When town councils don’t get along, animosity leads to feuding, which can in time turn a whole community upside down. Look no further than the small western Arizona town of Quartzsite, which has been snarled in political feuding for months.
After death threats against the council, citizen arrests during open public meetings and the eventual recall of the mayor, the town is still reeling.
How can Star Valley prevent a similar melt down?
“You are 80 percent of the way there just by asking the question, by being aware that you don’t want to fall into those situations where you become the laughing stock, or where people ridicule you or you make fools of yourself,” said Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
Strobeck spoke at Star Valley’s annual retreat held Oct. 14 in the lodge at the Tonto Natural Bridge.
Star Valley’s Town Manager and Attorney Tim Grier invited Strobeck after reading about the bitter politicking in Quartzsite.
Luckily, the majority of town councils in the state conduct business respectfully and will never end up like Quartzsite, Strobeck said.
Star Valley can avoid the title of dysfunctional council by following a few simple rules of interaction.
“How you do business is often just as important as the business you are doing,” he said.
Holding retreats and establishing rules and procedures or rules of conduct for the council are good tools, but learning to listen, is key, he said.
When other councilors are speaking at a meeting, council members should remain quiet, avoid making side comments or rolling their eyes.
When citizens see this behavior, they think it is OK, he said.
Star Valley’s council agreed they avoided dissension so far by respecting each other’s opinions.
Councilor Gary Coon said he tries to remember that although other councilors may have different ideas or disagree with his vote, it is not personal and after a council meeting, they can still be friends.
“You have to distinguish between the person and what they are saying because the next time around maybe that person will be on your side,” he said. “If you take it personally you are just going to make it rough.”
Councilor Barbara Hartwell agreed, saying they have avoided problems some other councils are experiencing by being respectful.
“We are all open minded, we are all strong minded, but we are willingly to listen,” she said. “We work together, we don’t fight each other.”
Mayor Bill Rappaport said he has learned not to take anything personally. “We agree to disagree, but we all still respect each other.”
In Quartzsite, the council did not follow these guidelines and chaos erupted.
With the council pitted against the mayor, both sides and citizens asked outside agencies to intervene. Strobeck said he received hundreds of calls, each asking the league to “make them stop.”
But the league cannot un-elect a mayor or council member, only the people can.
Just because people are not getting along, “that doesn’t give somebody else cause or legal reason to go in and say ‘you guys are out, I am taking over,’” he said. “We are self correcting.”
Eventually, the mayor was recalled and a new mayor was seated, while the council was retained. That has not ended all the problems and the town is a long way from getting along, but towns like Star Valley can learn from their transgressions.
“You have to be really careful and conscious of the fact that people look to you to how they should be behaving themselves,” he said.
“The behavior you exhibit in a public meeting is the behavior the rest of the folks in the area are going to think is acceptable.”