At a forum last week, the challengers in this month’s Oro Valley mayoral and council races accused the incumbents of being in the pocket of campaign contributors, while the incumbents accused the challengers of being anti-growth.
The candidates squared off in front of a packed El Conquistador ballroom last Tuesday, July 31.
Mayor Satish Hiremath, Vice Mayor Lou Waters and councilmembers Joe Hornat and Mary Snider have received thousands of dollars in campaign donations from executives tied to corporate businesses. However, they claim they are not indebted to anyone who contributed to their campaigns—and that the donations do not affect their decision-making process.
According to second quarter campaign finance reports submitted to the Oro Valley Town Clerk, HSL Properties’ president Omar Mireles and owner Humberto Lopez both donated $4,000 to Hiremath’s campaign. Mireles also gave $2,000 each to Waters, Snider and Hornat, totaling to $14,000 in campaign donations from executives at one company.
Challenging mayoral candidate Joe Winfield and council member candidates Melanie Barrett, Josh Nicholson and Joyce Jones-Ivey repeatedly accused the incumbents of being an administration that puts donor money before their constituents’ interests.
At the forum, Hornat said “it’s not a big deal” that he and fellow incumbents received donations from these businesses and individuals, and that they aren’t “in this for the money.”
Nicholson said that executives don’t give money to candidates for no reason, but rather because they expect something in return.
The chief investment that the challengers alleged is tied to the council’s controversial acquisition of the El Conquistador golf course, which they purchased from HSL Properties in December 2014.
When the forum’s moderator, chamber president/CEO Dave Perry, asked each candidate about the golf course purchase, Winfield said that the community would have rather used the money that was spent on golf course maintenance to make improvements on the “1980’s clubhouse” community center, except Hiremath never gave them the choice.
Hiremath, in an attempt to downplay the controversy, said that the golf course is less than three percent of the town’s budget and that Winfield is overreacting. Winfield later countered that argument, saying that the golf course is 75 percent of the Parks & Recreation budget. He asked the audience, “Are we really getting our money’s worth out of that investment?”
Waters assured the crowd that the money put into the golf course has been taken care of. He claims they already returned the investment through tax subsidies. Barrett replied to that statement saying that the council needs to separately identify the revenues of this golf course, because lumping it all together hides the fact that the golf course is actually losing money.
The incumbents ended the golf course discussion by stating that the town is currently talking with HSL Properties about having them lease the nine-hole golf course attached to the resort. Hornat said it’s an open conversation right now, but they hope to come to a decision within the next year or so.
Hiremath said Oro Valley’s sales tax, utility tax, bed (hotel) tax and construction sales tax is what provides funding for public safety, good roads and services that the town’s residents enjoy. He believes his council’s ability to create relationships and partnerships with companies outside of Oro Valley is the key to a strong financial future.
“As this evening unfolds, you will see that everything that we have done is a feeder into one of those four [taxes] which lessens the burden for us, because we want non-residents to help pay for our quality of life,” he said.
The incumbents flexed a lot of the town’s accolades, such as Safest City in Arizona (Safe Home) Best Small City in Arizona (WalletHub) Best Place in Arizona to Raise Kids (Bloomberg), and more. However, it’s hard to determine exactly how much of that success is a direct outcome of their leadership.
Winfield, who withdrew from his unsuccessful campaign for mayor in the 2015 recall election, said his time in office would be dedicated to listening to voters’ opinions and concerns.
“It’s important to understand that I have been campaigning door-to-door since April speaking to hundreds, if not thousands, of members of our community,” he said. “They are concerned about the rate and type of growth, concerned about the influence the developers are having, feeling that their voice has been taken away from the process.”
Even if his ears are wide open, Winfield did not address some of the logistics of the mayoral office. His two main talking points during the forum were criticizing his opponents’ campaign donations and defending his position on “smart growth” development.
Hiremath and the other incumbent repeatedly claimed that Winfield’s idea for a “temporary pause” on development is a bad image to place on the town, because new businesses and developers will be discouraged about coming to Oro Valley.
Winfield claimed he is pro-development, but didn’t offer specifics to prove that stance. When Perry asked about growth in the town, Winfield said Oro Valley will continue to grow “no matter what.” He mentioned the 2,000 houses approved by the current council for development over the next seven years. Hiremath took that statement a step further and said that Winfield won’t do anything for growing Oro Valley outside of what the council has already accomplished.
Perry also asked the candidates about their visions for the future of Oro Valley. Both incumbents and challengers were in agreement about the changing demographics in the town, with young professionals and families moving to the area because of the good school system and opportunities for high-paying jobs.
Hiremath said that in 1974, the Oro Valley community was 85 percent retired; now it’s only 25 percent. He called it a huge turnaround in just 40 years, and that the shift will keep progressing in this direction because of the relationships his council has built with outside companies.
“There’s a reason why Simpleview moved back to the Town of Oro Valley,” Hiremath said. “It’s because of the infrastructure that we’ve laid down, because of the school choice, because of the public safety, because of the arts and culture and because home values have risen.”
Winfield said that his council would reflect the younger demographic because of Melanie Barrett and Josh Nicholson, both of whom are 36 years old. When Perry inquired about attracting quality jobs to the town, Nicholson mentioned a personal friend that he has in Chicago who he claims is very successful in the biotech industry and will help bring more of that business to Oro Valley.
The last issue raised at the forum was about preserving open space in the community. Winfield said the Environmentally Sensitive Land Ordinance must be revisited and “aligned with voters expectations.” He said that residents value their desert landscapes and that Hiremath has placed the town on a path towards over-development.
Hiremath responded by saying that it’s easy to criticize leadership decisions, but balancing the need for open space and necessary development is very tricky, and he believes he’s doing what the residents want.
During closing remarks, Waters said the challengers claim they will bring a “new direction” to Oro Valley. But what is that new direction, he asked.
Barrett was the last to get a word in at the forum. She said that although her team is a group of underdogs challenging the long-time incumbents, they still have valuable experience and new perspectives that should be brought to the table. She believes that the incumbents are trying to scare residents into thinking that a change in leadership will bring bad consequences to the town.
“We’re going to bring fiscal discipline and responsibility to the town and not paint this ‘doom and gloom’ picture where we just need to keep adding more revenues or suddenly we’re not going to be a safe town,” she said. “We were a safe town with good roads before this mayor and council, we’re going to be a safe town with good roads after we are elected.”
Kathleen B. Kunz is a Tucson Local Media freelance reporter.