Political quagmire in Quartzite; mayor facing recall

Jeremy Duda//July 15, 2011

Political quagmire in Quartzite; mayor facing recall

Jeremy Duda//July 15, 2011

Ed Foster (Facebook page photo)
Ed Foster (Facebook page photo)

A political feud in the tiny western Arizona town of Quartzsite that captured national headlines has been years in the making, with accusations flying between the mayor and town council and the second recall election of the year on the horizon.

Mayor Ed Foster is publicly accusing members of the Quartzsite Common Council, along with Town Manager Alex Taft and Police Chief Jeff Gilbert, of rampant corruption. Foster accuses town officials of cutting mysterious paychecks to non-employees, denying him access to records that would prove it and wantonly ignoring Arizona’s open meetings laws. His allegations, along with the June arrest of one of his political allies during a Common Council meeting, have become a tea party cause célèbre and garnered national media attention. Foster delivered a stack of complaints alleging open meeting violations to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office on July 13.

Foster’s rivals, however, say the mayor came into office making unsubstantiated accusations based on wild conspiracy theories, and simply doesn’t understand — or refuses to understand — the facts behind his made-up allegations. Vice Mayor Barbara Cowell accused Foster of instigating threats and hate mail against the council and town employees in order drum up support ahead of his Aug. 30 recall election and pursuing an ulterior motive of trying to disincorporate Quartzsite. She said the strife is largely caused by Foster and other newcomers to the town.

In the meantime, the normally quiet town of about 3,600 residents, which sits 22 miles from the California state line on Interstate 10, has taken new security measures to contend with the barrage of death threats and hate mail. Exaggerated media accounts declared that the town was under “martial law” and that the council had ousted Foster from power.

Foster’s most damning allegation is that officials are giving payoffs and kickbacks through the town payroll system. He said the town has W-2 forms for 50 employees, yet is cutting 52 paychecks every pay period. And he said town administrators refuse to give him more detailed information on individual paychecks that would prove his charges.

“I think we’re going to find a quarter of a million (dollars) or more being siphoned off,” Foster said. “I think they’re buying off politicians somewhere in this county.”

But Cowell said Foster is comparing the town’s 2009 W-2 forms with 2010 pay periods, which show different numbers of employees. She said Foster has been making those allegations since before his May 2010 election and refuses to listen to any explanation that doesn’t fit with his preconceived notions, preferring instead to publish employees’ personal information on his blog. She said Foster has refused to discuss the issue with the town’s finance department because he prefers to make unfounded allegations, and noted the town is audited every year.

“He’s never come in and talked to our finance department. He has no idea how things are run. He called them a crook before he even came into office,” Cowell said. “Everything he’s saying is untrue.”

Foster, a former snowbird from Illinois who moved to Quartzsite full-time in 2008, ran for mayor on an anti-council platform and vowed to clean up what he called the town’s waste and corruption. Since then, Foster allies have angrily crowded the council’s meetings, leading to multiple arrests.

Cowell said Foster ran on a “take-down-town-hall” platform based on ginned-up allegations and was causing unnecessary problems even before he became mayor. She said Foster tried to shut down the town’s water supply over alleged environmental concerns, despite the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s assurances that the water was safe.

Just days before Foster was sworn in as mayor, the council took the first of several steps to curtail the mayor’s executive power, which Cowell said simply reinstated the mayor’s original powers from when the town was incorporated in the 1980s. Since then, the council has formally censured Foster twice.

“He was going to come in and do a state of emergency and he was going to take over,” she said of the council’s decision to limit the mayor’s powers.

The more immediate issue, however, is a July 10 emergency meeting held by the council and the security measures the town put in place as a result. After video of the arrest of Quartzsite resident and Foster ally Jennifer “Jade” Jones at a June 28 council meeting went viral on the Internet, council members and town hall were bombarded by death threats and obscene hate mail, Cowell said. The council called an emergency meeting at the request of its insurers to implement new security measures.

The council added police security to town hall, changed its meeting times from 7 p.m. to 10 a.m. and eliminated the public comments portion of council meetings, which had grown increasingly hostile. Foster, however, accused the council of calling an illegal meeting and refused to attend. He also refused to attend a meeting on the morning of July 12, claiming that the council’s actions were null and void because it violated open meeting laws.

The office of the Arizona Ombudsman, which is investigating allegations from both sides of the dispute, said some of the council’s actions at the July 10 meeting may have violated open meeting laws. Emergency meetings are legal under some circumstances, according to Assistant Ombudsman Kathryn Marquoit. But the council barred the public from attending, which Marquoit said is an open meeting violation.

Cowell said the council barred the public from the meeting at the request of its attorneys and insurers because town hall did not have proper security in place.

Foster has repeatedly alleged that the council also violated open meeting laws by refusing to move its meetings to a venue large enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend. The council chamber only holds 83 people, he said, and many others are left standing outside.

Marquoit said city councils are required to provide an audio feed so people who can’t get into the meetings can still listen in — which Quartzsite did not do — but said there is no requirement in Arizona law that meetings be moved if there isn’t enough room for the crowd.

Foster has sought investigations and prosecutions from the Attorney General’s Office, Arizona Department of Public Safety, Arizona Ombudsman and La Paz County Sheriff’s Office. DPS confirmed that it is investigating allegations regarding the Quartzsite Police Department, but is not looking into Foster’s accusations about the payroll.

On May, 10 members of the Quartzsite Police Department, which has only 14 or 15 members, signed a petition asking for Gilbert’s ouster as chief. The officers accused Gilbert of giving preferential treatment to favored employees, bullying people he viewed as disloyal and using his position to wage political war against people who oppose him or his allies on the council. The petition, which the officers delivered to the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training board, accuses Gilbert of using the FBI’s National Crime Information Center to run background checks on political enemies.

Gilbert and Taft did not return messages seeking comment.

The flashpoint for the crisis was Jones’ arrest when she stood up to speak against a proposed tax hike and new regulations on public comments. Foster ceded the floor to Jones, who was speaking calmly.

But Cowell said Jones was addressing the crowd instead of the council in violation of council rules, despite being warned at previous meetings. She accused Jones of trying to “incite” the crowd.

The arrest was one of four for Jones in recent months. In another incident, Jones, who runs a blog called the Desert Freedom Press, was at the scene of a drug bust and was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. When Foster arrived to defend Jones, he, too, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and interfering with police business.

The town already had one recall election this year, when Foster’s allies tried to recall the entire council in March, in part due a substantial water rate increase. The council members won, though the Goldwater Institute and others have questioned a recent ordinance the council passed that prohibits anyone who owes the town money from running for office.

The next recall will be on Aug. 30. Councilman Jerry Lukkasson’s wife pulled a recall petition against Foster, and Councilman Jose Lizarraga recently resigned to run against him.

As contentious as the current battle is, past events show that things could be worse.

In 1995, then-Mayor Rex Byrd was convicted of hiring someone to kill his recalled predecessor, Charles Richard Oldham. According to media reports, an associate of Byrd’s asked a man who turned out to be an undercover investigator to kill Oldham for $7,500. DPS staged a fake murder scene and showed pictures of it to Byrd’s associate to prove that the murder attempt had been carried out.

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