Declaring a conflict of interest, Marana Mayor Ed Honea removed himself from the council dais on Tuesday night when it came to discussions over emergency sewage connections in the Honea Heights neighborhood, of which he is the landowner.
But even after his declaration, conflict did arise when Honea requested to speak on the subject as a citizen of the town.
It was then, as Honea began to approach the podium, that resident David Morales – a former council candidate and regular at town meetings – stood from his chair and interrupted Honea, calling for a point of order.
Approaching the dais, Morales stated that allowing Honea to speak on the subject – whether as a citizen or not – was in itself a conflict of interest.
Vice Mayor Jon Post, who was leading the meeting in Honea’s temporary absence, deferred to Town Attorney Frank Cassidy.
“Even though I would recommend, typically, that any councilmember not attempt to speak as a private citizen… from a First Amendment perspective, he has a right if he insists on doing it,” said Cassidy. “I do think it creates an appearance of conflict, because a councilmember has more sway with fellow council members. There’s no question about that. I’ll leave it at that – I don’t think we can demand Mr. Honea not speak.”
The item before council on Tuesday was intended to examine policy guidelines for the use of town funds to pay for emergency sewage connections fees and related construction for residents of Honea Heights, a low-to-medium income neighborhood whose residents, in part, are hooked to septic.
Some of those residents are experiencing failing septic systems.
In 2004, a partnership was formed between Marana and Pima County to convert all plots from septic to sewage, but due to contracting bankruptcies, insufficient funding, and later, the battle over wastewater control between the two jurisdictions, the project was left unfinished.
Now, with the town owning and operating its own sewer system, the burden has fallen entirely on Marana to – as residents in Tuesday’s meeting stated – “keep its promise” in completing the project.
Town Manager Gilbert Davidson says the town has been working on doing exactly that since the project came to a halt, having invested approximately $4 million in town funds and grants to rectify failing septic systems and area infrastructure.
Even with that amount invested, funding was exhausted before all Honea Heights homes could be hooked up to sewage.
There are an estimated 96 property owners that are not hooked into the sewage system.
Approximately 350 people live in the neighborhood’s 199 units.
The town intends to continue pursuing grant money to help offset the cost of hookups and construction expenses, but is also budgeting $75,000 for at least the next two years in the case emergency septic issues arise.
But the issue before council on Tuesday night was less about whether the town should pay for emergency hookups than it was about who should receive those hookups.
Councilmember Roxanne Ziegler argued that only owner-occupied properties should qualify and that the property owner of the rental homes – in this case Honea – should be held responsible for paying for those sewage hookups since he has been collecting rent money.
The town estimates each sewage hookup and construction will cost an average of $12,000. If council determined rental properties did not qualify for emergency hookups, Honea would have to come out of pocket for each of his rentals’ fees.
It was on that subject that Honea chose to speak, albeit briefly.
“In the early days of this promise, there was no differential between owner occupied or rental properties,” said Honea.
Honea said he charges renters just $165 per month.
“If you charge me $12,000 because it’s a rental property for those units, to hook them up, I will shut it down, and make those people homeless,” said Honea. “It’s not a threat, it’s a business decision on my part. I can’t pay $12,000 for every one of those units to hook them up. The hookup fee for the sewer is worth more than the property.”
Those words were enough to prompt a quick response from Ziegler.
“Mr. Honea. First of all I can’t believe you would actually evict those people. Shame on you,” she said, adding it wasn’t fair to “hold the council hostage” for what she said should be his financial responsibility.
Shortly after, Ziegler made a motion that only owner-occupied households, whether considered low-income or not, qualify for town-funded emergency sewage connection fees.
The motion failed in a 3-3 vote.
Referencing the fact that future grant money received would apply equally to owners and renters, councilmember Dave Bowen put forward a second motion that construction and connection fees would be paid for all currently occupied homes that are considered habitable.
However, there are no guarantees the grant money referred to by Bowen will be approved. The town has only applied for the funding at this point.
The motion passed unanimously.
Future renters and homeowners of Honea Heights are not subject to the privileges of town-funded emergency hookups that current residents will now receive.