FLORENCE — Persistent questioning from a Pinal County supervisor about a federal grant contract prompted advice from the board chair to do better homework and not “ambush” county staff during a meeting.
Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh, R-Coolidge, who questioned the federal government’s right to prescribe limits on local police, eventually voted with his colleagues to approve the contract at Wednesday's Board of Supervisors meeting.
The contract was an amendment to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s cooperative agreements with Eloy, Florence and Mammoth and was requested by HUD.
Cavanaugh said the contract requires the county to prohibit excessive force by law enforcement in response to nonviolent civil rights demonstrations and presumably gives the federal government authority to investigate Pinal’s police agencies. He said the question is how much local control does the county want to cede to the federal government. He asked how much money the county receives through this agreement.
Heather Patel with the county Finance Department said the law enforcement language was part of the original agreement and is unchanged in the amendment. She said the new language refers to things the county has already been doing for years. A county must comply with civil rights in any federal program, Patel said.
She said the county receives about $1.8 million per year under the Community Development Block Grant program, plus smaller amounts in HOME funds and Emergency Solutions grants. In the past year there have also been millions of dollars in grants related to COVID relief.
Cavanaugh said in Portland, Oregon, "nonviolent" protesters burned buildings. “Is this agreement that we cannot stop civil protests — does it mean we have to let people come in and disrupt this meeting?” he asked. “What is the criteria with the Justice Department now? We don’t know.” He asked if the agreement defines the term “nonviolent.”
Deputy County Attorney Chris Keller said he couldn’t immediately say because he didn’t have the full agreement in front of him and he wasn’t the attorney who reviewed it. Keller offered to have the attorney who did contact Cavanaugh. Keller said if he had known there would be a question, he would have had the attorney attend Wednesday’s meeting.
Board Chairman Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, said the board receives agendas in advance and asked Cavanaugh in the future to approach staff with his questions beforehand. To wait until the meeting to raise questions “is difficult and actually deteriorates the communication flow,” Miller said.
“So we shouldn’t have a discussion in public about these items?” Cavanaugh asked.
Miller replied there can be discussion, but if Cavanaugh contacts staff ahead of time, they will have the answers at the meeting. “I do that all the time,” Miller said. He continued that sometimes he still asks the question again in the open meeting if it’s something he thinks the public should hear. “But it’s not fair to staff to ambush them at the podium.”
Cavanaugh denied “ambushing” staff and Miller replied, “I think you are. … My job as the chair is to make sure this meeting runs smoothly and is productive.” He said the board should be respectful of staff and give them a chance to provide the information. New questions may still arise. “Are there questions sometimes that maybe you didn’t think of? Sure,” Miller said.
Miller said he has seen grants for 18 years and the federal government always includes language ensuring civil rights and other requirements. He has also never seen a grant lost because someone didn’t follow federal law, he said.
Cavanaugh said he meant no disrespect to staff by asking simple questions related to the agenda. He continued that the discussion had drifted “far afield,” and Miller could continue on this topic with him at another time.
“Did you get your answers?” Miller asked.
Without answering directly, Cavanaugh asked if the county had “a measurement tool” to ensure the federal government’s requirements were being met.
Patel said the county is required to meet certain expenditure requirements, but there’s nothing in its regular reporting related to civil rights and furthering fair housing. If the county were asked about its fair housing activities, it could provide that, she said.