GILBERT ELECTION: 3 candidates join forces to oust council incumbents
(Tribune, The (Mesa, AZ) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Feb. 3--A failed political battle to oust three Gilbert legislators has provoked a similar tactic that targets the Gilbert Town Council.
An alliance of three council candidates with close ties to District 22 legislators has zeroed in on three incumbents seeking re-election in the March 13 Town Council primary.
The maneuver comes just three months after the Town Council supported candidates in an unsuccessful effort to oust Reps. Andy Biggs and Eddie Farnsworth and Sen. Thayer Verschoor.
Now, the tables have turned.
Bill Norton, former chairman of the District 22 Republican precinct committee, and former precinct vice chairman Jared Taylor have joined Dwayne Farnsworth, cousin to the legislator, in a unified bid to unseat the council incumbents and fill three of four spots available.
The move, if successful, would transform the town's political philosophy from a slate of moderate conservatives to a divide between the current council and strict constitutionalists.
Such a significant change on the council could have farreaching implications for the town, and affect the tax rate, roadwork and future parks, and even a previous decision over whether the town should provide fire service to county island residents.
The incumbents, Vice Mayor Dave Crozier and Councilmen Les Presmyk and Steve Urie, call those in the alliance too radical. In contrast, the incumbents say their records show their decisions have been key in building a town that residents in a survey last month supported with a 98 percent approval rating, including an 90 percent thumbs up for spending tax dollars wisely on roads, parks and other projects.
"I think it's payback. That's all it is," Urie said. "This is a time Gilbert can ill avoid a political swing to the far radical right, because it will have ramifications for the rest of our days here. I don't think you could recover from it."
The alliance, though, calls the current council "self-serving," pointing to salary increases approved by the council that re-elected council members would benefit from. In addition, the same survey the council cites shows that since 2002, the approval rate specifically of council policy decisions has gone from 72.9 percent in 2002, to 81.5 percent in 2004, and back to 76 percent in 2006.
Together, the three challengers acted as co-founders and supporters of the Gilbert Constitution Fair and promise to follow constitutional principles that focus on supporting "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and protect life, liberty and property rights.
"There's an attitude with the current council that what is good for the community needs to be implemented, whether it tramples individual liberties or personal freedoms, or not," Dwayne Farnsworth said.
While the alliance has been vocal in targeting the council during the race, three other challengers are running individual campaigns that focus less on criticizing the council, and instead on individual issues.
Former Town Councilwoman Linda Abbott considers herself more moderate, much like the current council, and said she wants to help to ensure the town is strong at buildout. Arts Advisory Board chairwoman Elizabeth Cress-Sweet is focusing her campaign on her dream of having a cultural or arts center and more youth or senior activities. Honeywell International engineer Neal Young is running as the "small guy," whose philosophies more mirror the alliance, but who doesn't find wrongdoing with the current council.
Norton admits that the idea to form an alliance and change the town's political landscape began in response to the Town Council's decision to refuse fire service to county islands unless homeowners annex.
Last year, the council filed, and won, a lawsuit against a bill sponsored by Biggs and Verschoor that would have required the town to provide fire service for islanders, who lost Rural/Metro Fire Department fire service Sept. 30. The council said that a fee to be paid by county islanders for fire service was not enough to cover the cost of fire hydrants, nor made islanders pay their fair share for related infrastructure.
The alliance candidates say if they are elected, they would consider working with Maricopa County in forming an intergovernmental agreement to provide fire service to islanders for a fee -- a move the current council has refused, though Crozier has supported talks in search of a compromise.
Supporters of the alliance include state Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, and Reps. Mark Anderson and Russell Pearce, both R-Mesa, all of whom voted in favor of the fire district law; as well as county island residents who led a fight for an alternative to annexation, including Marci Sale and newly annexed resident Donna Davis.
In the first campaign finance reports filed this week, Biggs, an island resident who sponsored the fire service law, and his wife, Cindy, donated $370 each to each of the three alliance candidates. In contrast, a handful of firefighter unions and individual Mesa firefighters have donated between $50 and $370 each in support of the three incumbents and Linda Abbott.
The incumbents express concern that the alliance could reverse the decision to not provide fire coverage to islanders unless they annex, something many residents supported.
The alliance's strategy to take over the policymaking direction of the council is similar to what council-backed candidates tried to do in November's legislative election.
The council and mayor supported three legislative candidates as an attempt to prevent another law that requires the town to provide fire service from being passed this year in the Legislature. Gilbert planning Commissioner Karl Kohlhoff and businesswoman Terri Tobey tried to unseat Biggs and Farnsworth in the Arizona House, while Joe Bedgood, a member of the town's Community Advisory Board, ran against Verschoor in the Senate.
The alliance candidates sharply criticize the incumbents for passing salary increases for council positions, and for what they called frivolous spending.
In 2001, the Town Council voted to raise monthly salaries for council members from $900 to $1,300 beginning in 2003, which raised annual salary to the current $15,600. The raise took effect for the three incumbents when they were re-elected in 2003.
In May 2005, just after the last council election, the council voted to raise salaries for whoever wins this current race, to $2,300 a month, or $27,600 annually. During the same meeting, the council voted to enroll in the state retirement system, which retroactively included all their previous years of service in their benefits package -- another move the challengers call self-serving.
"It's an indecent thing for council to set their own pay," Norton said. "... An increase or decrease needs to be a vote of the people. I personally would like to see the pay reduced significantly. I'm even fine with an elimination of that pay."
In response, incumbents point out that a citizen's committee studied the salaries of area elected officials during the 2001 cycle, and the Town Council approved the group's recommendations.
"For anybody to receive that salary, you have to get re-elected," Crozier said. "We didn't have one person testify against it ... I think they're grasping for straws."
The alliance candidates also point to the approval of "frills" in the budget, such as a train image etched into the intersection at Gilbert and Elliot roads.
They said they would look at cutting taxes, ensuring the sales tax won't be raised, and even possibly eliminating a secondary property tax that goes toward paying off roadwork bonds.
The incumbents respond that the alliance may go too far, cutting so much that roadwork is slowed down, park projects are canceled and grants used for downtown projects are refused.
They also point out that in the past five years, the secondary property tax rate was dropped from 1.25 percent to 1.15 percent.
The three candidates outside the two blocs say that whoever is elected will play a key role in four prime planning years for a town expected to be built out in the next 15 years.
While not aligned with the incumbents on every issue, Abbott said she's worried that the alliance could win on rhetoric that is hard to apply to reality.
Abbott was first involved in Gilbert when she helped form the town's fire department a decade ago, and more recently acted as a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the fire service law the council opposed.
She said her focus would be on ensuring Gilbert is built out with the roads and amenities it needs, drawing in big business and revenue and being fiscally conservative but still allowing for amenities such as parks and programs.
"I think the most important issue is we have two basic philosophies here. People do not move to Gilbert in order to live in the cheapest community they could find," Abbott said. "People move to Gilbert to enjoy a quality of life. They have consistently invested through bonds passed to support schools and roads."
"And I believe it is the responsibility of the Town Council to invest in the vision that the citizens have for their town."
Neal Young is investing less than $500 in his campaign, which primarily consists of calling registered voters.
"I won't owe anybody anything," he said. "I'm spending my time talking to voters directly."
His goals are ensuring the council doesn't restrict residents rights or misspend tax dollars, though he said he's willing to accept federal grant money. He said he'd also like to help draw more businesses to town and keep taxes low or lower them.
Elizabeth Cress-Sweet has campaigned for a town fine arts center for a decade, and now is seeking to play a more pivotal role in that decision. Several arts groups are urging the town to provide some kind of arts or community center for their performances, which now must rent space at schools or even the Gilbert Historical Museum.
She said she also wants to represent youth and senior needs and attract more retail stores, big businesses and tourism.
While the bickering between the alliance and the incumbents has been a focal point in the election, Cress-Sweet pointed out that there are alternative candidates for voters.
"What you have here is a choice between two extremes," she said. "You have the ultra ultraconservative, and then you have the other side that seems to -- I don't know if they ever said no to a developer. I think there has to be some middle ground somewhere."
Primary: March 13 General Election: May 15 Last day to register to vote:
Feb. 12 Early voting: Feb. 12 through March 9, by mail or at the Civic Center, 50 E. Civic Center Drive. Request an early ballot: http:// recorder.maricopa.gov/elections. aspx or call (480) 503-6871 or (602) 506-1511.
To find your polling location:
(480) 503-6871 or (602) 506-1511 Register to vote: https:// servicearizona.com/webapp/evoter/ or http://recorder.maricopa.gov/ regform.aspx More information: www.ci.gilbert. az.us/clerk/elections.cfm
--7 p.m. Thursday hosted by District 22 Republican Precinct Committee, Freestone Recreation Center, 1141 E. Guadalupe Road, Gilbert.
--7 p.m. Feb. 21, hosted by Gilbert Leadership Centre, in Lecture Hall C 110 at Chandler Gilbert Community College, 2626 E. Pecos Road, Chandler.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Tribune, Mesa, Ariz.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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