better off.
"What I saw was a dynamic community in the throes of tremendous growth facing a lot of challenges," Sweet said. "I was attracted to that."
Sweet said he viewed the town's challenges as an opportunity, and it has turned out that way since moving from an area with a population of about 6,000 residents to nearly 11,000 in Oro Valley at the time.
"I've had more challenges, more opportunities and more rewards in Oro Valley than any other place I've been," he said.
Before arriving in Oro Valley Sweet had served as Cottonwood's finance director from 1980 to 1986 and town manager from 1986 to February 1993. Prior to that, Sweet was Flagstaff's sales tax administrator from 1977 to 1980.
Reviews of Sweet's performance as Cottonwood's city manager were mixed.
Former Mayor and Councilmember Chuck Garrison told the Verde Independent newspaper upon Sweet's resignation that Sweet had a "good knowledge of financial matters" and did "fairly well" with contracts, ordinances, meetings and coordinating with department heads. Sweet also was praised for his efforts in bringing a wastewater treatment plant to the town and in providing information to the council.
"But I think he's been out of touch with the condition of facilities, getting out and seeing what the roads were like," Garrison said. "I'm not sure Chuck really recognizes problems outside of his office."
Others were critical of Sweet's alleged favoritism toward certain departments and the negative impact that had on employee morale.
At the same time, other council members referred to the loss of Sweet as "a real tragedy for the town."
On his resume, Sweet lists among his major accomplishments in Cottonwood: supervising the construction of a new central wastewater treatment system for the city; supervising construction of a 52-acre park, animal shelter and public works building; and pursuing public funding for a new library.
The biggest adjustment Sweet said he had to make in coming from Cottonwood was the involvement of Oro Valley's residents in local government.
In Cottonwood people were certainly involved, Sweet said, but you didn't get 100 people showing up for council meetings on a regular basis.
In Oro Valley, because of the successful careers residents had before coming here, and because of their desire to correct what they perceived to be deficiencies in government operations in their home states, they were not only highly motivated to do something about it, but in a financial position to help make it happen.
In Oro Valley, residents could support the purchase of park land, as an example, Sweet said.
In interviews with nearly two dozen business and community leaders and department heads, Sweet comes across as a town manager who shies away from any action likely to reflect badly on the bureaucracy, who won't do anything confrontational no matter what the circumstances, doesn't embarrass his bosses and rarely gets in the public spotlight.
He's described by some as more of a survivor than a leader, a man who has tremendous leadership skills but doesn't exercise them as well as perhaps he should. He's highly respected though at times he comes off as seeming arrogant and has a penchant for wanting to know everything about every issue, those interviewed said.
He's also described as conservative financially, almost to a fault, but even his critics note that approach is hard to disagree with when it produces a $10-million contingency fund for the town.
Paul Parisi, a former councilmember during the stormy days that helped establish Oro Valley's reputation as the recall capital of Arizona, offered this appraisal:
"He's not distracted by the political nature of the job; he just does the job to the best of his ability," Parisi said. "He's kept the town in good shape financially, the ratio of employees per capita is low, he's done a good job in terms of upgrading the morale of his employees and he's got a great management staff.
"Regardless of the personalities of councilmembers, he's been diligent as the town manager in the day-to-day operations of the town," Parisi said. "I'd have to give him the highest marks, especially compared with others in his position. We have excellent police protection, roads are paved and development standards and citizen participation levels are the highest of anywhere around."
There were times, however, when Sweet's performance fell short of the mark Parisi had in mind.
In an evaluation covering Sweet's performance from March 1997 to March 1998, as an example, Parisi faulted Sweet for delays in bringing Central Arizona Project water to Oro Valley.
One of the town's major goals was to get the town's golf courses off ground water by 2000, a goal it will be several years short of fulfilling. Current plans call for the first phase of an effluent delivery system to be completed by 2006 and for the town's golf courses to be off ground water completely by 2011.
Parisi also blamed Sweet for "allowing a major disaster to occur" in terms of the town's Fire Advisory Board.
The board was appointed to make recommendations regarding whether the town should form its own fire department, contract with Golder Ranch Fire District, which serves the area north of Tangerine Road except for a portion of Copper Creek, or contract with the Rural/Metro Fire Department serving residents south of Tangerine.
In 1999, however, when the Town Council was about to merely accept a volunteer Fire Advisory Committee report and put the panel's recommendations on the shelf for another two years, Parisi blamed Sweet for the council's inaction.
"You've been against this from the beginning," Parisi shouted at Sweet during a Town Council meeting. Parisi charged Sweet with lining up councilmembers ahead of time to oppose the committee's recommendation that Golder Ranch Fire District provide sole fire services to the town.
A second fire board was later disbanded in 2001 and the issue remains unresolved. It has been nearly 10 years since the Golder Ranch Fire District threatened to sue the town if Rural/Metro was hired as the sole private service provider for Oro Valley.
In most cases Sweet "came up to the plate" in addressing criticisms, Parisi said. "A lot of those things were not his fault. It was mainly politics with the council not having the guts to address the fire issue. They still haven't the guts to face it and I think that's one of the failings of the town.
"You can't blame Chuck Sweet for that,” Parisi said. "You have to blame the council. Chuck got consultants to come up with a proposal. He put together the advisory boards and they did their job. The council just didn't have the intestinal fortitude to make a decision."
Another former Councilmember who praised Sweet was Fran LaSala.
"What makes Sweet so different is that when it comes to raises he makes sure not to boost his salary out of proportion to the raises employees at large will be getting. So he doesn't ruffle feathers and maintains the support of his staff."
Sweet was hired at a salary of $60,000 a year and is currently paid $113,360, nearly double in 10 years.
"He's established himself as commander in chief and things definitely follow a chain of command process," LaSala said. "His staff respects that. He's an excellent manager and the more people get to see him the more they appreciate how good he is.
"I wish people could see more of how he operates, for he's truly an outstanding manager," LaSala said. "He's well briefed on the issues at hand, knows his budget and delegates authority" in such ways as having department heads replace him when he goes out of town, giving everyone an opportunity to broaden their experience.
Ken Karol, another former councilmember involved in Sweet's hiring, said he felt the council had made a good choice in selecting Sweet "because he understood the requirements of the job. If you wanted an honest answer, he'd give it to you."
Former Mayor Lee Elliott described Sweet as "strictly professional," adding "I expected the best from him and he gave it to me." In comparison with the previous town manager, "we were overjoyed" with Sweet, she said.
In the hiring process, however, Elliott said the council gave in to Skalsky and voted for Sweet to end her browbeating. "We surrendered; it's sad to say, but true," Elliott said. "But he didn't seem like a total dud, so it wasn't a complete surrender."
Major players in Oro Valley's development community also gave Sweet high marks.
"In any part of development there are always issues that come up in terms of what the town's interests are and what the developer's interests are," said Vistoso Partners General Manager Dick Maes.
"I've always found Chuck to be open minded and willing to listen to both sides of a discussion and to be able to formulate positions from that point," Maes said. "He's shown an ability to work with a variety of council members during difficult times and through all the recalls and I think that reflects on his ability to work with various interests in sorting out the issues,” Maes said.
One area Maes said he would like to see Sweet improve in is the development of more of a team effort from department heads rather than having them continue functioning with their own agendas.
Others describe Sweet as a very private man who plays things close to the vest while building an administrative cadre that stacks up against that of any community in Arizona.
Others weren't as complimentary in evaluating Sweet.
John Clarke, who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 1996, said he's always had a "gut feeling of mistrust" toward Sweet. "I don't know if it's warranted, but it's there, the impression that he's not a good guy." It was for that reason that Sweet was "high on my list as the first who would go had I been elected," he said.
"I can't understand him hanging in this long," Clarke said. "It's hard to get your finger on this guy and maybe that's the answer to why he's survived so long. He's built an organization that shields him from responsibility."
Hector Conde, a frequent critic of what he perceives to be the town's pro-development approach, sees Sweet as a manager who "does just what the council tells him to do.” But when Conde sees staff recommendations supporting growth, "I have to think he does too, right? After all, he can hire and fire anybody on his staff."
Skalsky, who became mayor in 1995, was ousted as mayor in 1998 and finally lost her seat on the council to Wayne Bryant in a 1999 recall, remains one of Sweet's most vociferous critics.
Skalsky was generally regarded as a major obstacle to council harmony because of her dictatorial role as mayor and the role she played in the recalls of councilmembers who opposed her.
That she is so anti-Sweet is somewhat ironic, since she was the only one to vote for him when he first applied for the town manager's job.
"For the most part, he was a very good manager, "Skalsky said of Sweet. "My problems with him came when he didn't provide me with all the information I needed to cast my vote.
"That's when I started becoming angry, when I wasn't getting all sides of an issue, when I wasn't getting all the information I needed," Skalsky continued. "Then I would call him on it a lot. So I wasn't very popular with him.
"We began hitting heads big time and meanwhile, he was working behind the scenes to take me down, saying derogatory things, that I had ulteror motives for the things I wanted to do, which I didn't" Skalsky said.
"My main thing was seeing to it that the town became self-sufficient, to preserve its open spaces and obtain the water to control its own destiny.
"My main thing with Chuck was his desire to run the town," Skalsky said. "I called things as I saw them and he didn't like that."
In her evaluations of Sweet for the period from March1995 to March 1997, Skalsky ranked Sweet highly as a town manager.
In March 1998, however, Skalsky gave Sweet a rating of 1.4 out of a possible four, calling his performance in the areas of council relations, public-community relations, press relations, organizational management and long-range planning all "unacceptable."
In retrospect, Skalsky said Sweet may have deserved an even lower rating than the one she gave him.
"I tried to get rid of him many times, but the problem was every three years you got a new council and the new people would come in and he would take them under his wing. By the time they found out who he really was, there was another election so I was never able to put together the three votes necessary.
"Had it not been for the turmoil on the council, he would have been dead meat," Skalsky said. "It just took people so long to see him for what he really was and I had my hands full trying to run the town and trying to control him."
Former Councilmember Wayne Bryant, who defeated Skalsky in the town's last recall election in 1999, said he "wasn't impressed" by Sweet.
"He built up a bureaucracy and a kingdom around him to protect himself and he ruled basically by fear and intimidation," Bryant said. "His employees, in my opinion, were reluctant to step forth and say anything because there could be disciplinary action."
In one-on-one dealings with Sweet, Bryant said the dealings were "cordial, but we didn't have any respect for one another."
Bryant, who lost his seat by a narrow margin in 2000 and was defeated in a mayoral race against incumbent Mayor Paul Loomis in 2002, said the debt the town has incurred under Sweet without voter approval "is a crime."
Bryant added: "Sweet has basically taken our little town and destroyed at least 80 percent of our open space, putting the town in a corner where it's forced to annex to collect the revenues it needs."
Bryant doesn't differ between the decisions of the Town Council and the decisions of the town manager since in his opinion Sweet has three votes on the council and as a result "is pretty much in control."
His concerns, he said, were growth, water and the budget and, in particular, the debt incurred by the town's Municipal Property Corp.
Other critics agreed the numerous recalls may have been to Sweet's advantage because many of the people elected to the council had never been in office before and had to rely on Sweet for guidance on town finances and running the town.
Sweet acknowledged there have been times over the years when he felt his job was in jeopardy.
"There were probably two or three times where there were disappointments with something I had said or done or whatever, but that happens," Sweet said.
"One of the things I asked for when I arrived in Oro Valley was to have an annual evaluation," he said. "I wanted an arrangement that would force the manager and the council to get together at least once a year and talk formally about the management of the town.
"They agreed to that. I think the requirement forces communication, doesn't allow things to build up," he said. "If people have things on their mind that are bugging them, they don't harbor it for month after month after month."
Sweet said he considers his major accomplishments as Oro Valley town manager the leadership he's provided in diversifying the town's economy, the appointment of a parks director, the purchase of land for parks and the construction of the town's new library, which opened last year.
Addressing economic diversification, Sweet noted how in the 1995-1996 fiscal year construction related revenues made up 42 percent of total general fund revenues. In the 2000-2001 fiscal year that dropped to 31 percent, making the town less dependent on construction activity.
In the same period, construction sales tax collections as a part of the town's total sales tax base dropped from 57 percent to 46 percent while retail sales tax collections as a part of total general fund revenues rose from 6 percent to 12 percent. Retail sales tax collections as a portion of the town's tax base rose from 11 percent to 28 percent.
In 1995, Sweet played a major role in having Pima County turn over what is now James D. Kriegh Park to the town. The following year the town bought 40 acres west of La Canada Drive on West Lambert Lane for a nature park. In 1997, another 40 acres were purchased south of Copper Creek Elementary School for what was to become Copper Ridge Park. Two of the 40 acres were sold to Amphitheater Public Schools for Copper Creek Elementary School parking.
When the town purchased 175 acres of the old Cal Mat asphalt plant just east of the Copper Creek subdivision from the Arizona State Land Department it was decided to include the remaining 38 acres in planning for what is known as the Naranja Town Site.
Plans for this site include a community center, performing arts center, amphitheater, athletic fields and pool, and a host of other uses. Last minute suggestions by the town to place public buildings on the site have created controversy and sent town officials looking for alternative sites on which those buildings could be placed. Full development of Naranja could cost $50 million or more and take years to complete.
In 1999, the town began building the 30-acre Canada del Oro Riverfront Park north of the Canada del Oro Wash off west Lambert Lane. The park opened a year later.
None of those major accomplishments are listed on Sweet's resume.
There he lists negotiating the purchase of two private water companies with more than 9,500 customers; revising the town's personnel policies and procedures; implementing the town's first compensation plan; implementing a development impact fee ordinance; and facilitating construction of a 13,000 square-foot police station.
On the personal side, Sweet himself affirmed his desire to remain a "private" person.
Asked what he preferred doing when he wasn't running the town, Sweet told a reporter at first "it's nobody's business," then later softened that to "spending time with family and home improvement projects."
Those interviewed said one of his major passions is a cabin he's building in New Mexico. They describe him as a "fairly religious guy who believes in the spiritual side of life," an active Rotarian and a "loner" who rarely, if ever, entertains.
"I've played golf with him once," said one town employee charitably recalling Sweet's score of close to 100, "and I can honestly say he's not a serious golfer." Sweet also used to play in pickup basketball games with staff members but hasn't since shoulder surgery about a year ago.
A native of Minnesota, Sweet received his bachelor's degree in business administration (accounting) from Northern Arizona University in 1975 and his master's degree in public administration from NAU in 1994. He also served in the Navy in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972 as an aviation bosun's mate whose job was to assist in guiding airborne helicopters back to their ship.
He is described as having "a good sense of humor" and a "keen sense of irony," of being extremely supportive of staff members having personal problems, stressing the need to keep family the first priority.
Sweet's mother died about a year ago and his father died in January.
He and his wife Wendy have two grown sons and two grandchildren. Wendy is a graduate of Butler University where she majored in radio and television and has hosted morning radio shows in Tucson and Sedona. She writes for Tucson Lifestyle magazine and is a professional singer who does everything from rock 'n' roll to standards to country, performing at the Greater Oro Valley Arts Council's "Tapestry of Holiday Traditions" presentation in November.
In more recent evaluations, the current Town Council has given Sweet consistently high marks while at the same time noting areas for improvement. In an evaluation for the period from April 2000 through September 2001, as an example, areas for improvement sought by the council included the need to "continue to work on patience in dealing with 'difficult' members of the public;" establishing "an effective communications program with our citizens;" and addressing a "lack of long-range planning."
In terms of his own long-range plans regarding his job, Sweet said he hoped to be around long enough to see the arrival of reclaimed water and CAP water in Oro Valley.
That's water over bridges yet to be crossed.