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To Collins, process is like a religion, and his pedigree as an apolitical policy wonk is difficult to challenge. During more than 26 years as a Navy engineer, he oversaw construction and management of Navy facilities around the world, often holding responsibility for Navy and Marine bases that could easily qualify as cities in their own right.
Still trim with close-cropped hair, Collins is a lifelong chain-of-command functionary who has won most of the awards that matter in the relatively unnoticed world of civil engineering, having held high posts in state and national engineering associations that most people have never heard of.
After a nationwide search for a new assistant county engineer, Collins was hired for that job in 1982, following his retirement from the military. In 1989, he moved up and assumed three jobs--county engineer, assistant county manager and director of public works. In that three-headed post, he was responsible for all the county's highway work, landfill operations, buildings and grounds, equipment services and parks.
Although slow to brag, Collins points out that he successfully set up two landfills in Maricopa County without sparking a single lawsuit, a rarity in modern government.
"You have to be technically and ethically proper to do that job," Collins says of the county engineer's post. When he saw things that did not meet his ethical standards, Collins says, he objected, but always by memo and never by stepping outside the chain of command.
Still, that tendency to question, Collins claims, regularly put him at cross-purposes with former board chairman Freestone and, ultimately, Pederson.
In his lawsuit against the county, Collins says he opposed a number of Freestone-backed projects that were, in the engineer's view, poor public policy. Most of the projects, Collins and others note, were in Freestone's district. Freestone was exploring the possibility of a congressional bid from the area in 1992 and seemed to be winning a lot of governmental favors for possible East Valley backers.
When the town of Queen Creek was incorporated in 1989, for example, Collins says he was instructed by Freestone's office to draft a legal description for the new town that would exclude existing roads from city jurisdiction. That curious arrangement meant the county would be paying for upkeep of some of the town's roads, even after incorporation.
"I was directed to do something illegal, in my opinion," Collins says. "Freestone was helping out his buddies in Queen Creek. This was so flagrant, so bad. Just bad public policy."
Greg Bielli, a member of the county's highway advisory board, says the county is still trying to resolve the Queen Creek situation, which was not explained to the advisory board until the incorporation was a done deal.
"Even today we deal with some of those roads," Bielli says. "It's not appropriate, and it's not good public policy."
Similarly, Collins says, he objected when the county kicked in about $1.5 million in 1990 to improve stretches of Alma School Road within the boundaries of Chandler, breaching a county policy of not paying for roadwork inside a city.
Freestone also was a key player in the selection of a new location for the West Mesa Justice Court when it moved in 1989. The court needed only about 5,500 square feet of office space, but the county ended up leasing 10,000 square feet in a building partly owned by Freestone supporter Joe Woods, father of state attorney general Grant Woods.
The county will ultimately pay about $100,000 for unused office space before the lease expires later this year.
Collins' objection to these and other transactions, he and others say, made for bad blood between Freestone and the county engineer.
"Freestone was just after [Collins]; there was no getting around it," former supervisor George Campbell says. "He was very much against Collins."
Freestone disputes Collins' allegations, contending that all the projects he pushed were based on sound public policy and had ultimate approval from the full board.
"He may want to believe [the claims of political favoritism] in his own mind, but wait and see how the lawsuit turns out," Freestone says.
In the end, Collins argues, he was fired by Pederson at Freestone's insistence. Although Pederson was not in the manager's post during some of the incidents that produced Collins-Freestone clashes, Collins says that when Pederson did arrive, he was quick to side with the board chairman, even if his proposals ran counter to staff recommendations.
On May 30, 1991, Collins says, Pederson told Collins he should look for another job, and that there would be no position for him in the county. A few days later, Collins says, Pederson told him he would be dismissed in 30 days if he did not resign.
One week later, on June 10, Pederson handed Collins a letter firing him.
Freestone denies he had anything to do with Collins' dismissal, saying the call was Pederson's alone. Pederson says the courts can decide if he was right.
One of the issues in Collins' suit, according to his attorney, David Kennedy, is whether Pederson even had the authority to dismiss Collins from his county engineer post, because that job by statute reports directly to the Board of Supervisors.
Collins is not the only former county official challenging the legality of his dismissal.