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Jon Hinz Gets the Boot From the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities

Jon Hinz and his daughter Missy
Jamie Peachey

In the world of Arizonans dealing with developmental disabilities, Jon Hinz is a rock star. Sounds funny, I know, but he's been one of the community's strongest advocates for three decades.

Hinz's 30-year-old daughter, Missy, was born with Down syndrome. Rather than let her condition embarrass him, or accept the idea that her prospects were limited, Hinz fought to make things better. As a girl, Missy Hinz was the face of a national organization for people with cognitive disabilities. And when Missy grew older, Hinz didn't just see that she graduated from high school — he eventually started a business to give her (and people like her) a place to work.

Back in the 1980s, Hinz even served as executive director for the Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities. So when Governor Janet Napolitano was looking for appointees to serve on the council five years ago, Hinz was a natural choice.

But, in November, his fellow council members voted to kick Hinz off the board.

I always find it entertaining when someone gets "fired" from a volunteer job. But when it comes to irony, this one really takes the cake.

A 13-employee state agency, the council is supposed to bring together the disabled, their family members, and the agencies that serve them. The goal? Enhancing the lives of people with disabilities, connecting them with services, and advocating for them.

But the council voted to kick Hinz off mainly because his version of advocacy wasn't the council's version. The council's chairman claims that Hinz violated its code of conduct by — gasp! — "speaking in opposition to the council at public meetings."

As it turns out, the council's one-year-old code of conduct requires members to "publicly support the decisions made by a majority of the council membership, regardless of whether or not they personally support those decisions."

I have to wonder what the Constitution's framers would have thought of that one.

And the council's former chairman had more to say about Hinz. Matthew Wangeman told an Arizona Senate committee in December that Hinz was so aggressive that members were "scared" to come to meetings with him. Wangeman claimed that Hinz even threatened his life.

Suffice it to say, legislators weren't convinced.

"I find it curious that those allegations were made against Mr. Hinz," State Senator Linda Gray, R-Phoenix, told me this week. "I've known him probably 12 years, and I've never seen that side of him. I've also seen him with his special-needs daughter, and I've seen the tenderness with which he treats her."


It's no coincidence that Linda Gray has known Jon Hinz for years. Just about everybody who's anybody at the Legislature knows him. He's not just Missy's dad. As former chairman of the state GOP, and a lobbyist for insurance reform who works closely with the powerful left-leaning Arizona Trial Lawyers Association, Hinz is that rare guy with friends in high places on both sides of the aisle.

Politically speaking, the Governor's Council couldn't have picked a stupider fight.

And if the target was bad, the timing was even worse. The agency is facing its "sunset review" from the Legislature — under state law, it must either justify its existence or face elimination. While the council's $1.3 million annual budget comes entirely from the federal government, legislators believe they'd have the right to replace the entire council with a new group. It wouldn't be a sunset on the concept so much as on the people currently running the show.

Bottom line: The council's decision to expel Hinz has exposed serious tensions. At the December session of the Senate committee chaired by Gray, critics came out of the woodwork to detail concerns with the council — and their concerns had nothing to do with Hinz's outspokenness.

In fact, the speakers echoed many of the complaints Hinz has been making. They said that the council improperly uses disabled adults as lobbyists. They said it's sold parents and family members down the river in favor of "self-advocacy" for the disabled. And, they said, the agency has engaged in conflicts of interests and violations of open-meetings law.

I intend to look into these questions in the coming year. But what's already clear to me is this: In recent years, the developmental disability community has fractured badly over two issues.

In both cases, Hinz opposed the leadership of the Governor's Council — and won.

My former colleague Megan Irwin detailed the first issue in a recent cover story. The Arizona Training Center in Coolidge is an institution for people with severe developmental disabilities — the last of its kind in this state. You might picture a grim ward overcrowded with neglected old folks. But Irwin found, instead, a caring, well-functioning home.

For most of its aging residents, it's the only one they've ever known.

 

When the Legislature looked at shutting down the Arizona Training Center, it got an earful from family members — but it also got the support of the Governor's Council. Despite complaints from Hinz and other members, the council has officially supported closing the center. (The council ultimately opposed the bill on the table last year, saying that there must be funding for a transition, among other things. But to families desperately fighting to keep the place open, the damage was done.)

So far, the Legislature has continued to support the center. And the discussion, as heated as it's been, has been amicable compared to the battle over minimum wage.

Two years ago, Arizona voters agreed to a series of increases to the minimum wage, from $5.15 in 2006 to $7.25 as of this week.

The controversy came thanks to a simple oversight. The old minimum wage law carved out an exception for workers with developmental disabilities — "workshops" for the disabled were permitted to pay their employees far below the minimum wage.

But the new law didn't address those workers at all.

People like Hinz saw the lack of an exemption as a technical error that should be remedied, quickly. If workshops had to pay the full wage, they'd surely be forced to fold.

But the Governor's Council argued that disabled employees deserved the same wages as other workers. If "workshops" had to shut down, so be it.

Ultimately, the Legislature approved the exemption. But during the heated debate over the issue, then-Chairman Wangeman now claims that Jon Hinz threatened to kill him.

Wangeman didn't respond to my requests for comment, but at the Senate hearing I attended in December, Wangeman spoke about why the council felt the need to remove Hinz.

It was clearly an awkward conversation. Wangeman, who has cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair and speaks by pointing to letters with a head wand. A translator then reads his words.

Wangeman first stated only that Hinz had violated the council's code of conduct.

"Which code of conduct is that?" asked Senator Gray.

Hinz, Wangeman replied through his interpreter, "spoke against the council in several public meetings." And then he dropped this bombshell: "And, this council member threatened my life last year."

Perhaps because of the tortured quality of the testimony-through-a-translator, or perhaps because of the ludicrousness of the charge, Gray didn't follow up on that one at the hearing. But I did, afterward.

Like I said, Wangeman didn't respond to my e-mails. But I went to see Hinz. I'd never met him, and I wanted to see for myself: Was he the kind of guy who'd threaten a fellow board member — a dude in a wheelchair at that?

Hinz invited me to his business. The Alliance Book Company in Apache Junction is a book-recycling plant that takes in old textbooks from school districts. It sorts them, resells the good ones, and systematically recycles the too-old ones, stripping off covers and blading away spines.

The bulk of the workforce comes from the Central Arizona Council on Developmental Disabilities. Though the workers are disabled, Hinz says, they've always been paid at least minimum wage, often more. He didn't take on his fight over the minimum wage issue to increase his own bottom line, that's for sure.

Hinz's spunky daughter, Missy, cheerfully volunteers to show me how the machines work. Father and daughter appear to have a great relationship; I could see the "tenderness" that Senator Gray described. And Hinz is in his element kibitzing with the workers. He greets everybody by name and has jokes for most of them.

It's easy to believe him when Hinz insists he never threatened to kill anyone. "I was so stunned by that charge," he says. "Now, have I walked out of meetings to kill a quorum? Absolutely. I know Robert's Rules, and I will use it to kill a bad vote. Am I guilty of that? I'm guilty as hell." He grins: "I'm a pain in the ass."

And he hasn't always kept his cool.

During the legislative debate over the minimum wage exception, Hinz and Wangeman got into a heated discussion. Hinz says he threatened to kill the bill but never threatened bodily harm.

"I'm in a crowded hallway, during a hearing, 30 feet from a guard station, screaming at the top of my lungs that I'm going to kill a man in a wheelchair?" he asks. "And this doesn't come up until nearly two years later when he wants to get me off the council?"

Indeed, the timing is interesting. Wangeman's term was due to expire this month, so the council was accepting nominations for new officers in the fall.

Hinz was nominated to be chairman. But before the council could vote on new officers, an agenda item was posted for "discussion/consideration/review" regarding the code of conduct.

 

At the meeting, that turned into a motion from the administrative committee, recommending Hinz's removal.

By the time the council was ready to vote for a new chairman, Hinz had been given the boot.


Whether or not the council can actually kick out one of its members is a real question. The council's executive director, Franc Kahn, told me that the vote was no more than a recommendation to the governor.

But regardless of how the governor responds, the council has plenty of explaining to do to the Legislature.

At the December session of the Senate Review Committee, a prelude to the "sunset review" process, speaker after speaker expressed solidarity with Hinz — and said they couldn't believe the council would kick him out. They said that the board has a history of "stifling dissenting remarks."

Karen Van Epps, who is legal guardian to her developmentally disabled 60-year-old sister, said, "The disability community has become fractured."

She added, "It's a very difficult thing in the community when we're fighting with the people who are supposed to represent us."

The agency's critics have the Legislature's attention. Senators in the review session suggested the agency should be reauthorized for just one year — and closely monitored during it. Senator Jack Harper, R-Surprise, suggested starting over entirely with a new council.

It will be interesting to watch as the sunset review continues. The council's executive director, Kahn, promised me that he plans a vigorous defense.

But it's clear that the council picked the wrong fight when it took on Jon Hinz. And even if it doesn't realize that yet, it should get plenty of opportunity in the coming year.


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