Code Blues

A Tempe activist wins the first round in a civic skirmish to soften the city's innovative rental-housing rules. But look for a new and improved version later this year, after landlords and tenants forge a compromise code.

Mention the name "Fritz Tuffli" around the upside-down glass pyramid of Tempe City Hall, and you will likely be greeted with a roll of the eyes, or a slight crinkling of the nose, as if some unwanted odor had drifted into the building.

Tuffli is a humorless man who seems to derive his only pleasure from trying to topple the pyramid. This month, he managed at least to dent it by taking out--for the time being--the city's much-anticipated new Rental Housing Code.

For the past seven years, Tuffli has been a regular fixture at city council meetings, launching into long, finger-pointing harangues on any number of issues. He runs a 1-800 voter-information hot line--a sort of right-wing "Radio Free Tempe"--from his home, and pays for it with his own money.

Tuffli acknowledges that his politics are "somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun." But he knows how to work the system. He is also absolutely single-minded, assiduously documenting his allegations and tape-recording his telephone conversations with city officials--techniques he no doubt honed during his previous incarnation as one of Tempe's finest.

Tuffli, 44, resigned from the Tempe Police Department in 1989 after a three-year battle with his superiors. Twice they tried to fire him, and twice he fought back, winning reinstatement both times.

Tuffli says he originally was ousted for berating a crime victim who refused to cooperate with him during an investigation. After being rehired, he again was cashiered for allegedly making harassing telephone calls to his superiors. Again, Tuffli successfully defended himself during a city merit-board hearing.

Tuffli finally agreed to step down after being awarded a year's severance pay. He now divides his time between selling insurance and badgering the city.

"If the city supports something," notes one city staffer, "Fritz will oppose it."

Such was the case with the Rental Housing Code.
Tempe, which has perhaps the boldest civic agenda of any Valley city, badly wanted to take steps to clean up its stock of rental housing. In February, by a 6-to-1 vote, the city council passed the code, which set tough new standards. Landlords would face fines, misdemeanor criminal citations--even liens on their properties--if they failed to comply with the code.

The code had the strong backing of neighborhood activists eager to do away with run-down-looking homes. Tenants' advocates also embraced it as one way to give renters more power to force reluctant landlords to make repairs.

Not everyone was happy, though.
Tuffli, who rents an apartment, says he feared his rent would have increased had the code been enacted. He also worried that the code would have been selectively enforced and used as a tool to establish a citywide patronage system through which councilmembers could have extorted money from landlords.

City officials dismiss Tuffli's arguments with a sort of "there he goes again" shrug.

But Tuffli had a powerful, although reluctant, ally.
The Arizona Multihousing Association, the state's landlord lobby, denounced the code as soon as it passed as needlessly draconian, saying it would raise rents and unfairly punish all landlords.

On March 31, using paid petition gatherers, the AMA filed more than 6,000 signatures with the city--enough to put the issue on the September 9 city ballot.

The election most certainly would have taken place had the city not run up against an opponent even more dogged and diligent than the landlord's lobby.

Late on the afternoon of July 11, Fritz Tuffli walked up to the counter in the City Clerk's Office at Tempe City Hall. In his hand was his typed argument against the housing code to be included in the city's publicity pamphlet. The deadline for handing in arguments both for and against the ordinance was one hour away.

The clerk looked at Tuffli's argument, noticed he hadn't signed it, and told him she couldn't accept it without an original signature, as required by state law.

He complied, then asked to see the rest of the arguments accepted by the city. The clerk handed them over.

Tuffli studied the arguments and noticed that of the 15 submitted supporting the code, 14 lacked signatures or were faxed copies, thereby not fulfilling the law's requirement that the signatures be originals. Six of the 14 arguments submitted against the code didn't pass legal muster, either.

Early the next week, City Clerk Helen Fowler sent letters to everyone who had submitted written arguments that didn't comply with the law.

"While the deadline was met in submission of your letter," Fowler wrote, "we must have a letter on file with an original signature."

Tuffli went into attack mode, threatening to sue both Fowler and Tempe city attorney Dave Merkel if they allowed the unsigned arguments to go to press.

"This is election fraud in the worst sense of the word," Tuffli said at the time.

With evidence in hand, Tuffli tried to enlist the AMA--the landlord's lobby--in his battle with the city. He says none of his phone calls was returned, even though striking the pro-code arguments from the pamphlet would have been a significant victory for those opposed to the code, especially since those in support--namely, neighborhood and tenants' activists--had no funds with which to get the word out.

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