Maricopa’s top 10 stories in review - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Maricopa’s top 10 stories in review

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Posted: Thursday, January 3, 2008 10:42 am | Updated: 11:15 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of the top 20 news stories for Maricopa in 2007.

No. 10: Recalls kick up dust

Public disgruntlement with elected officials in 2007 lead to recall efforts of both a city councilmember and a Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board member.

Tim White, the longest serving board member in MUSD, faced a recall this summer that was lead in part by Lezah Saunders, his challenger in the 2006 election. White, who is in the midst of serving a new four-year term, initially looked like he would have to go to the mattresses at the ballot box to keep his seat. However, the Pinal County Recorder’s Office found that nearly half of the signatures collected were invalid, and the petition fell short.

A similar fate met the recall effort of Councilmember Joseph Estes. Because of voter participation in past elections, the Estes recall drive needed only 53 signatures to move forward as opposed to almost 12 times that many for White, yet the Estes recall too fell short when five signatures were invalidated.

No. 9: 347 gets a facelift

It’s still weeks away from being completely finished, but the major portion of the facelift for Maricopa’s major arterial has that stretch of road looking new and improved.

The repaving project for State Route 347 lasted roughly four months, as citizens endured lane closures and weeks of driving over milled lanes to get to the payoff of having a well-conditioned, freshly paved way into Phoenix. The project was of such concern to residents that the city hosted a joint forum at the start of road work with the Arizona Department of Transportation and contractor Meadow Valley to answer questions from a packed house of residents at the Global Water facility.

The project spanned both Pinal and Maricopa counties with a pair of sidebar projects yet to be completed: the installation of a traffic signal at Casa Blanca Road which is nearly complete, and the not-yet under way effort to add an additional turn lane from Queen Creek Road to Westbound Interstate 10.

No. 8: Annexation by leaps and bounds

On April 17, the city announced a plan that took many by surprise, filing paperwork to annex land that would more than double the size of the city.

Requesting to annex a chunk of 46 square miles to add to the 44 square mile limits of the city, councilmembers and staff pressed that Goodyear’s aggressive annexation approach forced their hand as the city moved to protect transportation and economic development corridors.

“We are just trying to protect our community,” then-City Manager Rick Buss said in April. “We see this area as being part of our family. We believe the people in this area should be making the decisions for themselves.”

Those in the Thunderbird Farms area were clear in the annexation meetings held by the city: they want their decisions to go through the county. A lack of trust with the city’s intentions, plus fears over an inability to sustain quality public services over such a large area, led to a vocal minority leading the charge against the annexation.

While city officials claim those in favor of the annexation area are nearly 50-50 to those against, on Dec. 18 the city hedged its bets, reducing the annexation area to roughly 14 square miles. The new annexation area if the northernmost portion of the original annexation area, and includes landowners that are much more favorable to the annexation, said Councilmember Will Dunn.

That revised annexation will now spawn another series of community meetings, and must be concluded by May 17 to meet the 13-month timeframe to collect and submit a petition with at least 51 percent of the landowners in favor of the annexation.

Lost in the mix of the of the heated debate over the city’s current annexation proposal was the annexation completed earlier in the year along State Route 238 that pulled nearly 3,000 acres, including the privately-owned Royal Dunes Golf Club, in to the city’s limits.

No. 7: Changing of the guard

In the run-up to the March 2008 council election where four seats, including the mayor’s, were up for grabs, 2007 saw the beginning of a shift in leadership.

When the Dec. 12 deadline for candidates to submit their paperwork to run for office came and went, only one man was left running for mayor and it was not Kelly Anderson. Rather, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Smith was, by default, handed the keys to the kingdom, and will take office in June, assuming he does not lose the election to a write-in candidate.

Councilmember Stephen Baker, whose seat is also up for election in March, left the council on Dec. 4 when he moved his family to Safford. That seat was filled by council-appointee Dallas Paulsen, who worked with his wife, Kathy, during the city’s incorporation process.

Paulsen is not running for office, and thus his seat and that of incumbents Will Dunn and Kelly Haddad will be up for the voters to pick in March. Eight candidates, including Dunn and Haddad, are running for the three seats.

Whoever gets elected to council will get to work with new City Manager Kevin Evans, chosen by council at their Dec. 19 meeting. The Huntsville, Texas manager will begin work in Maricopa on Jan. 21.

No. 6: Gun reveals gang problem

A gun discovered on the campus of Maricopa Wells Middle School led to a day full of questioning by the State Gang Task Force and more than 50 students being identified as potential gang members.

The April 13 incident in which an unloaded gun was discovered on campus prompted the discovery of more potential gang members than the SGTF had ever found before, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Kent Ogaard said at a community forum in April.

“We have gangs in Maricopa. Pick a direction and add Bloods or Crips to it and it probably exists,” Ogaard said.

Fallout from the incident included a new focus on creating an emergency management plan for the district, modifying the dress code at schools throughout the district and a number of informative seminars being held by the SGTF for teachers, parents and students to warn what to look for in gang activity.

No. 5: Canning admins opens a can of worms

MUSD Superintendent John Flores had what could easily be described as a rocky year, but the biggest can of worms opened by the district came when Flores recommended the non-renewal of five district administrators in March.

One of those five, former Director of Curriculum and Instruction Gayle Smith, resigned rather than face the vote for non-renewal from the school board. Of the other four, only Maricopa Wells Principal Stephanie Sharp survived the chopping block at a packed, raucous and nearly riotous April 11 school board meeting. The others, former Before and After School Programs Director Julie Jimenez, Maintenance Director Ken Floyd and Pima Butte Principal Janelle Lowey were released from the district by the board, but that was only the start of trouble to come.

Lowey, Floyd, Jimenez and Smith teamed together to file a lawsuit against the district this fall, charging discrimination for age, race and gender, violation of free speech rights and a number of other claims, which the district denies. That case is pending action in Pinal County Superior Court.

The dismissal of Jimenez led to a number of problems for new BASP Director Michael Muriett, who was inundated with problems almost immediately as three of the four school sites for the program had not been properly licensed by the Department of Health Services, causing a crisis that eventually culminated with Muriett’s resignation.

No. 4: Burning rubber

As the old saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and boy was there a lot of smoke.

Television news helicopters circled overhead, showing off the extent of the coal-black smoke billowing up from the burning stacks of tires at the Arizona Rubber Recycling plant and blanketing the city of Maricopa. The Sept. 20 fire burned for days and could be seen as far away as Scottsdale. At the fire’s worst, more than 100 firefighters battled the blaze – the third in five years at the Arizona Rubber Recycling plant. Division Chief Mark Boys revealed that MFD had found the plant in violation of fire code just days before the fire and was working with them to correct the deficiencies.

No. 3: Girl kidnapped, suspect hangs himself

A 6-year-old elementary school student was kidnapped on Jan. 26 and later found wandering the streets of Casa Grande after an Amber Alert had been issued. The Pima Butte student was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix where it was determined she had been sexually assaulted.

The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, with assistance from the U.S. Marshall’s Office cornered the suspect, 26-year-old George Richard Horner III, at an airport in Coolidge. PCSO Det. Jim Rimmer helped secure his capture on Jan. 27.

Horner was a registered sex offender from Louisiana and had been arrested on drug paraphernalia charges but released by Casa Grande police the morning of the abduction.

Horner was found hanged in his jail cell on April 1 at the Pinal County Adult Detention Center.

“The only good thing from this is that the victim, the little girl, doesn’t have to go on the witness stand and relive what happened to her all over again,” Sheriff Chris Vasquez said of the hanging.

No. 2: Police, fire services go online

Less than four years after incorporation, the city of Maricopa had its own police department beating the streets and took the old Maricopa Fire District under its wings.

The July 1 move saw the beginning of shift one for the Maricopa Police Department and the new era of the re-named Maricopa Fire Department with ceremonies and speeches by Fire Chief William Kelleher and Police Chief Patrick Melvin.

For Melvin, who along with Deputy Chief Kirk Fitch has been hard at work since November building a police department from the ground up, it was the result of many long weeks of hard work and dedication.

“The most challenging thing has been to go from zero to where we are now in less than seven months,” Melvin said in June.

The city was formerly policed through a contract with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, which ended Dec. 31 when MPD finalized staffing for all three shifts six months ahead of schedule.

“I believe the city truly made the right choice in choosing their chief of police, as did he in his deputy chief,” PCSO Lt. Scott Elliott said. “Both are very experienced, educated, knowledgeable veterans of law enforcement who will serve this city well for years to come.”

No. 1: Scandal scorches 1st city manager

Maricopa’s first city manager, Rick Buss, ended his tenure with the city in inglorious fashion, accepting a severance package worth roughly $80,000 to walk away from his post amidst an ongoing internal investigation.

Buss initially resigned as city manager, stepping down to assistant city manager, per the terms allowed by his contract, on July 2. At the time, he said he wanted to spend more time with his family.

“It’s been exceedingly difficult for me to spend time with my kids and this was about my kids,” Buss said in July.

However, barely a month later, Buss and IT Manager Richard Terrill were suspended by the city pending an internal investigation into allegations of misconduct. Finance Director Roger Kolman, who became the Interim City Manager when Buss stepped down in July, led the investigation into the actions of his former boss.

Buss said at the time Kolman told him the investigation stemmed from recordings that Buss claimed he had “nothing to do with.”

Then at a special Aug. 9 meeting of the City Council, Buss was released from his contract with the city with the severance package in a 4-3 vote, drawing the ire of Councilmember Kelly Haddad.

“I can’t in good conscious agree to this while the investigation is going on,” Haddad said in August.

That investigation culminated with the firing of Terrill on Aug. 27. Public Information Officer Jennifer Grentz said the city turned over their investigation of both Terrill and Buss for a continued criminal investigation.

“We turned the findings over to DPS because of the possible magnitude of the investigation,” Grentz said in September.

That investigation is yet to be concluded.

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