Kicking Up the Dust in an Arizona Desert Town
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QUARTZSITE, Ariz. -- Like many folks in this blink-and-miss-it town on the western edge of the state, Ed Foster moved here to escape the hustle and bustle. He is delighted that the main drag is just a couple of miles long, bookended by gas stations. It doesn't take much more than a working sewer and water hookup to make him happy.
A couple of years ago, Mr. Foster, 69, a retired engineer for the Wrigley chewing gum company, began wondering what was happening to his tax money. So he ran for mayor, shaving off his long, scraggly beard when one supporter suggested it might not help his image as a politician.
But the clean-shaven Mayor Foster loves to raise a ruckus. For months, he has accused town officials of hiding money and called the police chief a "corrupt thug." He has tried to persuade the attorney general's office to step in, and is pressing for a criminal investigation of the chief.
In the past month, two of Mr. Foster's allies have been arrested during Town Council meetings and led out in handcuffs. Saying that they fear for public safety, the Council members have declared an emergency, stopped public comment at their official meetings for the next month and brought in a police officer to keep guard at the Town Hall.
Mr. Foster calls this martial law.
"They are just insane. They think they can do whatever they want, take control and not have to do what people want," the mayor said during an interview at the local Subway, tucked inside a truck stop at the edge of town. "They won't talk to me, won't look at me, nothing."
Mr. Foster and his supporters have taken to the Internet to gather support, posting videos of the Council meeting and several clips showing officers escorting one woman from a meeting last month.
Suddenly this town, once known as a haven for RVs, gemstones and sprawling swap meets, is becoming a symbol for those who say government is filled with power-hungry bureaucrats, bent on spending too much public money.
But Mr. Foster's detractors -- the six other members of the Town Council, the town manager and the police chief -- say that it is Mr. Foster, more interested in destroying the town than in focusing on the often mundane tasks of governing it, who has stepped over the line. He has filed several complaints and lawsuits against the town, which has a population of 3,600 in the summer. And he has been censured twice by his Council colleagues and arrested by the chief on disorderly conduct charges. He faces his own recall next month.
"He's got these ideas that have nothing to do with the truth," said Alex Taft, the town manager. "He says we are lying, stealing, harassing, anything you can think of. He's just being Jerry Springer, but without the humor."
Ms. Taft said that the mayor had enthusiastically "stirred up discontent" every chance he had gotten. But it was not until the meeting in June that she began to get really nervous.
More than two-thirds of the town's 14 police officers showed up to complain about the chief, and Council members said they could not hear their statements because of a continuing investigation of a complaint filed with the state. One of the mayor's supporters was arrested and several others in the crowd began shouting. "That was about as close to a riot as we will hopefully ever get," Ms. Taft said.
Two weeks later, the Council was scheduled to discuss the municipal tax code.
Jennifer Jones, a local activist, supporter of the mayor and owner of a kennel she runs out of a trailer, rose to speak against a fee increase for merchants who rent space here in the winter, when the population can swell to the hundreds of thousands. Soon after she began her allotted four minutes, Ms. Jones turned her back to the Council and began speaking to the crowd. The Council voted to have her removed, and within moments officers were holding her by the wrists, escorting her out the back door.
Ms. Jones, who also publishes a newspaper and blog about the town, said her elbow began to burn after a few minutes. After she complained to another officer, Ms. Jones was released and took an ambulance to the nearest hospital, 35 miles away, where she said doctors told her she had probably sprained her elbow.
"We're an example of everything that is wrong with small-town government," Ms. Jones said, wearing a button reading "Clean up Quartzsite" and featuring a large broom and the Web address for the state's Tea Party chapter. "People come here to live cheaply; they know how to live within their means and they want their government to do so, too."
A vast majority of homes here are mobile homes, and the residents are not the sort to embrace bureaucracy. With open desert as far as the eye can see, it is about as close as they can get to the Wild West these days.
After the video of Ms. Jones's arrest spread on the Internet, the Town Hall and Police Department began to receive threatening phone calls and e-mails. Ms. Taft had any pictures of the Council and staff members removed from the town's Web site, which had been overloaded with traffic. On one site, people spoke of the state's laws allowing guns to be carried without a permit.
"We know everyone in town; I don't think they have the guts in them to do anything like that," said Jerry Lukkason , a councilman who owns an RV park, Laundromat and diner in town. "But this is going all over the place now, and with other people, you never really know."
First Published July 16, 2011 12:00 am