Quartzsite, Arizona: Little town, big uproar
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Quartzsite, Arizona has a population of less than 4,000. But, you don't have to travel far into the rock capital of the world to find that this small town has big problems.
"Personally, we have taken extreme cautions for our safety because I have received death threats, hate mail," Shanana Golden-Bear said.
Small town politics hit the big time in June of 2011 when video of a council meeting hit YouTube and went viral.
It shows citizen Jennifer Jones politely criticizing city leaders during an official comment period. Councilman Joe Winslow quickly objected and demanded her removal. Police officers escorted her out and then, once they got her outside, they arrested her and cited her with disorderly conduct.
"This is kind of a scary town to be in when the police don't protect you," Jones told 9 On Your Side.
After the arrest, Mayor Ed Foster defended Jones. Council members responded to the uproar by conducting a secret meeting -- something Arizona open meeting law does not permit. Afterwards Foster told the Associated Press that the councilmembers voted to oust him, to put the police chief in charge and to declare what amounted to martial law. Councilmembers and the chief then denied any such thing had happened. But the town didn't post minutes for the meeting, leaving the question of what really happened behind locked doors that day hard to answer.
"I'm a marine and this is not the kind of democracy that I raised my right hand to defend. I'll tell you this is unbelievable what goes on in Quartzsite, Arizona," Foster said.
But if Foster was defending democracy, democracy did not defend Foster. Voters recalled him from office in September. Now he's running again.
"I won't bow down and I won't kneel down so if they take me down it will be from the standing position," Foster said, with a chuckle. "They picked on the wrong guy."
The Attorney General's Office later found three violations of open meeting laws. Among them: the forced removal of Jones and the secret town meeting. Among other things, the AG's letter required council members to undergo training in open meeting law compliance and to submit to a year of monitoring in order to resolve the matter.
After making several calls, 9 On Your Side reporter Stephani Ruiz made the drive to Quartzsite's town hall. Ruiz asked for an explanation of the violations, and how the town is preventing similar situations from happening now.
Quartzsite's town attorney did not agree to an interview, but did send a response by email. "The town always tried to comply with the law and create a positive atmosphere for the conduct of town business. The attention caused us to take measures to protect the public, the council and staff from the disruptive actions of a vocal minority of the town."
Jones told Ruiz those protective measures continue.
"I've been arrested five times, gone to jail four times, I jokingly told them at the sheriffs office, I said 'intake room 2 is like the Lincoln bedroom in the White House people will be able to say they've spent the night in the Jennifer Jones suite'," Jones said.
The police department itself has been under the microscope as well. Former Police Sergeant William Ponce is among those who signed a complaint last year expressing "no confidence" in the chief of police, Jeff Gilbert, and asking for an investigation.
"He was asking us to go after these people that were opposing the council. Well for us that wasn't right. We took an oath as law enforcement officers to uphold the law and the Constitution," Ponce said. Ponce told KGUN9 News that Chief Gilbert ordered officers to conduct improper searches of homes and cars.
Documents show that the officers filed their initial complaint with AZPOST, the Arizona office that sets police standards, on May 10, 2011. Two weeks later the officers sent a letter to the Quartzsite town manager and council accusing the chief of misconduct.
Amid the turmoil, ten officers received suspensions. Ultimately six, plus an administrative clerk, lost their jobs. The firings immediately resulted in a lawsuit.
Numerous attempts by KGUN9 to contact Chief Gilbert while researching this story were unsuccessful. However, minutes before the television version of this report was to air, Gilbert called KGUN9 News. He stated that no Quartzsite police officer was fired or suspended because of any complaints about illegal searches or seizures, and he insisted that no such illegal searches or seizures ever took place. However, Chief Gilbert declined to say why the officers were fired, citing pending litigation.
Ruiz asked Ponce what his life has been like since losing his job.
"It's been a roller coaster. I've been trying to rebuild and try to figure out how to move forward," Ponce said. "I've been working for a lawyer as an investigator. We're all trying to find work. Some of the guys haven't been able to gain employment, its a tough market out there right now unfortunately with the economy."
In his search for another job in law enforcement, Ponce says the Quartzsite controversy has left him blacklisted.
"It's definitely a problem. As soon as I walk in the door and I say I'm a certified officer their eyes light up. And then I sit down and I tell them my story and then they kind of step back. And you can tell that they're very hesitant to even deal with this and I would be too," Ponce said. "I have a little bit of, I guess you could say baggage, that I have to carry with me so it has tarnished my record."
And as Ponce struggles to move forward, so does Quartzsite- divided and trying to recover.
"The negative publicity has really hurt us a lot. Because it's out there in the world of how horrible everything is but in actuality you look around and the people are, the majority of the people are very happy," Golden-Bear said.
"I still think there's hope for this community to come back together once things finally come to light," Ponce said.
Jennifer Jones' citation for disorderly conduct eventually was dismissed.
The state Department of Public Safety investigated the town's conduct in the matter. DPS said it turned its report over to state Attorney General's Office in February. The Attorney General's Office declined to discuss the case with KGUN9 News, saying that the office cannot comment on the status of the investigation at this time.