Dispute over San Tan incorporation invites candidate to run

Sen. David Farnsworth (R-Mesa)
Sen. David Farnsworth (R-Mesa)

Sen. David Farnsworth’s challenger in the Republican primary tells voters he’s running for office because Farnsworth told him to.

Republican Michael Hernandez, better known as “Big Mike,” says a disagreement over the future of San Tan Valley came to a head two years ago. The two candidates have slightly different versions of the events that took place, but nonetheless agree on the gist of the situation: Hernandez supports the incorporation of San Tan Valley, and Farnsworth, a Mesa Republican, wasn’t willing to sponsor legislation to aid that goal.

That’s when, Hernandez says, “He told me to run.”

It all started in 2016, when Farnsworth agreed to hold a series of town hall meetings in the East Valley to discuss the pros and cons of incorporation.

Some San Tan Valley residents, Hernandez among them, have spent years pushing to become a new city. The most recent efforts stalled earlier this year, when a residential area under the control of a developer blocked Pinal County officials from moving forward with an incorporation petition.

Neither Farnsworth nor Hernandez seems pleased with how the meetings went.

Farnsworth said he felt like the meetings were balanced at first, with ample time for those for and against incorporation but eventually were overtaken by those in favor.

Hernandez, a real estate agent, said Farnsworth seemed to be against incorporation, and shielded the meetings from testimony by officials from another Arizona city that could’ve spoken of the benefits of incorporation.

At the final town hall meeting, Hernandez asked Farnsworth point blank to sponsor legislation at the Capitol to help San Tan Valley residents incorporate. By Hernandez’s telling, the audience at the town hall overwhelmingly supported that effort.

”And he said no,” Hernandez said of Farnsworth.

“(Farnsworth) said, ‘Well, I’m not passionate about it. You need to find another legislator that’s passionate about it.’ And I said, ‘You’re our representative. You’re elected to represent us,’” Hernandez said. “(Farnsworth) said, ‘If you don’t like it, you should run for Senate. And my wife stood up and shouted, ‘We will.’”

Farnsworth doesn’t remember word for word what was said at the town hall meeting, but acknowledged the exchange might’ve gone something like that.

“[Hernandez] has said to me publicly and privately that he ran for the Senate because I encouraged him to,” Farnsworth said, later adding, “I don’t remember saying that, but I don’t question that I probably did.”

Perhaps Farnsworth’s personal feelings about city government had an impact on the audience at those town halls, he said, “and apparently (Hernandez) was not happy about that.” Farnsworth lives on a county island, which he said he enjoys “because I’m free of that extra layer of government intervention into our lives.”

And that’s part of the reason why he’s uncertain that incorporation is a good idea for the residents of San Tan Valley.

“Generally, a municipality will take away more freedoms,” Farnsworth said.

Hernandez said those beliefs, hinted at during the town hall meetings in 2016, were later confirmed by consultants he has interacted with. Those subsequent conversations led Hernandez to believe that Farnsworth is “adamantly anti-city.”

Hernandez felt that Farnsworth ran the meetings in a way that was designed to sway opinion against incorporation, particularly by bringing in officials from Johnson Utilities, including owner George Johnson, to speak about the downsides of incorporation.

Hernandez said he sought to offer a counter-argument by inviting the city manager of Buckeye, which incorporated in 1929, to show the positive aspects of incorporation.

But Farnsworth, via his assistant, sent an email to Hernandez declaring the city manager wouldn’t be allowed time to speak at the meeting, Hernandez said.

“The town hall progression led me to understand that he really didn’t care,” Hernandez said.

Farnsworth said that accusations that he’s “anti-city” are misinformed.

“The only thing that would probably disappoint me is if I were painted as anti-incorporation, because I expressed many times that incorporation could be a positive thing, as I said, if it were done correctly,” he said.

Those who wish to incorporate need a long-term strategy, and Farnsworth said one was lacking for San Tan Valley.

Farnsworth acknowledged that his blunt talk about cities as another layer of government, and his own professed appreciation for living on a county island, could give that impression, but that’s not the case.

“If I had been anti-incorporation, I never would have held those meetings to begin with,” he said.

But Farnsworth decided against sponsoring legislation that, while might have been a crowd-pleaser, wasn’t what the senator said he thought was right.

“Ultimately, it’s my responsibility to make that tough choice at the end of the day. … I suppose (Hernandez) felt like I needed to be obedient to the constituents and do what they wanted me to do,” Farnsworth said. “And apparently I made some comment and encouraged him to run for the Senate.”

It was enough for Hernandez to seek office for the first time.