Arizona News from The Arizona Republic
Bitter political feud among Quartzsite’s residents continues
by Dennis Wagner on Jul. 17, 2011, under Arizona Republic News
QUARTZSITE – The mayor called a Town Council meeting, but five of the six council members didn’t show up.
So the mayor denounced them as cowards.
The town manager was inexplicably absent.
Several police officers attended the meeting in May to read a statement asking that the police chief be investigated. They alleged abuse of authority, including the arrests of numerous political enemies.
They never got a chance to speak, however, because the building inspector who recently had been promoted to assistant town manager suddenly made an announcement:
“City Hall is closed, and this meeting is over.”
About 120 concerned Quartzsite residents, as colorful and raucous as a “Jerry Springer Show” audience, were brusquely ushered outside under threat of arrest.
Such scenes are becoming commonplace in Quartzsite, “The Rock Capital of the World,” where the old saying “you can’t fight city hall” is being severely tested.
In the past two weeks, more than 85,000 people have watched a YouTube video showing a local newspaper publisher handcuffed and hauled out of the council chambers as she talked about free speech. Council members, who said they received death threats, convened a secret meeting and declared a state of emergency. The mayor and other critics condemned those moves as illegal and pleaded for state investigators to intercede.
But long before the video went viral and the media trained a spotlight on Quartzsite, town government here was already helter-skelter.
There may be debate as to who is right or which side is winning. But it’s undisputed that municipal business has become a sideshow to infighting that disrupts nearly every town department and meeting.
Mayor Ed Foster, newspaper publisher Jennifer “Jade” Jones and most of the police officers in Quartzsite say the Town Council and police chief ignore Arizona’s public-records law and misuse police power to silence their critics.
“There’s a cabal running Quartzsite,” Foster said, “and I’m about to take it down.”
Council members and the police chief, in turn, say their critics are simply a bunch of agitators trying to stir up trouble.
By last Sunday, six days after the video was posted on YouTube, the political firestorm was so heated that council members announced plans to conduct future meetings without public notice and to prohibit comments from citizens.
Foster said that decision was made in violation of Arizona law. “I refused to be a part of an illegal meeting behind closed doors,” he said. “I announced the meeting was canceled, but they went right ahead.”
The incident is just the latest in a circus act that for years has paralyzed the town: dysfunction and distrust fueled by a historical feud, recall attempts and allegations of public malfeasance, abuse of power and government secrets.
In the past three years alone, Quartzsite has been through five mayors and a trio of recall elections. (Foster, who has been mayor since 2010, is facing a recall vote next month.) The municipal government is buried in costly lawsuits.
And at least 10 Quartzsite activists, including the mayor and four past council members or candidates, said they were charged with petty crimes after criticizing the Town Council and Police Chief Jeff Gilbert.
Foster, who leads the anti-establishment group, has asked the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, the state Department of Public Safety and the Arizona Ombudsman’s Office to investigate public malfeasance. A DPS probe is under way. The attorney general closed one inquiry but has been asked to take on another. The ombudsman found that the Town Council violated state public-records laws.
“They make up laws as they go,” Foster said of council members. “They think they’re a kingdom here, and because we’re a small town, they’ve gotten away with it.
“I’ve been trying to find out where all the money goes in this place. But the town manager won’t even speak with me, . . . and the council passed a law that says I can’t get any reports.” The resolution passed by the council instructs town staff members not to give the mayor any documents unless the entire council approves the release of information.
Jones, who publishes a newspaper known as the Desert Freedom Press, has been arrested four times on at least a dozen charges. In one instance, she was jailed for disturbing the peace after flipping her middle finger at rivals in Town Hall.
Last month, as Jones attempted to make a statement about freedom of speech during the council’s public-comment session, she was handcuffed and hauled out of the chambers.
Video of that incident has been viewed by thousands on YouTube. While the mayor insists that Jones is authorized to speak, council members vote to silence her. Police move in, pry the microphone from her grip and drag her away.
“They put me in some kind of police hold with my arms in the air like chicken wings, and they jerked me up in the air,” said Jones, who was taken to a hospital for an elbow sprain. “It’s absolutely crazy. Finally, someone outside of Quartzsite is seriously looking at this,” she said of recent media attention.
Even most of the police force balks at such arrests. In May, 10 of the town’s 14 sworn officers passed a no-confidence vote against the chief, alleging in a written statement that he uses “bully tactics” to intimidate members of the community “if they disagree with his methodology and political affiliation.”
The Quartzsite Police Officers Association asked the state Department of Public Safety and Arizona’s Peace Officer Standards and Training agency to investigate. In a written statement, association leaders alleged that the chief uses restricted justice-system computers “to find ‘dirt’ on political candidates.” They also said that officers are “ordered to make traffic stops and arrest/cite citizens who the chief believes are against him.”
Chief Gilbert would make only a brief statement to The Arizona Republic: “I will certainly be cleared of any of the allegations, any of the criminal allegations.”
Motorists might avoid Quartzsite completely if Interstate 10 didn’t cut right through its barren heart on the way to LA.
The town, 130 miles west of Phoenix, is a retirement haven with one of the nation’s most geriatric populations, a place where abundant idle time may contribute to political intrigue.
In the summer, heat mirages shimmer over empty RV parks and the population dwindles to about 3,600.
In the winter, more than 200,000 snowbirds flock to town for a few weeks of sunshine, swap meets and gem shows.
There’s a local bookstore where the male proprietor wears nothing but a G-string. At the political hot spot, known as “Main Street Laundromat and Eatery,” you can get a shower for an extra six bucks.
That business is owned by Councilman Jerry Lukkasson and his wife, Michelle, who directed the most recent recall campaign, targeting Mayor Foster. Councilman Lukkasson acknowledged that endless political wars interfere with town business and cost a fortune.
“I’m so tired of the negativity,” he said, “but I know I’m part of it.”
In fact, municipal politics got nasty almost as soon as the town incorporated two decades ago: Rex Byrd, who would become the town’s second mayor, was accused of a 1993 murder-for-hire plot against his political rival, Richard Oldham, the first mayor. Byrd was found guilty and spent six months in prison before the conviction was overturned because of contradictory witness testimony. Then he resumed his post at Town Hall.
Councilman Jose Lizarraga, a longtime resident, said that incident drew early battle lines in Quartzsite’s otherwise non-violent version of the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud.
“You have such a long history of hate in this town between one side and the other,” Lizarraga said. “It was the Byrds and Oldhams, and that division line is still there.”
Today’s council meetings, often packed with colorful residents aiming video cameras at one another, resemble Jerry Springer shows.
Warring newspapers and Internet blogs mingle factual reports with rumors. Jones’ competitor, Shanana “Rain” Golden-Bear, puts out a publication known as the Desert Messenger. The rivals have vilified each other in print, spied on each other, filed criminal complaints with police and obtained orders of protection in court.
Their spat, and the town’s other high jinks, might seem comical except that people are going to jail, reputations are getting ruined and public money is being squandered.
Foster, a former Marine who became a snowbird after retiring as an engineer at the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., got his first criminal citation in 2009, before he became mayor.
He says he was accused by police of disorderly conduct after a verbal disagreement with a TownCouncil candidate. Charges were dropped by the prosecutor.
Chief Gilbert initiated another case against Foster in March 2010 for “false reporting of an emergency” because Foster’s newspaper, the Mineshaft, questioned the quality of local water. The prosecutor again refused to press charges.
A month later, police investigated Foster for allegedly campaigning too close to a polling site. He denied the allegation, and charges again were dropped.
Foster ran for mayor as a reform candidate last year and won. Before he took office, incumbent council members so distrusted him that they adopted an ordinance wiping out his powers as the top elected official. They also began holding sessions away from Town Hall, which earned a letter of warning from the La Paz County attorney for violating Arizona’s public-meeting law.
In March, a recall campaign was launched against some incumbents. Prior to the election, council members adopted an ordinance banning candidates who owed money to the town. Christina Kohn, a staff attorney for the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based government watchdog organization, said town leaders other than Foster simply ignored letters warning that the ordinance is unconstitutional.
“It didn’t seem to matter to them,” Kohn said. “That seems to be part of a larger pattern of lawlessness going on in the town.”
Foster, the mayor, said Alexandra Taft, the town manager, refused to give him basic information on expenditures and employee salaries. He complained to the state Ombudsman’s Office, which investigated and agreed that Quartzsite was in violation of the Arizona public-records laws.
Publisher Jones’ battle with the town began three years ago and stemmed from a series of disputes with zoning officials and police over her pet-grooming business, A Fur Salon, located at a swap meet.
Jones says town inspectors and police trespassed, assaulted her husband and launched a harassment campaign. Police reports dispute those allegations and accuse Jones of instigating confrontations.
As a series of follow-up incidents escalated into criminal charges, Jones pursued a federal restraining order that says police made false arrests “as a tool for political retribution.” One day after municipal officials were served, Jones was arrested as she arrived at a meeting in Town Hall, charged with obstructing governmental operations and making a false report to law enforcement.
“I just kept pushing, and they just kept pushing back,” Jones said. “None of the charges against me have come to court.”
Numerous other activists tell of being cited or arrested for minor offenses after taking sides in the political feud. For self-protection, they began monitoring police radios, carrying video cameras and dialing 911 to request sheriff’s deputies as witnesses whenever they were confronted by town officers.
Former town prosecutor Matt Newman said he refused to press charges in many of the misdemeanor cases and was summarily dismissed by the council without explanation. “I was saying that the criminal law is too important to use for political purposes,” Newman said. “There were several cases where I said, ‘No, I’m not going to file complaints.’ “
Robert Wechsler, director of research for City Ethics, a non-profit group that advises local governments on ethics issues, said there is a “serious disrespect for laws and rights” going on in Quartzsite. “Outside authorities will have to be brought in to investigate what has happened and to get the town government working,” he said. “It’s important to recognize that this is an institutional problem, not an individual problem. For example, if it were simply an individual problem, the police chief would be long gone.”
In interviews, two council members said Foster, Jones and other critics are just naysayers out to wreck Quartzsite.
“All they’re trying to do is stir trouble,” Lukkasson said. “They have nothing invested in this town. After they’ve created all of the havoc, they can just pull up their sewer hoses and move out.”
Lizarraga, who was appointed to the council, said he despises Foster because the mayor criticized incumbents during an election campaign and previously tried to remove Lizarraga from his position. “I’ll tell you straight out: I don’t like that man,” the councilman said. “I believe his ethics are questionable.”
In interviews, Lizarraga and Lukkasson said they do not care if some council meetings are deemed unlawful or if public-records laws are broken. Nor do they believe accusations against the police chief. In February, they extended the police chief’s contract and increased his pay.
Dissidents and police-association leaders said they want an independent state investigation.
Foster answered the Town Council’s emergency declaration with an editorial in his newspaper that says the council members “are going to be exposed no matter how many crises they attempt to manufacture in an effort to avoid disclosure.”
“And there’s one significant difference now: The world is watching.”