October 12, 2005 - Doubtful that the town would accept their referendum petition, three members of the citizens group Alliance Marana marched into town hall last week to turn in the 99 signatures they gathered to force a recent water rate increase to a public vote.
Just as they anticipated, the town denied the group's petition, citing laws that do not allow the referral of "administrative actions." However, the group argues that the ordinance is legislative and plans to challenge the town's decision by any means necessary.
"This is nowhere near over, trust me," said former Councilman David Morales, the group's chairman, who added that Alliance Marana was moving on to an undisclosed "Plan B."
Morales, who has been a strong critic of the current council, has teamed up with Marana resident Phyllis Farenga, a former planning commissioner and founder of the Marana Chamber of Commerce. Together, they led the referendum drive after the town council voted Sept. 6 to adopt a new tiered rate system that charges water users progressively higher rates for increased levels of consumption, promoting water conservation.
Farenga and Morales, along with Alliance Marana member Sadie Warnke, made their way down to town hall Oct. 4 to turn in the signatures they gathered to go along with the paperwork they were given by the town clerk's office.
Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat and Town Attorney Frank Cassidy came down from their offices to meet the three members of Alliance Marana in the town hall lobby where a heated dialogue ensued after the residents were informed that their petitions, which never left Morales' hands, would not be accepted by the town clerk.
"You can't refer a rate increase. The law is the law," Reuwsaat told the group.
"Why did you let us take out the referendum then? It should have been blocked," Morales said. "I spent a lot of time on these petitions. You can't give out paperwork that you can't accept."
Cassidy said the Arizona Constitution exempts "support and maintenance" of existing programs from being referred to a public vote and case law exempts such "administrative actions" from being referred. He said the water rate ordinance qualifies under both exceptions.
"Even though it was done through adopting an ordinance, which you think of as a legislative act, it really isn't legislative in the sense of creating some kind of new direction. What they're doing is setting water rates," he said. "If there's an existing program for which you're doing an existing appropriation, the state constitution does not allow a referendum on it."
Utilities Director Brad DeSpain said the water rate restructuring will bring in a 3-percent revenue increase to the town's water department next year, which equates to about $123,000. Because about 96 percent of the town's water utility customers will actually see a decrease or no change in their bills, it will be about 4 percent of the customers who pay that increase, he said.
"They're the ones that create the extra demand for larger pipes, more storage, larger wells, more wells, all those things," DeSpain said, adding that the increased revenue will go toward operation and maintenance, additional storage capacity, booster pumps and other upgrades.
"We've been calling it a rate increase but it's not really a rate increase. It's more of a restructuring of our rate program because we have mostly rate decreases plus rate increases on the end side," Reuwsaat said. "The whole system was restructured really to recognize water conservation in the desert and to reward low water users and to require high water users to pay more for the increased water use."
Under the proposed plans, water rates would decrease from $2.55 to $2.15 per 1,000 gallons for the first 10,000 gallons used each month. After that, the rates slowly and then quickly increase, progressively costing larger water users more money.
"When you put a new rate structure in place that is good for the desert, good for water conservation and results in a rate reduction for most of the customers, what's to refer?" Reuwsaat said.
"Our max bill would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 to 500 bucks a month if they were 60,000 to 80,000-gallon users," DeSpain said. "In Tucson, those people are going to get in close to 1,000 bucks a month for the same amount of water use."
Still not convinced, Morales and Farenga went back to town hall Oct. 6, the actual deadline to file the petition, this time armed with a host of Arizona laws that they think suggest the town should accept the petition. After being denied again, the group thinks the civil rights of 99 citizens have been violated.
Farenga said she thinks the town is trying to set a precedent that it can increase water rates without public participation.
"This is like taxation without representation to me," she said, though town officials say her monthly bill will actually decrease through the switch to a tiered rate system.
Likewise, town officials say Morales' water bill should only increase about $12 next year under the new rates that are expected to take effect in January, but Morales said he doesn't think the town's projections are accurate.
"There's no way I can save money. It's impossible," he said. "My water bill is going to be in the $300 range, so I don't know what they're talking about. The numbers are way off."
Morales, who gathered most of the petition signatures by going door to door in northern Marana, said he made sure everyone who signed the petition was a registered voter and directly affected by the ordinance. Marana's water department serves more than 3,000 customers around the northern Marana area and does not include the many Marana residents living in Dove Mountain and Continental Ranch served by Tucson Water.
Morales and Farenga, who were among several residents who lashed out against the council during a public hearing Sept. 6, showed up to the council meeting Oct. 4 a few hours after they tried turning in their referendum petition.
"I feel like I'm in the twilight zone," Morales said before a crowd of several dozen people attending the meeting, adding that he couldn't believe Marana is corrupt. "I love my town and if somebody could tell me this, I'd say, 'You have to be lying. This could not happen in Marana.'"
Farenga called for the formation of a shadow council to run against the current council, saying they intend to recall Mayor Ed Honea and the rest of the council in January. The group is waiting until January to take action because state law requires that council members be in office for six months before they're subject to a recall.
"They're not public servants. We are their enemy because we're trying to exercise the democratic process and the democratic process upsets this town," Farenga said. "What they're trying to teach the people is, 'Don't get involved. Stay away from our business and do not get involved with our empire.'"
Morales held up the petition signatures that he gathered and stressed to the council that the paperwork in his hands came from the town clerk. Morales said his petitions contained the signatures of 99 Marana residents who were being denied their democratic rights.
"Mayor Honea, since the town clerk did not accept this, will you and the town accept this referendum?" Morales asked.
"No, I will not," Honea responded.
"I think these individuals are just trying to create an agenda to run for council, knowing that you don't need very many signatures for a referendum or even to recall the council," Councilman Tim Escobedo told the EXPLORER last week. "They're individuals who say they're acting in the best interest of the community, but when you listen to their speeches, it's not 'we as a community' it's 'I.' You know, it's all individualism."
Vice Mayor Herb Kai said he isn't sure of Alliance Marana's intention but he thinks the council is headed in the right direction and shouldn't be recalled.
"We've had numerous people come up to us and say, 'Hey, what's Mr. Morales doing? You guys are doing a great job,'" Kai said. "So, I just can't understand what direction he's coming from and it seems he's making a mountain out of a mole hill."
Morales said Alliance Marana is seeking ethical people interested in running against the current council, which he said shouldn't be hard considering 16 people applied for a vacancy on the council earlier this year.
"You can't have a recall just to have a recall," he said. "The only way you can have a recall is if you have people behind you and you have candidates ready to march on a minute's notice."
Alliance Marana has roots stretching back to Reuwsaat's involvement with the organization in the early 1990s, before he was elected to the town council and later hired to his staff position. His brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Dick and Shari Kelly, were once the leading charge behind Alliance Marana, which successfully fought the town on several fronts in its early days.
Alliance Marana fought a New World Homes development near Tangerine and Thornydale roads in 1994 after the town rejected petitions to overturn a rezoning for the 1,200-home project because the type-size used in the petitions was too small. The group fought the case to a state appeals court and succeeded in getting a referendum on the town ballot in 1995, which led to a voter rejection of the development.
Alliance Marana also opposed the town council's approval of a development plan for Dove Mountain in 1996, though the 312 signatures collected for a referendum were rejected by the town because the group failed to attach copies of the specific plan to its petitions. Alliance Marana sued the town in Pima County Superior Court, but the suit was rejected.
The group also led a recall campaign in 1995 against former Mayor Ora Harn and former Vice Mayor Sharon Price, but voters reelected the two in the recall election.
During one of its first crusades in the early 1990s, Alliance Marana stepped in after controversy arose over a waste-disposal company's proposal to operate a large landfill in Marana. The group helped force a referendum that successfully rejected the landfill.
"I think Alliance Marana, in the early years, did some good things. Having groups like that is an important part of the political process," Reuwsaat said, though he said his memory about being involved with the group was foggy. "It's OK to have Alliance Marana and it's OK to have those kinds of groups. That's healthy, but what's the agenda here?"
DeSpain said the rate restructuring is more about making a first move toward a serious water conservation program in Marana than it is about raising rates. His department is still working with the Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona to develop new water conservation methods that the town plans to adopt in the form of new ordinances in the near future, he said.
"That's appropriate for a community that is booming and, again, when you talk about base lines, it's better to catch it early on than to worry about these things five years down the line and try to play catch up," Reuwsaat said.