Five members of the Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District abruptly resigned on Saturday, turning over management of the controversy-plagued district to the Gila County Board of Supervisors.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said county election officials have asked the county attorney for a legal opinion on whether the county can operate the water district until the general election in November of 2014 or whether the county will have to call a special election to fill the seats.
She said she didn’t think the county could simply appoint new board members, since the board no longer has a voting quorum to accept the appointments.
“My inclination is to look at the cost versus the benefit of having an election now or having an election then. My inclination is to let things settle down. I don’t know that you do anything good in the heat of battle.”
Four of the five board members who resigned were facing possible recall. Although they each said in letters of resignation that they were proud of their accomplishments, they also cited the recall as a key factor in their decision. They said they wanted to end the personal attacks and controversy in anticipation of an election late next year.
Board members Ray Pugel, Gary Lovetro, Ron Calderon, Richard Dickinson and Michael Claxton all submitted their resignations this weekend, effective Nov. 15. Only Claxton wasn’t facing possible recall. The resignations effectively disband the board, since the two remaining board members — Tom Weeks and Sam Schwalm — don’t constitute a quorum and can’t therefore take any action. Reportedly, people are also circulating petitions to recall Schwalm.
Recall supporters had cited a sharp increase in water rates and board spending decisions plus an expensive outage last year and concerns about turbidity in the water.
Ric Hawthorne, who is heading the recall effort, urged backers to continue gathering signatures as a way to convince the board of supervisors to call a special election as soon as possible. “We need to continue collecting and gathering signatures for a show of strength and community resolve. Let’s keep the pressure on them and get as many signatures as we can and really show them what a ‘small group of discontents’ can accomplish.”
However, he added that if the “resignations are real,” the group would refund donations made to the recall effort.
If the recall backers had succeeded, they would have replaced the recalled board members with candidates of their own. The recall backers have been gathering signatures, but have not yet released a list of the candidates they would put forward to replace the incumbents.
Board Chairman Pugel said state law now will require the county board of supervisors to operate the district until next November’s general election, rather than making interim appointments.
In his letter of resignation, Pugel said “The most effective thing I can do to help my community, along with my fellow board members, is to resign and turn over the district to the Gila County Board of Supervisors under provisions of the Arizona Revised Code 48-1082 and 48-1086 so that we may have a year of calm reflection and constructive debate prior to the 2014 general elections.”
Those sections of the Arizona Revised Code provide the authority for the county board of supervisors to take over a water district that has lost too many board members. The code (48-1086) also says the supervisors “shall have the option of calling for new elections.”
Pugel blamed “a small group of discontents including our fellow board member, Sam Schwalm and his wife” for the recall effort. He said the recall effort will require a special election costing more than $20,000 just five months ahead of the already scheduled election.
“It is now my understanding that there is a recall effort against Sam Schwalm. At some point this madness has to stop,” wrote Pugel.
He extolled the board’s achievements in drilling or acquiring four deep wells which have made it possible to lift a decade-long building moratorium, end water rationing and eliminate expensive water hauling. The board also approved steep rate increases when the cost of repairing the aging system proved much greater than initial estimates. The district borrowed more than $7 million for the initial purchase and subsequent repairs.
“Unfortunately as you know, negative news, even if incorrect, overrides positive information,” Pugel wrote in his resignation letter. “It has been an educational experience for me as to why levels of government operate by crisis instead of planning mode. In our particular case, it is difficult to inform the public and make them understand when water is flowing out of their kitchen faucet. The public wants a first class water system with fire hydrants, but they are not wiling to pay for it.”
Pugel concluded by urging the county to appoint former county manager John Nelson as a liaison to work with CH2M Hill consulting district manager Brad Cole to run the district until a new board can take over after the elections in November of 2014.
The other resigning members sounded similar themes, all listing their accomplishments and blaming the controversy in the district on Schwalm and the watchdog group he founded before he got on the board.
Schwalm, contacted by phone on Monday, admitted that his wife has been actively involved in the recall effort. “Fundamentally this is just a strategy on Ray’s part to avoid accountability from the public. Clearly the effort to put the recall on the ballot was going to be successful… I’m only one guy on the board and I consistently get voted down on what I propose, so I’m not sure how all of this is my fault.”
But the resigning board members all focused on Schwalm’s consistent criticism, usually focused on spending issues.
Lovetro cited the board’s success getting favorable terms in renegotiating the terms of the loan that financed the purchase of the system from Brooke Utilities. He also cited as accomplishments installation of 14 generators, a 40,000-gallon storage tank on a the 1,000-foot-deep Milk Ranch 1 Well the district bought from Pugel and partner Robert Randall, the replacement of 80 percent of the water meters and other changes.
“We have made many great accomplishments for the PSWID but there have been a few disgruntled people that are still upset that their friends lost the recall election many years ago. These people continually complain and make accusations about me and my fellow board members that simply are not true. This same group has never offered any constructive solutions, but only complain. I cannot in good faith let the district spend $20,000 on an unfounded, spiteful recall election so it is with deep regret effective Nov. 15 I offer my resignation.”
Ron Calderon’s letter said “There has never been a water shortage since the day we took over. The water system has been improved but we still have problems that need to be fixed since the system is very old and pipes need to be replaced and fire hydrants need to be put in to protect this wonderful community. The amount of water leaks that have been found makes us lose 33 percent of our water, these leaks need to be fixed.”
Dickinson’s letter said, “Successful changes have not come easy, and there has always been a certain level of public controversy and misunderstanding.” Due to the recall “again we have wasted an opportunity to truly work together. Petty differences of opinion, rumor and inaccurate biased articles in the newspaper support individual ego and self-importance rather than a true sense of ‘community.’ I say ENOUGH!”
Claxton’s resignation letter said, “I can no longer serve on the water board and listen to Sam Schwalm make accusations about the other members and my friends that are untrue and unproven. Sam and his group have wasted thousands of dollars of the community’s money with his false accusation towards some of the board members. And now wants to waste more by having a recall election. So please accept my resignation and God help the community if the likes of Sam Schwalm and his group get their meat hooks into them.”
Supervisor Martin said on Monday that she had a discussion with John Nelson about helping run the district under the supervision of the board of supervisors for the next year. Nelson retired after a long career with the county and as a consultant this year helped the water district prepare its budget.
Martin said she thought that running the district with Nelson as the liaison with general manager Brad Cole might calm things down. At its meeting last week, the water district board approved a five-year contract with CH2M Hill to run the district and a $70,000 contract with the same firm to develop an infrastructure master plan for the district.
“They have a plan in place, let’s see what it does,” said Martin. “Let things calm down and have an election in a quieter time, a more thoughtful time, a more considered time. It’s not a bad idea for everybody. On the other hand, paying John to help run the district could cost as much as going ahead with a special election — so the question is where’s the money best spent.”