February 15, 2006 - Candidates for mayor and town council fielded a battery of hardball questions from audience members at a public forum that touched on such hot-button topics as building a new Wal-Mart, contributions from Golder Ranch and adherence to open-meeting laws.
The candidates' forum was held at the Oro Valley Public Library on Feb. 11, and featured a panel including mayoral incumbent Paul Loomis and challenger Nancy Young Wright, and all six candidates for town council: incumbents Paula Abbot, KC Carter and Conny Culver, and challengers Don Cox, Al Kunisch and Kathy Pastryk.
The forum was divided into two parts, with the first part featuring prepared questions for the candidates. In the second part, the candidates were each asked to respond to questions selected from those submitted by audience members.
One question from the audience indicated that the Oro Valley Marketplace controversy might be as much about Wal-Mart as it is about sales tax incentives for the shopping center's developer, Vestar. Richard Feinberg and Cheryl Smith, who both participated in the shopping center developer's Neighborhood Leadership Group, asked the candidates whether a "big box" store such as Wal-Mart is appropriate for high-income Oro Valley, and whether an actual ordinance should be passed to prevent such a construction. The candidates were divided in their reactions.
Mayor Loomis and Culver said they had no problem with Vestar building such a "big box" store because of the sales tax the town will collect.
"Big box stores are significant revenue generators," said Loomis.
Culver agreed, adding that it wasn't the town's place to decide what stores Vestar would choose for its new mall.
"Would we like to choose what stores come in? Yes, but that's not legal," Culver said.
Young Wright and Pastryk both said they don't want a "big box" in their town.
"Some people think (Wal-Mart's) prices are better, but I like boutiques," Pastryk said. "(Big box stores) belong in industrial areas."
Kunisch pointed out that the suggested ordinance excluding construction of stores over 100,000 square feet would also keep out high-end retailers, as well.
"Dillard's, Nordstrom and Robinsons-May are all over 125,000-square-feet," Kunisch said.
Young Wright pointed out that other municipalities have passed similar ordinances, including one-square-mile South Tucson near downtown.
"The city of South Tucson has an ordinance preventing a big box from being constructed," Young Wright said. "Nordstrom wants to go to a big mall like Scottsdale Fashion Square, not a strip mall."
With a controversial deal looming between Golder Ranch Fire District and Rural/Metro Fire Department where Golder Ranch would take over fire service in Oro Valley, the public has become increasingly interested in where council members stand on the issue. A question from Ron Wiener and Alan Pastryk, husband of Kathy Pastryk, asked the candidates point-blank if their campaigns have received contributions from Golder Ranch firefighters.
Loomis, Cox, Culver and Kunisch all confirmed they are supported by North Tucson Firefighters, a union of Golder Ranch firefighters.
"I have a long relationship with Golder Ranch," Culver said, adding that Golder Ranch has met the town council's standards for fire service. "Golder Ranch was willing and able to meet these standards. We are still waiting on Rural/Metro."
Young Wright, Abbot, Carter and Pastryk all said they have not received contributions from Golder Ranch firefighters.
"Rates could go up two or three times for some people if they are annexed by Golder Ranch," Young Wright said. "The council has been involved in this, but (they have not acted) in the public's best interest."
Rural/Metro is a private company that bases its fees on the square footage of its customer's homes, whereas Golder Ranch's is a public agency funded through a property tax that is based on a home's value.
Another question from audience members rhetorically asked the candidates to define "open government" and answer whether the public should be allowed to sit in on planning meetings between town staff and developers.
Only Loomis and Culver seemed reluctant to allow the public access to these meetings, citing the disruption it might create as their primary reason.
"The public hearing is the time and place for public discussion," Culver said.
Loomis said that such access is unnecessary because the information is available to the public and all decisions are made at council meetings.
"All decisions are made before the public," Loomis said. "At this point that is just a meeting between town professionals and development professionals."
Carter told the 50 to 70 audience members present that some council members were violating open government laws by having unauthorized meetings with developers, although he did not specify whom.
"This goes on, people, and I'm not happy with it," Carter said.
Young Wright and Pastryk both agreed that the public should be allowed to sit in and observe these meetings with developers. Cox also said the public should be allowed in, although he wasn't sure why anyone would want to attend the meeting.
"I don't see a reason why the public should not be able to attend the meeting, but I know it's a very technical meeting. They don't speak the same language as you or I," Cox said.
Candidates were also asked about how the Naranja Town Site proposed regional park should be paid for and, if it must be built in phases, whether the planned performing arts center should be the first thing built.
Kunisch confronted the difficulty of funding the $50 million project without new taxes and said the public needed to be better educated about the project.
"The only way we're going to fund this is with a regional property tax," Kunisch said. "Seventy-seven percent of residents are unaware of the Naranja Town Site. We need to educate the public."
Abbot suggested that the planned community center, which would include a fitness center, should be the first thing built.
"The plan for a community center has been most popular with the public," Abbot said. "I'm leaning toward getting (athletic) fields and the community center built first."
Culver said the popularity of the upcoming Steinway Theater at Steam Pump Village would be a good indicator of whether the public would support building a performing arts center at the town site.
"We'll have to go the voters for the funding of these projects," Culver said.
Don Chatfield, associate director of the conservationist Sonoran Institute, acted as moderator of the forum. Chatfield, the town's development services director in the 1990's, said he and local activist Bill Adler were compelled to organize the forum because past Oro Valley elections did not aptly focus on issues facing the town.
"We need more civil dialogue in these elections. Past elections have been marked by personal attacks, and the public didn't have access to key information about the issues," Chatfield said.
The forum could be the last public debate before the March 14 election day, although the candidate's schedule of forums has been grueling. This forum was their third in two days.
"The more you do these, the easier they get," Pastryk said after the forum. "I'm happy these forums are over and I can get back to campaigning."
Greg Holt is a Staff Writer covering Oro Valley and the Amphitheater School District. You can reach him at 797-4384, ext. 116, or by email at email@example.com.