Jan. 11, 2006 - Six of seven members of the Marana Town Council could be fighting to keep their seats on the dais if a citizen-led recall effort reaches fruition later this year.
The citizens group Alliance Marana filed the official paperwork with the town clerk Jan. 5 to initiate the petition process. The group has until May 5 to collect 186 petition signatures from Marana voters for each of the council members it plans to recall, according to official documents released by the town.
Led by Marana residents David Morales and Phyllis Farenga, the group has pulled petitions to recall five council members: Mayor Ed Honea, Jim Blake, Carol McGorray, Tim Escobedo and Patti Comerford.
The group indicated it also plans to initiate the recall of Councilman Bob Allen later this week. According to Arizona law, Allen isn't subject to recall until after Jan. 12, six months from the date of his appointment to the council.
The actual recall election could be more than nine months away, depending on when the petitions are turned in and the time it takes to process them. That could still put the recall on the November ballot, just in time for the next consolidated election cycle.
Morales said he's not trying to recall Vice Mayor Herb Kai because he wasn't present for a controversial vote in September that he thinks directly harmed him. Morales vowed to recall the council after it unanimously approved to increase water rates for large users of water and give breaks to those who conserve.
Despite town officials informing Morales that his water bill would increase only $12 through the next year, the former councilman tried to refer the ordinance to a public vote. The town denied his referendum petitions in October.
"What really hurts me the most is not one council member has approached me and said, 'David, let's talk about this. How can we resolve this issue?'" Morales said. "Rest assured, if I was on the council and someone said they were going to recall call me, I'd say, 'Let's go grab a cup of coffee and talk.'"
The water rate ordinance isn't the only reason for the recall, though. Morales said the council suffers from "groupthink mentality," and that's his primary reason for trying to get a fresh mind on the dais.
The chairman of Alliance Marana said he thinks the council approves projects and developments too routinely. Council members are quick to vote unanimously without asking tough questions and without carefully reading the fine print, he said.
Through dozens of council meetings and more than 100 agenda items, there have been only five instances in the last year and a half in which council members did not vote unanimously in agreement, according to an EXPLORER review of meeting minutes.
"What I'm afraid of is the town is already in a lot of trouble," Morales said. "It hasn't surfaced yet, but give it time and it will surface. Five years from now, 10 years from now, future councils are going to say 'What were you guys thinking when you passed these things?'"
In Alliance Marana's applications for petitions, Farenga wrote her reasons for the recall, stating that the council "votes unanimously at the detriment of the taxpayers' financial and environmental well being."
She also wrote that each council member lacks "the caliber and sophistication needed to ask the tough questions" and "the backbone to reject financial influence and personal gains associated with his/her political position."
Honea pointed out that Farenga misspelled the word "background" in another sentence by forgetting the letter G.
"When you're saying we don't have the background or the sophistication, and you're misspelling words in your petition, that's kind of funny," Honea said, adding that he thought the recall was mostly "just sour grapes."
"People have a right to recall if they feel somebody is not doing the proper things to represent the people. In this particular instance, though, I really find it odd," he said.
Honea pointed out that the town is booming with thousands of new homes, tax collections are up and the town will soon welcome a new shopping center, auto mall, events center and two new parks.
"I think our relationships with everybody are better now than they have ever been," said Honea, an almost 18-year veteran of the town council. "I feel pretty secure that our group will remain intact even if they do run some people against us."
McGorray, who was reelected in March, said she doesn't think the recall will be effective. Contrary to arguments that the council suffers from groupthink, she said the unanimous voting at council meetings is a sign of consensus.
"I really think that each and every council member thinks for themselves," she said. "Each one expresses their own opinion and each one can have something to say to add to the betterment of the projects. And in the long run, what we come to is consensus, not groupthink, and without consensus, nothing would have been achieved for the last five years."
If Alliance Marana fails to oust any council members this time around, the group will have to wait until the next regularly scheduled primary election in March 2007 when Blake, Honea and Allen will be up for reelection.
Ironically, there hasn't been a contested election in Marana since Morales ran for mayor against Bobby Sutton Jr. in 1999. The voters then favored Sutton, who was reelected without contest in 2003, despite being under investigation by the FBI for extortion. However, that fact was unknown to the public until the EXPLORER broke the story in 2004.
Sutton was eventually indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy and attempted extortion in April last year. He resigned shortly thereafter.
Morales said he plans to point out to voters that the Marana Town Council unanimously stood behind Sutton and even chose to pay his legal bills with taxpayer dollars, despite the federal government's allegations that he tried to extort money from Waste Management Inc. while he was mayor.
Sutton has maintained his innocence, though the federal government has several secretly-recorded conversations in which Sutton demanded the company give his friend, Marana businessman Rick Westfall, a lucrative contract in exchange for their silence about overweight hauling at the firm's Ina Road operation.
"When this recall comes to a vote, that's about the time Bobby Sutton's going to go to court," Morales said. "Perfect timing, I would say."
Forming a "shadow council" to run against the six council members is the next hurdle for Alliance Marana after they gather the signatures. So far, the citizens group doesn't have any candidates lined up. Morales and Farenga both said they do not plan to seek election, though they hope to organize a slate of candidates to run as a team.
Farenga, the group's treasurer, has placed classified ads in local newspapers, seeking petitioners. The ads promise to pay interested Marana residents $1 for each signature they gather. Farenga said a college student who lives in Dove Mountain called her and seems interested in "experiencing a government overthrow."
"It's a growing-out-of-control bureaucracy," she said of Marana. "I just think the community deserves a higher-caliber candidate in there. As a community, we've matured, and our leaders have to mature."
Morales said he has approached many of the 16 candidates who applied for the council vacancy that stemmed from Sutton's resignation in April. Most of them responded, "Let me think about it," he said.
"Mark my words, once the recall goes through, you're going to have people coming out of the woodwork," he said. "You're going to have all kinds of candidates lining up."
Dorothy Taylor, who was one of several residents who sought the council vacancy in July, said she wasn't interested in running, mainly because she's moving to Nevada soon. She had her doubts about the recall.
"At this point in time, I'm planning on moving out of state, and I really don't care," she said. "A lot of people just really don't care, and that's the bottom line. As long as they don't have to do the job, and someone else is doing it, that's all that matters to them."
Dave Parker, who was chairman of the town's Planning and Zoning Commission for several years until recently, also sought the council vacancy in July. He said last week that he was just learning about the recall and was uncertain whether he'd run.
"My plan was to consider (running for council) at the next regular election," he said.
John Lavin, another Marana resident who sought the council vacancy in July, said he would be "very much interested" in seeking election in a recall.
The recently retired Sunflower resident worked as a manager at Raytheon Missile Systems for several years, overseeing a multimillion-dollar missile budget. He's lived in the greater Tucson area since 1972, and said Marana could learn a few lessons from the growing pains he watched Tucson experience.
"I'm really more interested in focusing on where Marana is going and what it can be, rather than dwelling on the existing problems and how it got that way," he said. "The decisions that are made today by the council are things that are going to affect the quality of life of people 10 to 15 years from now."
Town Attorney Frank Cassidy said once Alliance Marana submits its petition signatures, the town clerk has 10 days to review them. If there are more than 186 signatures, they're sent to the county recorder's office for verification - another layer of bureaucracy that can take up to 60 days. There are a few more minor steps from that point, and Alliance Marana must then wait another 90 days before an election takes place.
Both Cassidy and Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said they didn't see a valid reason for the recall. "We just need to let the process go through," Reuwsaat said, adding that the elected officials he works for are "pretty representative of the community's interests."
Morales said certain council members' seeming inability to refrain from conflicts of interest is another reason for the recall. Escobedo, who's firm was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the landscaping work outside the new Marana Municipal Complex this past year, crossed the line by sitting on the town's committee that made decisions about what types of landscaping should be used in the project, Morales said.
"If you work for a company, you have to recuse yourself and you can't even be in the room when decisions are being made. You have to get out," Morales said, citing an opinion from Arizona's Attorney General's Office. "And that's not even just voting. This is discussions, too."
Morales said he's not going to take any pleasure in the recall, but he loves his town too much not to take action.
"I hate to say this, but I know the town is already in trouble. All those votes, people not asking questions and voting unanimous - you know that fine print is going to come back to haunt them," he said.
Morales admitted it would "kill the town" to recall all seven council members, which is another reason for leaving Kai in place.
"If this recall is successful and all six get replaced, we need somebody there that knows what's going on. We need someone with stability, and I trust Herb."
Ryan J. Stanton covers the town of Marana and the Marana Unified School District for the EXPLORER. He can be reached at 797-4384, ext. 110, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.