Ryan Stanton, rstanton@ExplorerNews.com

Dec. 28, 2005 - The federal indictment of Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. shocked the town in April, just weeks after he boasted of Marana's bright future in his State of the Town Address.

Sutton resigned shortly after the federal government brought charges of conspiracy and attempted extortion against him and his close acquaintance, Marana businessman Rick Westfall. Sutton allegedly tried to extort money and a lucrative contract for Westfall from Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest trash hauling firm.

The indictments, the result of a lengthy federal investigation that began in 2002, suddenly sparked an interest in town politics. Sutton's resignation left 16 Maranans vying for a vacant seat on the Marana Town Council in a town that hasn't seen a contested election in six years.

The council filled Sutton's mayoral post in May by appointing lifelong Maranan and veteran Councilman Ed Honea to the position. Shortly thereafter, the council unanimously appointed Bob Allen, a retired Tucson police officer and Planning and Zoning commissioner, to fill the council vacancy.

Another of the 16 candidates was former Councilman David Morales, who quietly offered his advice to the council in June, suggesting that the council suffered from a phenomenon known as "groupthink." He said council members almost always voted unanimously and rarely debated issues.

Morales, more outspoken later in the year, spearheaded efforts to try forcing a referendum in regard to a September water rate ordinance, though the town denied his petitions. Through the citizens group Alliance Marana, and with the help of Marana resident Phyllis Farenga, Morales has vowed to recall several council members in January.

The council also received some flack this year after it unanimously voted in support of an agreement to pay Sutton's legal fees, pending his acquittal. Sutton and Westfall are each charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of attempted extortion in violation of federal law, carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Westfall is charged with a third count of making false statements to an FBI agent.

A U.S. District Court judge has determined the case "complex," and has given attorneys extended time for review of the many documents, transcripts and tapes of FBI-recorded conversations Sutton had with Waste Management officials in 2002 when the alleged crimes occurred. Sutton's defense attorney, Michael Piccarreta, is tied up in another case in Phoenix, which also may have caused some delay in bringing the case to court.

"It's a lot of transcripts to review, so the court has sort of slowed everything down and is allowing us to review everything," said Mike Storie, a criminal defense attorney with Piccarreta's law firm, who also is representing Sutton. "Everyone agrees, it's a very document-heavy case."

Despite the political turmoil and the hanging cloud of Sutton's indictment, 2005 was quite possibly one of the most progressive and eventful years in Marana's 28-year history. Under the guidance of Honea, the council was able to quickly move in a positive direction.

"I think we made a pretty smooth transition," he said. "I think we moved along pretty well."

With the town growing faster than ever, the council saw a gigantic workload that caused meetings to be held on an almost-weekly basis during some months. Special study sessions filled the Tuesday evenings between the twice-monthly council meetings inside the new Marana Municipal Complex.

The council adopted major road plans, crafted a new master plan to guide growth in northern Marana, established new residential design standards and - to help pay for growth - set the highest impact fees in Southern Arizona.

With the completion of the $32.3-million town hall project this year, Marana finally has an official main street that will anchor a new downtown and a new sense of place. In the near future, a wide mixture of shops and homes are expected to sprout along the sidelines of Marana Main Street and Civic Center Drive.

A vibrant downtown area, known as the Town Center, is expected to anchor an urban northern Marana community that will grow rapidly and require a major overhaul of the town's road system. The Northwest Transportation Plan, adopted by the council this year, aims to meet these demands through the construction of new I-10 interchanges, new roadways and new loop routes.

The town paid Scottsdale-based architectural firm Swaback Partners thousands of dollars to help draft its Town Center Plan, Northwest Land Use Plan and Northwest Transportation Plan, all of which the council adopted this year.

Marana lived up to it's reputation for residential growth again this year as well. According to the town, 1,729 single-family residential home permits were issued during 2005.

"This was our biggest growth year ever, as far as number of people, and I think it will probably be bigger next year as well," Honea said. "Even though I think the housing market is starting to level, I think it's still going to be an upward movement."

Developers revealed plans this year for a new development in northern Marana known as Tortolita Mountain Ranch, which has Marana and Pinal County officials pondering the idea of a new I-10 interchange, construction of a new sewer plant and an extension of the town's boundaries across county lines.

The 6,500- to 7,000-home residential development calls for a new traffic interchange at Luckett Road, town officials said. About 80 percent of the 1,895-acre site, east of Interstate 10, is in Marana, while about 360 acres lie in Pinal County.

"It is absolutely thrilling," Honea said. "Those guys are looking seriously at getting started on that new freeway interchange up at Luckett. They're working very diligently with our staff and they're moving forward at a pretty rapid pace. That's going to become a major, major project."

The Cardon Group of Mesa purchased a 205-acre University of Arizona farm site in northern Marana this year for $16.5 million. The property west of I-10, known as the Marana Agricultural Center, sold for $80,000 an acre.

The Cardon Group's high hopes for Marana mirrored those of several other speculative buyers in the town, where more than $100 million worth of dirt changed hands in 2005.

Strong rumors circulated throughout the year that Westcor was considering developing a mall in northern Marana and that Cottonwood Properties was close to bringing the famous Ritz-Carlton hotel to Dove Mountain. Westcor purchased a large block of land directly east of Gladden Farms at the close of the year, and town officials say it's likely the site of a future shopping mall.

"It's been a really, really exciting year for us. There are a lot of people coming out into northern Marana," Honea said. "A lot of major projects are coming on. I think this year was one of the most exciting years ever."

With the creation of the Marana Community Showroom, a new exhibit on display inside Town Hall, town officials took steps to inform future residents about Marana's history and its progressive vision for the future.

The airport remains a prominent component in terms of future economic development in Marana. The town, along with Pima Aviation, entered into contracts to design and plan a new high-end terminal and two-story steakhouse at the airport.

While moving forward, the council also took steps to preserve its agrarian roots. It approved reconstructing the old Producers Cotton Oil Co. buildings, now located along Sandario Road, at the town's Heritage Park. The Marana Arts Council moved into the Heritage House there this year.

Honea, as mayor, is now leading the charge to make sure the town develops a Marana Western Events Center, a potentially 5,000-seat arena for rodeos in northern Marana.

"We're putting the wheels in motion to build a rodeo facility unparalleled to anywhere in Southern Arizona," he said.

Marana bid farewell in June to Assistant Town Manager Jaret Barr, who left to become an assistant to Tucson City Manager Mike Hein. Gilbert Davidson assumed duties as the new assistant town manager shortly after.

In a unanimous and politically motivated move, the council also decided not to reappoint Dave Parker to the Planning and Zoning Commission after seven years of service. Council members said Parker asked too many questions in public about developments brought before the town.

Honea said he's confident Marana made great strides this year, though the town has had good years before. The year the town annexed the Ina and Thornydale business corridor, bringing increased sales tax revenue into its coffers, remains at the top of the list, he said.

"That was probably the single biggest event ever done in the town of Marana, because that gave us financial stability and the opportunity to hire more professional staff," he said. "But this year was a phenomenal year."

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