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East Valley political gadflies

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Posted: Sunday, September 18, 2005 8:02 am | Updated: 9:38 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Tony DiBonito knows how to make summer cooler and spaceflight safer. Now, if only the Chandler City Council would listen to him.

"I’ve been trying to make changes ever since I came to this country," DiBonito said. "Why? Because this is my home now."

At 74, the Italian immigrant is no stranger to local officials, and his unusual topics show up often on council meeting agendas. He said he’s attended council meetings for a couple of years.

At one recent council meeting, DiBonito lobbied the council to consider building a giant water mister he claims would cool the scorching summertime temperatures and reduce air pollution.

In fact, the retired electrical engineer predicts if every home in the Valley operated a portable mister at the same time, it would reduce our tripledigit temperatures at least 25 percent. It’s just one way DiBonito has found to survive the extreme heat without air conditioning in his Chandler home.

"This planet is made from three-quarters water, one-quarter land," he said. "Why not do this? It would be a tropical paradise."

Bryan Bosshardt, assistant to the mayor and City Council, said he remembers helping DiBonito find a ride to his first council meeting two years ago.

"I talk to him a lot," Bosshardt said. "He means well."

DiBonito said he emigrated from Naples to the United States around 1950, mainly because "I just needed a little more elbow room."

Recently, DiBonito was one of 27 Chandler residents who applied to temporarily replace Councilman Martin Sepulveda, a Navy reservist currently on active duty in Iraq. He was not one of the seven applicants nominated for further consideration by the council, however.

"I talk and talk, but it never gets through," DiBonito said of council members.

No rabble-rousers in sight

It’s a rare breed, that Gilbert gadfly.

And it’s difficult to know if anyone in the town can accurately be described that way.

The American Heritage Dictionary says a gadfly can be "a persistent, annoying critic; a nuisance."

As Mayor Steve Berman said, "We don’t have people in Gilbert that just try to oppose anything the town tries to do, thank goodness."

But the dictionary also says a gadfly can be "one that acts as a provocative stimulus."

There are definitely some in Gilbert who would proudly wear that title, but they tend to go about it in different ways than those in other East Valley municipalities who religiously attend council meetings and routinely speak up there.

Some Gilbert residents episodically attend Town Council meetings when there’s something on the agenda they’re passionate about. Others try to stimulate town government via e-mail or by writing community columns in local newspapers.

Town Manager George Pettit said it’s an interesting dynamic to watch.

"Things are changing over my career in public service, because it used to be you had a lot of people who regularly attended council meetings," he said. "The Internet is starting to replace a lot of that personal involvement. My volume of e-mails on any given day has increased probably 30-fold."

People who begin to attend meetings regularly could also be eyeing a council seat.

"We have had some people who were interested in public office and attended every meeting," Pettit said.

Berman understands that kind of gadfly — you could say he used to be one. In 1986, he began attending council meetings as a neighborhood activist and speaking up loudly about highdensity housing slated for his neighborhood of one-acre lots.

"What happens is people go to a meeting with an issue, and they look up at the council and think, ‘Who the hell do these guys think they are? Why should it be their way instead of mine?’ " Berman said.

A 35-year love-hate affair

Marilynn Wennerstrom has had quite a run with the city of Mesa.

She’s sued the city after it rejected referendum petitions, was locked out of a City Council finance meeting earlier this year and continues to produce verbatim council meeting transcripts.

She’s quick to remember the date of a meeting — and often how each council member voted. And if she stumbles, she can find the information in one of her files.

More than 35 years ago, she brought a complaint about a neighbor’s code violation to City Hall. She and her husband worked their way through city bureaucracy before being told the issue would be discussed at a City Council meeting.

So Wennerstrom showed up, but the discussion never came. Nonetheless, she went to meeting after meeting and eventually got hooked.

"For the next five years, I had a better attendance record than any members of the council did," she said. "I finally got the problem resolved."

Wennerstrom said that in the early 1970s, reaction to her newspaper letter-writing campaigns was not positive. Wennerstrom said that today she would typically be referred to as an "activist" or "watchdog." But then, she said, she was called a "busybody."

But she continued on, keeping an eye on the council actions. Today, she either attends meetings in person or watches on television. Sometimes she addresses the council; other times she sits quietly and takes notes.

"What I love about Marilynn is that she is so smart and always fun to talk with, even though we don’t always agree," Mesa Vice Mayor Claudia Walters said. "She studies things, digs deep into things. . . . I think people like that keep you on your toes."

Wennerstrom said going to meetings helped her keep her intellect going after she gave up teaching.

Wennerstrom moved to Mesa from Chicago in 1964. She and her late husband, Stan, have four children — some of whom, she said, have caught the letter-writing bug.

Activism doesn’t come cheap

Elliott Fisher might be Apache Junction’s $67,000 man.

That’s how much City Attorney Joel Stern said officials have spent sorting out referedum and initiative drives from the local gadfly.

But Fisher calls the figure ridiculous. The 42-year-old licensed practical nurse said he fights City Hall on behalf of taxpayers, and so far he’s spent $7,000 to $10,000 of his own money.

"Maybe I haven’t been the most successful, but it’s not because I haven’t tried," he said by telephone from Cape Cod, Mass., where he’s been working since May.

Fisher often goes into political dormancy in the summer because he accepts temporary assignments in cooler climates. But he more than makes up for it during election season.

He’s run for mayor four times and launched referendum and initiative drives on everything from a sales-tax hike to a storage facility’s zoning case. But his petition drives generally end up in court, where the city wins disputes over their validity.

Fisher did taste success for about one day in March 2001, when he appeared to defeat Mayor Doug Coleman at the polls. But Coleman challenged the results in court amid widespread speculation of a ballot mix-up, then won the recount.

Fisher’s passion for city politics started in 1992.

One man’s dispute with the city caught his attention after he moved to Apache Junction that year. Fisher said he was amazed as he watched what seemed to be an escalating wrestling match between the man and city officials over city code violations on his property.

"I said, ‘My God, there seems to be a whole cycle of vindictiveness here,’ and somebody needed to break it up," Fisher said.

His current agenda includes bringing higher-paying jobs and mass transit to Apache Junction, where he said many residents are having trouble affording gasoline for the trips they make from this far East Valley city.

Coleman said some of Fisher’s concerns are valid. "He’s very good at pointing out needs, but he’s not very good at pointing out solutions," he said.

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