32 days ago, a court tower heralded as a model for the nation was opened. Yesterday, the chief engineer tasked with heading that project was fired.

The speed with which his departure occurred may end up telling us a lot about a county and the storms it has weathered.

On November 11, Kenny Harris played a large role in a Maricopa County event marking the door-opening of the Superior Court’s new tower. The path getting there had been a long one, marked by controversy, lawsuits and allegations—never proven—of wrongdoing. (You can read about the building’s topping-out here.) It involved rancor by a county attorney and a county sheriff, and bruised egos and reputations. But the final result was described as a structure that would last 100 years and be envied and copied by courts across the United States.

But just a month later, the county is roiled again in a high-profile controversy, this one about staff accepting gifts from vendors who worked for the county. In fact, one of the three significant vendors Kenny Harris praised at the November 11 event—Parsons—is one of the companies named in the independent investigator’s report on staff gifts.

Maricopa County officials take delivery of the Court Tower Certificate of Occupancy (Kenny Harris, far left)

As today’s news story describes, Mr. Harris was a pivotal figure in a wide variety of public building projects. Since being hired by the county in 2007, he had spearheaded projects that ran into the many millions of dollars. And many of the results, like the Phoenix Art Museum expansion and the University of Phoenix stadium, are recognized as superior work.

You may read in the story about the grounds for which County Manager David Smith fired Harris. As always in the employment context, there may be more going on than is reported in the news. For instance, you have to get all the way to the final three paragraphs to see that there may have been other “dysfunction” in the office. But even given that, the firing took even County Supervisors by surprise.

It will be impossible to determine for sure, but it is not far-fetched to believe that the turmoil surrounding the county—and this tower—over the past few years played a role in this week’s events. After all, you need only read the court tower’s FAQ page to see the focus on accountability and transparency. If you go there expecting answers to questions like how many floors there are or what hours the building is open, you may be surprised at the posture of the questions and responses. This was—is—a county under fire.

Kenny Harris, Nov. 11, 2011

So it would be understandable that controversy would be avoided at all costs. The County Manager, having helped see his employer through years of turmoil, may have decided the new terrazzo floor and the courtroom floors above it must be free of controversy.

Of course, Harris is examining his legal options, so county residents may have yet another opportunity to see how their government works. We’ll see what’s revealed.