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Light rail may not start on time — and Arpaio’s investigation of AG Goddard may never finish

Perhaps we shouldn't start heading to the train station just yet . . .

Construction has nearly finished on most of the Valley's inaugural 20-mile light-rail track. Thank God. But that doesn't necessarily mean the trains will be ready to run on time.

Here's why.

Union officials tell me that the for-profit company that's supposed to be hiring and managing rail staff has frittered away so much time that the chances of having a contract in place by December are slim. Jim McCubbin, a vice president for the Amalgamated Transit Union's Local 1433 chapter, says that his union has been trying to get the company's attention for months — but has yet to even agree on basic ground rules for contract negotiations.

Why does that matter?

The Federal Transit Act expressly decrees that any transportation project getting federal funds must follow certain rules. One is that workers have the right to union representation — and that the union representing bus drivers in town has first dibs on new rail workers.

In essence: Local 1433 must be dealt with before any trains leave the proverbial station.

None of this should be news to Alternate Concepts Inc., or ACI, the Boston-based firm that Valley Metro hired to manage light-rail employees. The 19-year-old company opened a new light-rail line in Houston and a heavy-rail line in Puerto Rico; the company tells me that most of its 3,000 workers are, in fact, unionized.

Yet McCubbin says that ACI has done little, if anything, to begin serious negotiations — even though Valley Metro has been touting a December 27 grand opening for the rail line.

ACI sent over a tentative "memorandum of understanding," the first step toward opening contract negotiations, two months ago. McCubbin says the union immediately balked — for one thing, the memorandum set up Valley Metro's CEO as the arbiter of any dispute between the union and the private management company.

"That's like letting the fox decide which hens they're going to be having for dinner," McCubbin says. (Typically, contracts put such disputes before a federal mediator.) "The memorandum wasn't even close to what we needed."

But ACI has yet to offer another proposal — or even schedule a face-to-face meeting to discuss problems with their initial plan. It wasn't until union officials fired off a plea for help last week to Phoenix City Council members that ACI suddenly seemed interested in setting a date.

At that point, ACI's Ron McKay sent a cover-your-ass e-mail to union officials, suggesting they were at fault.

"I have been trying to get in touch with you for the past week . . ." McKay wrote. "If there is a problem, please let me know. Otherwise, I am being urged to post the positions and begin the selection process." That final sentence, union officials believe, is a threat — "beginning the selection process" without a union contract would cut the union right out of the process.

And that, of course, would be illegal.

But now that so much time has been wasted, the alternative could be a tough slog for everybody.

As McCubbin explains, the memorandum is only the beginning. It sets ground rules for contract negotiations, and those can take months. (The local chapter's contract for bus service, for example, is 48 pages. This one should be just as lengthy.) Then, after union leadership signs off on a contract, it must go to the membership to be ratified — a process that takes two months, minimum.

So we're looking at a series of events that, by design, will take months on end, even as Valley Metro touts the fact that its trains are beginning their test runs.

Keep in mind, after they ink the contract, ACI still will have to hire the drivers. And then, of course, train them.

As someone who can't wait for light rail to start running, this whole thing makes me a little nervous.

I hardly felt better when I did some research.

ACI, the for-profit company hired to manage light rail here, was started by former executives at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. (Naturally, the company was a consultant on Boston's disastrous Big Dig project, although apparently not to blame for the "distrastrous" bit.) ACI won its five-year contract to manage rail workers here by submitting a dirt-cheap proposal to Valley Metro — $3 million below the agency's official estimate.

I wonder what they're scrimping on to handle the work so cheaply. Union negotiations? Or maybe communications. The company's Web site is a shell labeled "under progress" — getting information about what's going on, or even who to talk to, is not easy.

Just before my deadline, I got a call from Jane Daly, a principal at ACI. She told me she was "surprised" to hear that there are any problems with the union here.

"From our perspective, we feel things have gone very well," she said. Yes, the contract isn't signed, "but I don't think there are any major differences between the parties." She suggested that the union's real issue may be with its bus service contract.

 

When I told McCubbin that, he laughed.

Laughed.

Then he explained it. Last fall, the union negotiated with Veolia, the city's bus management company, so that bus drivers could train for rail jobs for 45 days — and still get their bus-driver jobs back, with seniority, if they show no knack for rail.

But the tentative "memorandum of understanding" ACI sent over in March would require a 130-day probation period. A good bus driver could train for months before learning that he didn't make the grade as a rail driver — but by then, his old bus job wouldn't necessarily be waiting for him.

Surely, ACI can understand why the union won't sign off on that. And that's hardly a problem with the bus contract. It's a real problem for any driver with seniority who wants to give rail a chance.

The whole thing is incredibly frustrating. After all, we've paid more than $1 billion for tracks that won't even take us to the airport. We the citizens of Phoenix and Tempe and Mesa have been living in the middle of a construction zone for three years now.

Is it too much to ask that the trains be ready to run when the tracks are finally done?

We do not want to wait one extra minute for light rail to start running and make our hassle worthwhile. Nor do we want to see Valley Metro lose its federal funding because a low-bid consultant flouted labor laws.

This project has cost us enough already.

We're ready to get on the train. And that train better be ready for us — with a driver.

13 MONTHS, AND COUNTING

Thirteen months ago, Sheriff Joe announced that he and County Attorney Andrew Thomas were investigating Attorney General Terry Goddard — at a press conference.

If that seems a little surreal, consider this: At the very same press conference, Arpaio proudly played an audio recording of what he considers the key piece of evidence against Goddard.

Pretty absurd stuff. After all, every good investigator knows that you play your cards close to your vest. You want to trick your suspects into admitting more than they realize.

You certainly don't do that by broadcasting what you've got to the media.

Of course, Arpaio has never exactly been Sherlock Holmes. Instead, he likes to use his agency as a mere prop in his never-ending self-promotional tour — no wonder the real cops, and even his own deputies, consistently endorse his opponents.

But if the press conference was truly weird stuff, weirder still is Goddard's alleged crime.

The attorney general's criminal division had been investigating then-State Treasurer David Petersen for misconduct in office. But when Goddard's investigation failed to reveal any big-deal felonies, Petersen was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. He agreed, quitting the treasurer's office.

That should have been that.

The problem is that, right around the same time, Goddard's civil division needed Petersen's office to sign off on a $1.9 million payment for its legal work on an unrelated fraud case. In the audio recording that Arpaio played for the media in April 2007, Petersen and his son sat in their kitchen, speculating about whether hurrying the payment would help resolve Goddard's criminal investigation.

The recorded conversation certainly didn't do the Petersens any favors, but only in Arizona would we consider this worthy of a criminal investigation. Even in the worst-case scenario, Goddard allegedly let the treasurer off the hook in return for money given to the state's coffers. It's not as if Goddard personally garnered one penny from the arrangement.

And, of course, just because the Petersens discussed whether the payment could influence the investigation doesn't mean that it did. Goddard's office insists there's a "firewall" between its criminal and civil divisions; one side does not know what the other is doing.

Whether Goddard manipulated the two concurrent deals should have been a relatively easy question.

And, I suspect, it was. The Sheriff's Office just didn't find the answer it was looking for.

If it had found anything sinister, don't you think we'd have an indictment by now?

Instead, the Attorney General's Office tells me that five months have passed since anything has happened in the probe.

Indeed, last October, Goddard sent a letter to County Attorney Andrew Thomas, asking him to recuse himself from the case. Goddard's people say there was no response, and there's no sign of life since.

Neither Thomas' office nor Arpaio's responded to requests seeking comment.

Steve M. Wilson, Goddard's director of communications, said in a prepared statement:

"We have no idea what is taking so long or if any investigative work is still being done. Our office has provided more than 70,000 pages of documents at [Thomas'] request. More than five months have passed since the last of those documents were produced . . .

 

"We have yet to learn of any evidence of wrongdoing by anyone in this office. The investigation has now stretched more than 13 months, and we have no idea when, if ever, it will end."

It's pretty clear that Arpaio and Thomas have no intention of closing this investigation before November. (They are both up for re-election.) For one thing, they're both going to look pretty stupid for grandstanding about an investigation that fizzled.

For another, as long as Goddard is "under investigation," he's hamstrung.

That debate about whether Arpaio's "crime sweeps" are racial profiling? Goddard can't weigh in without looking like he's attacking the agency that's investigating him. That money-for-Honduras flap? The state's chief law enforcement officer can't touch it. Same with any election-law violations that surface during what's sure to be a nasty campaign.

As the investigation into Goddard's dealings enters its 14th month, we ought to be clamoring for Arpaio and Thomas to wrap things up.

We know if they could find a way to indict the guy, they would. But if they can't, they owe it to us to announce that the case is closed.

It's one slow race to the finish after another, these days, whether you're talking a 13-month "investigation" into nothing or a $1.4 billion rail project that doesn't yet have drivers.

In both cases, the train has jumped the track.


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