The merits of a dust-control referendum have taken a back seat over the past week to the intriguing politics surrounding former Scottsdale City Councilman Kevin Osterman's efforts to keep the issue off the ballot.
It has led to speculation from Mayor Mary Manross' critics that Osterman - who is circulating signature petitions for and financially backing Manross and Councilwoman Betty Drake - filed a lawsuit at their behest to keep the issue off the same Sept. 2 ballot where they will be facing re-election.
Both Manross and Drake deny such allegations. Meanwhile, lawyer Tom Irvine - no stranger to Scottsdale election politics - is representing Osterman, and the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce has filed a political committee to fund Osterman's efforts.
And despite Manross' vehement denials that she has played any role in the matter, including a heated response at a council meeting, the mayor did place a call to the referendum organizer to discuss her disappointment with the referendum in the days before Osterman's lawsuit and the council's formal vote to call the election.
"I'm surprised there is so much push-back on a referendum that, if successful, would have such a minimal impact on the (dust) regulations," said Councilman Tony Nelssen, who voted against the dust-control measures.
The events of the past week have raised the obvious question that even Manross and Drake said they did not know the answer to: Why does Osterman care enough about dust control to file a lawsuit to keep it off the ballot?
Osterman said the reason he's involved is that the city is at risk of losing federal transportation dollars if it is out of compliance with the federal dust mandates, which came down through a state law.
"This is a high-dollar gamble," Osterman said.
And while there is a risk of state-enacted penalties and losing federal funds of up to $2 million a year, even Osterman acknowledged that there's no one indicating the funds would be withheld if the issue went to a September election.
Osterman said this effort is not tied to the Sept. 2 race, where Manross will face Councilman Jim Lane and Drake will be running against a number of challengers.
"This has nothing to do with the campaign," Osterman said. "There's no truth to that."
The theory about why Manross and Drake would be involved - or, at the very least, supportive of Osterman's action - is fear that people coming out to support the referendum would also vote against the people who supported the action, which includes Manross and Drake. Lane voted against the measures.
"It's so obvious this whole dust thing is about protecting (Manross) and (Drake)," Councilman Bob Littlefield said.
The issue brought mayoral candidate John Washington to a Scottsdale City Council meeting Tuesday, where he alleged that Manross and Drake were behind the lawsuit. Manross had a 1-minute, 11-second response from the dais, telling Washington three times that he should be "ashamed" and that she was in no way involved. Later, the council voted to formally place the referendum on the ballot.
In an interview with the Tribune, Manross said she called Amy Ganley, treasurer of the Unjust Dust committee that led the referendum effort, in the days before the council was set to vote on calling the election.
"There was no sinister reasons. I just wanted her to know we're not enemies and I understand her frustration." Manross said in describing the conversation.
Ganley, who opposes the federal mandates that led to the dust measures, described the conversation this way:
"Let's just say she's really worried about it and wishes she was not faced with it because it's confusing to the voters," Ganley said. "She would love to have this go away."
While Ganley could not take back her verified signatures, the council has the option of repealing the ordinance and thus canceling the referendum. But that option has not been pursued, and Ganley continues to support having the election.
Drake said Osterman called her before he filed the lawsuit and wanted some background, but that she did not ask him to file the action.
"He had already decided he was going to do it," Drake said.
The political drama took another twist when the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday formed a political committee, Saving Air and Dollars, that allows it to participate in the referendum process.
Chamber president Rick Kidder said the committee will be used to fund the lawsuit.
"The reality about air quality in the Valley and the reality of transportation dollars tied to compliance made it important enough for us to consider," Kidder said.
Osterman's lawsuit, which was filed May 16, claims that the council's action in March to approve the dust measures was administrative - not legislative - and therefore not subject to referendum. A court hearing has been set for Thursday, with a decision expected shortly thereafter.
The dust-control measures would affect parking and driving on residential properties with a total vehicle-use area of at least 3,000 square feet, residential properties with five or more units and commercial, industrial and other nonresidential uses such as churches and fraternities. The new regulations are scheduled to go into effect on commercial properties in October, and residential properties in October 2009.
The council has already started a process to soften the impacts on residents, but that process is on hold while the referendum process plays out, Scottsdale spokesman Pat Dodds said.