In small Arizona towns, politics can turn bitter
Rivalries often personal, pit neighbor vs. neighbor
by Dennis Wagner - Sept. 18, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Small towns are mostly serene places, free of serious political drama.
Council meetings seem anesthetically uneventful.
But, once in a while, all hell breaks loose in America's rural burgs. Residents get their dander up, often over some relatively minor slight. Sides are chosen. Rumors spread. Insults are traded.
It's a political version of "Peyton Place," the novel about intrigue in a fictional town where everybody knows everybody else.
• Quartzsite feud continues
Tusayan still divided
In several Arizona communities, that melodrama is reality: From Quartzsite in the Sonoran Desert to Tusayan in the Kaibab Forest to Safford in the Gila River Valley, locals are all tangled up in lawsuits, voter recalls, criminal allegations and business boycotts stemming from personal and political differences.
Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said such municipal "volcanoes" are an exception - most tiny municipalities are more like Mayberry R.F.D. than Peyton Place.
But when things go haywire, a basic social dynamic emerges: Life is more intimate, so the rivals have more dirt on one another, more hurt feelings to overcome.
Throw in family ties, a dash of Internet gossip and a pinch of local news coverage and you've got the recipe for a brawl in the boondocks. Or, as Strobeck puts it, "I think we all know about the Hatfields and the McCoys."
Bob Benedetti, director of the University of the Pacific's Jacoby Center for Public Service and Civic Leadership, says democracy is a tricky proposition in rural towns because a handful of dedicated people can determine ballot results.
"These people know each other," said Mike Kryzanek, a political scientist at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. "They're neighbors who see each other at the coffee shop and soccer field. So it becomes personal."
Arizona has 91 municipalities, 15 counties and more than 220 school districts - all with elected leaders and bureaucracies. Given that fact, Strobeck says, the number of political blowups is minimal.
Part of his job is to visit local governments, giving seminars on how to conduct public business effectively and harmoniously. Although disputes inevitably pop up, most get resolved quickly either by those already in office, or by voters who replace them in the next election.
"That's the way they're supposed to operate, and it's the way we teach them," Strobeck says.
But the system has gone haywire in Quartzsite, a desert town on Interstate 10 where opposing factions have accused one another of rigging elections, governing in secret and abusing police powers. Strobeck says he met with town leaders, trying to emphasize cordiality and professionalism. He explained parliamentary procedures, the open-meetings statutes and Arizona public-records laws. But no amount of coaching or coaxing seemed to help in a town that has been in turmoil since it became incorporated two decades ago.
In 1993, the town's second mayor was charged with plotting the assassination of the first mayor in a case that wound up being dropped by prosecutors.
Since then, relations have deteriorated. Quartzsite has been through six mayors and four recall elections in the past three years. About a dozen political activists have been arrested, including now-former Mayor Ed Foster and a local newspaper publisher who was hauled out of a town meeting in handcuffs while advocating freedom of speech.
Most of the municipal law officers say the police chief misused his authority by investigating and jailing political foes, an allegation that is under review by the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
The La Paz County Attorney's Office ruled that Town Council members conducted an unlawful meeting.
The state ombudsman rebuked municipal leaders for violating Arizona's public-records law.
Through it all, at least three rival newspaper publishers continue to spew bile at the politicians and one another.
Foster, leader of a self-described reform campaign against the majority of Town Council members, says state authorities responsible for upholding government integrity are fearful of interfering in local disputes, so they look the other way, empowering those willing to break the law. As a result, Foster says, Quartzsite officials have developed an inflated sense of importance.
"They think they're a kingdom here and, because we're a small town, they've gotten away with it," he says. "Small towns are slipping through the cracks."
Foster's tenure as mayor ended last month, when he was ousted in a recall election by former Councilman Jose Lizarraga.
In a lawsuit filed this month, a third mayoral candidate asked La Paz County Superior Court to disqualify and remove Lizarraga for allegedly violating laws that govern public records and meetings.
If that civil complaint fails, Foster says he's preparing to run in the next mayoral election, scheduled this spring.
"It ain't over," he promises.
Read the rest of the article at: http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2011/09/18/20110918arizona-small-towns-politics.html#ixzz1YQ3MInuB