By TAMARA AUDIQUARTZSITE, Ariz.—This tiny desert outpost is known for 70-degree winters, an annual gem show that draws thousands of visitors, and a nudist bookstore owner who conducts business in little more than flip-flops and a straw hat.
But these days, the town's most extraordinary feature is its politics.
For months, officials in Quartzsite—which lies about halfway between Phoenix and Palm Springs, Calif., on Interstate 10—have so far refused to allow the mayor-elect to take office because he owes the town $2,200 in attorney's fees.
In late August, the town manager put the police chief on paid administrative leave pending an investigation over allegations involving a time sheet. A few days later, the town council suspended the town manager for undisclosed reasons—after the town's attorney filed a restraining order against the town council to stop it meeting.
The town manager said she couldn't comment on her suspension because "no one gave me a reason."
In September, the assistant town manager fired the police chief without consulting the town council, according to other town officials. Days later, the interim town manager reversed the chief's firing, and suspended the assistant town manager pending an investigation into an undisclosed matter. The assistant manager couldn't be reached for comment. On Tuesday, the town council voted to put the police chief back on the job.
"We're calling this the Twilight Zone in Quartzsite," said Ed Foster, the elected, but so far unseated, mayor who has filed a complaint in superior court to force the town to install him. Mr. Foster, 70 years old, began humming the music from the television show, and said, "Every day we get up and ask, 'What's going to happen today?'"
On Tuesday night, Mr. Foster's lawyer said an attorney hired by the town called to discuss a potential settlement deal that would include seating Mr. Foster as mayor. The deal hasn't been finalized yet, said his lawyer, Julie LaBenz. If a deal isn't reached, she said Mr. Foster will move ahead with a court hearing due next week.
The interim town manager, Laura Bruno, said Wednesday a lawyer for the town briefed the town council in closed session about Mr. Foster's case. Ms. Bruno said the council made no decision on a settlement deal, and would still have to vote to seat Mr. Foster. She said the intent of the attorney was "to open a line of communication with Mr. Foster's attorney."
The turmoil caught the attention of state and federal officials. The Arizona Department of Public Safety has investigated corruption complaints against town officials four times in the past two years and recently began a fifth probe of the police chief over the alleged false filing of a time sheet, a Department of Public Safety spokesman said. The chief, Jeff Gilbert, has denied any wrongdoing.
The attorney for La Paz County, which includes Quartzsite, said he asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate town officials for possible corruption. An FBI spokesman said he couldn't confirm or deny any probe.
The unrest boils down to a struggle between two groups: on one side, some current and former town leaders who say they are being targeted by activists who oppose development; on the other side, activists and the mayor-elect who claim city officials are hiding corruption and targeting them for criticizing town leaders. In interviews, the officials have denied the accusations.
The standoff has divided the town and set its residents on edge. "You just feel it's a powder keg in Quartzsite, and something is going to set it off," said Shelly Baker, recorder for La Paz County.
Isolated on the western edge of Arizona, Quartzsite was once a mining area and way station for travelers, later becoming popular with retirees for its mild winters. Its population jumps to 100,000 in the winter from 3,500 the rest of the year.
Political intrigue in the town dates back to at least 1995, when the then-mayor was convicted of hiring a hit man to try to kill his political rival. His conviction was overturned, and he was back in office six months later.
In 2005, Mr. Foster, a retired engineer for gum-maker Wrigley, moved to Quartzsite from Chicago and successfully ran for mayor in 2010 on a platform of financial transparency.
After he was elected, Mr. Foster asked state police to investigate the city's police chief, saying he improperly used vacation time. Mr. Gilbert countered by asking state officials to investigate Mr. Foster and his allies for allegedly manufacturing evidence against him. Town residents and former police employees have accused Mr. Gilbert of harassing, firing or arresting them due to their political views. Mr. Gilbert denies that and calls the accusations "a conspiracy against me" by some town officials and disgruntled employees who want to take control of the police department.
The state's attorney general has declined to prosecute anyone in Quartzsite as a result of state investigations because of insufficient evidence, a spokeswoman for the office said.
Last year, an ally of Mr. Foster's, Jennifer Jones, was arrested by Mr. Gilbert while speaking during a raucous town council meeting. Ms. Jones, who owns Furry Friends Pet Spa, has been arrested five times since she began running for town council in 2010. All of the charges were eventually dropped.
Ms. Jones, who runs a newspaper and website critical of the town and the police chief, said she is "livid" that the chief has been reinstated. "We feel betrayed," said Ms. Jones, who is suing the police chief and other town officials in federal court over her arrests. Ms. Jones says the chief harassed her and her husband because they were critical of him and his political allies. The chief denies the allegations and says his arrests of Ms. Jones and her husband had nothing to do with politics.
Opponents unseated Mr. Foster in a 2011 recall election. He fought the recall in court, lost and was ordered to pay the town $2,200 in attorney fees. He refused to pay.
This year, Mr. Foster ran a new campaign and was elected mayor in June. Town officials said he couldn't take office due to a local ordinance that bars anyone owing the town money from office. He says he shouldn't have to pay, as the town attorney shouldn't have appeared in court against him, and the ordinance exceeds state requirements. The attorney, who officials say is on sick leave, couldn't be reached for comment.
Some in Quartzsite say they see an end to the unrest. "Our town council is coming together and is really trying to work as a team to move things forward," said Ms. Bruno, the interim town manager.
Mr. Foster said even if he is seated, he will sue the town for its appointment of a chair and vice chair for council meetings, which he says weakens his power. "This fight's not over," he said Tuesday. The interim manager said the town has the right to appoint them.
Business owners just want the fighting to end before the busy winter season. "It's an embarrassment to our town," said Paul Winer, the nudist owner of Reader's Oasis bookstore.
—James Oberman contributed to this article. Write to Tamara Audi at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared September 27, 2012, on page A8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Small-Town Politics, All-Out War.