Legislative leaders are babysitting two members on a House committee after a passive-aggressive confrontation between them during a public meeting.
Senior members of both parties have been observing the House Federalism, Property Rights and Public Policy Committee since early February after freshman Democrat Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, alleged Chairman Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, treated her unfairly.
Blanc, the only woman on the committee at the time of her complaint, accused Thorpe of treating her differently than her male counterparts, often attempting to cut her off during discussions and not holding her to the same standards as others on the committee, Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said.
During the committee’s February 13 meeting, for example, Thorpe told members he would limit each member to one question of the bill sponsor and expert witness because of the committee’s lengthy agenda.
On several occasions, Thorpe tried to prevent Blanc from asking more than one question or clarifying her questions, while he made exceptions for others like Rep. Tony Navarette, D-Phoenix, and Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley.
Thorpe himself asked multiple questions throughout the hearing.
At one point, while discussing one of Thorpe’s bills, Blanc tried to make a comment but he didn’t allow her.
“No, I’m going to politely disagree with you and call a point of order,” Blanc said. “I’ve been keeping tally. Chairman Thorpe, you’ve been asking questions, you’ve been making comments. … I’m keeping track because we’re not really following your rules, chairman.”
Rios said leadership has been taking turns observing the committee since Blanc’s complaint in early February “to ensure that members don’t step out of line and everybody is treated fairly.”
“It’s unfortunate that we have to spend time dealing with this,” she said.
Rios said from what she observed in committee, Blanc’s treatment “did not appear to be equivalent of other members.”
“The committee hearing I was at, Chairman Thorpe allowed members two questions … but he would toe the line with Isela,” Rios said. “There was no consistency.”
This prompted leadership to meet to discuss ways to improve the functionality of the committee and to ensure members were being treated respectfully and equally. Rios added that House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, her Republican counterparts and Thorpe were open to discussing and addressing the issue.
After a mediation session, Blanc and Thorpe were asked to submit a list of commitments they would agree on to improve the situation.
In an email Blanc sent to Thorpe and leadership on February 20, which she provided to the Arizona Capitol Times, she agreed to respect Thorpe, work on streamlining her comments and questions, and follow decorum and committee rules.
“I have a responsibility to my constituents to be thorough, thoughtful, and responsible about the work that I do. What may be perceived as ‘grandstanding or passive aggressive attacks’ is not,” she wrote. “Spanish is my first language and it takes me a moment to process thoughts, questions or points.”
In exchange, Blanc also asked for respect, understanding and space for her thought process, and consistency in the manner Thorpe applies rules and exceptions to the rules to all members.
The House was unable to immediately provide a copy of Thorpe’s agreement.
Thorpe agreed to recognize Blanc when she wants to speak “and allow her to express her views.” He also agreed to give committee members adequate time to question people testifying before the committee, and to treat Blanc with respect, “on par with other members of the committee, Republican and Democrat,” according to GOP spokesman Matt Specht.
Blanc and Thorpe declined to comment for the story.
Rios said there’s been a noticeable improvement since the February 13 committee hearing. She also noted that the dynamic of the committee has improved since Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton, joined the committee and took the position of vice-chair.
“I will say, and I don’t know if there’s any correlation at all, Representative Blanc has indicated that since Nutt took over for Finchem there’s a much more workable and cordial environment in that committee,” Rios said. “Personalities play into the dynamic of any group and apparently that change has resulted in, I think, by her account, a more amicable setting.”
The committee is scheduled to meet one more time on March 20 before the end of legislative the session.