A long-running battle between Quartzsite’s mayor and town council received national attention after the council held an emergency meeting on Sunday to enact a series of security measures, a move the town’s mayor described as “martial law.”
Vice Mayor Barbara Cowell said the “state of emergency” being reported by local and national media consisted of adding police protection at Town Hall, moving the council’s meetings from evenings to mornings and temporarily halting public comments at council meetings. She also disputed media accounts that said the council had “ousted” Mayor Ed Foster from power.
Cowell said the council made the security changes at the request of the town’s insurer and attorneys after herself and other council members received a barrage of death threats. Many of the threats were sparked by an online video of a woman being arrested at a council meeting.
“We have been bombarded over this last week with death threats and horrible emails,” Cowell said. “It’s like we’re under siege.”
Cowell said Foster’s description of the emergency vote as “martial law” was completely inaccurate. She also said Foster refused to attend the Sunday emergency meeting, which she said was legal under state law and town code.
Foster, whose battles with the council date back to before he was elected mayor on an anti-administration message in May 2010, said the Sunday vote was a power grab by Police Chief Jeff Gilbert, the Common Council and Town Manager Alex Taft.
“Basically the town manager put the chief of police in charge of Quartzsite,” Foster said. “This town is under martial law.”
Jennifer “Jade” Jones, whose arrest at a July 7 council meeting fueled the controversy, accused the council of trying to stifle public opinion by banning public comments during meetings.
“They have absolutely gone out of their minds, it appears,” Jones said. “It’s not that they don’t know better. They do know better. They just don’t care.”
Cowell said public comments at the meetings are canceled until September because Foster and his supporters use the calls to the public to rile up supporters, attack the council and intimidate people who disagree with them. She said the council is not required to hold calls to the public, but will restore public comments in some form once the emergency passes.
“They stand there and call us names and … they’re just trying to upset the crowd, to stir the crowd,” Cowell said. “We’re only doing it for really a month, month and a half, until things calm down because we don’t want our people hurt.”
Foster did not attend the Sunday meeting, which he said was illegal because the council did not provide 24 hours’ notice to the public, as required by Arizona’s open meetings laws. He also said the council effectively shut him out of the town’s government ceded its power to the unelected town manager and police chief. The Associated Press said the council “ousted” him.
“There are no more regular meetings of the town council,” Foster said.
Cowell said that’s not the case. Tuesday’s budget meeting, she said, has simply been moved from its original 7 p.m. time to 10 a.m. She said council members and town hall staff would feel safer during daylight hours, considering the threats they’ve received.
Cowell did acknowledge that the council moved to strip some powers from the mayor during the past two years in response to Foster’s actions. But she said the council hasn’t removed him from power and has no authority to do so.
She accused Foster of stoking public anger and trumpeting corruption allegations against the council to gain support for his Aug. 30 recall election. Council member Jose Lizarraga resigned two weeks ago to run against Foster in the recall.
The mayor said the town is cutting 52 paychecks every payday despite having only 42 employees, and accused his opponents of using the checks as payoffs or kickbacks. He said town administrators refuse to give him payroll records that would prove his allegations.
Foster said he has contacted the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, Department of Public Safety, Gov. Jan Brewer’s office and the FBI regarding rampant corruption by the council, Gilbert and Taft. The Arizona Ombudsman Office confirmed that it is investigation allegations from both sides of the dispute as well.
Cowell said Foster is intentionally confusing the issue by counting past paychecks to part-time employees who are no longer with the city. She said Foster has repeatedly refused to discuss the paycheck issue with Quartzsite’s accounting division, which Cowell claimed would clear up the issue.
The Quartzsite showdown became a conservative blog sensation last week after Gilbert and two other officers arrested Jones during a July 7 council meeting. Foster said he ceded the floor to Jones so she could speak about a proposed tax hike and new regulators on public comments at council meetings. Gilbert and the officers initially backed off at Foster’s request, but later removed Jones at the insistence of other council members.
Cowell said Jones was addressing the crowd at town hall instead of the council in violation of council rules, despite being warned at previous meetings. She accused Jones of trying to “incite” the crowd.
Foster is backing a handful of Quartzsite police officers who signed a petition accusing Gilbert of criminal activity and gross misconduct and asking for him to be replaced as chief of the Gilbert Police Department. Cowell said she could not discuss the issue due to an ongoing investigation and a personal conflict of interest because her daughter’s longtime boyfriend is a police officer.