Dirty politics has a rich and fabled history in Cochise County, southeast of Tucson and bordering New Mexico on the east and Old Mexico on the south. There is currently a storm blowing in Benson, entry point to the county along Interstate 10 and the gateway to the Old West towns of Douglas, Bisbee and Tombstone. All of these towns has had at least one doozy of a political dustup in its past; even Tombstone's famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was the outgrowth of a political squabble, albeit one taken to ridiculous extremes, even for those times.
While nobody in Benson is anybody's huckleberry, and there haven't been any sightings of red sashes being worn, this political free-for-all is hot and nasty--and getting stranger by the week.
In the middle of the political storm is Mayor Mark Fenn, a soft-spoken builder of strip malls who has been accused of, among other things, using his $400-a-month position to fast-track some of his projects and give himself an unfair advantage over business rivals.
The conflict-of-interest accusations have been blowing in from all directions and swirling about the town of 5,000 residents, many of them third- and fourth-generation Bensonites. While some see it as merely a clash of personalities between the mayor and a couple of City Council members, others view it as a precursor or maybe even the denouement of the inevitable battle over Benson's future and identity, as to whether it can somehow maintain its small-town charm, or whether it will become a satellite community to Tucson, less than an hour's drive away.
Fenn is standing in front of a spanking-new Subway sandwich store. It's the first business in the still-being-completed mini-mall that's pretty much the first thing one sees on the main drag after exiting I-10. Located back away from the street a bit is the giant new Wal-Mart, which itself (surprise, surprise) was the subject of a heated political tiff. Just down the street is the skeleton of another building that Fenn and his partners are putting up.
He is dressed in Levis and a T-shirt, a baseball cap and work boots. He looks like he belongs in an Advil commercial (and probably feels like it, too). In appearance, he's every bit the builder, although not so much the "developer," as he is often referred to in the local political discourse.
Raised in Benson, he lived for a time in the Lake Arrowhead area of California before moving back home a few years ago. He ran for the City Council and spent four uneventful years on the body before moving up to mayor. Not long after he took office, it was as though an electrical storm broke out--and he was wearing metallic underwear.
"I'll tell you, I sure didn't see any of this coming," says Fenn. "I understand that in a small town, some people like to have something to chew on, but this is ridiculous. So far, it's just been a distraction to me, but it's hurting our town."
Someone once said that, in a small town, one lawyer would starve to death, while two would thrive.
While waiting for the mayor to arrive at the Subway, I asked some of the people going in and out of the store if they were aware of any of the allegations against the mayor. Virtually everybody who identified him/herself as a resident of Benson knew something. One said that Fenn had bullied and used city employees to benefit his business. Another said that he had used his influence to get preferential treatment in the inspection of his properties. One Benson resident told me that she'd heard that he had tried to raise the property taxes in businesses in the large Safeway shopping center so that the businesses would have to move out, and he could take over the properties.
When told this, Fenn laughs slightly, then adds, "That's nothing. I've heard that I embezzled $100,000."
Many of the allegations came from anonymous sources, but the ones that are causing the real trouble can be traced back to two members of the City Council, and Benson's city manager, Martin Roush. The council members--Kathy Suagee and Dianne Tipton--are both facing a recall election on Sept. 2: Suagee for her actions against Fenn, and Tipton for something so bizarre that when I'll reveal it later, I'll give you an advance warning of looniness to follow.
At a March meeting of the City Council, Suagee publicly stated that she didn't think that Mayor Fenn should resign his position. That probably came as a surprise to everyone, including Suagee, who just four days earlier had sent Fenn a letter insisting on five things, including his resignation.
This, by the way, came two weeks after Fenn had actually resigned.
On Friday, March 7, Fenn, after talking it over with City Attorney Thomas Benevidez (of the Tucson Benevidez Law Group), decided that he'd had enough. There were rumblings from city staffers that they felt intimidated when dealing with people working on Fenn's properties and projects.
At the time, Fenn said, "For me, it became a choice between what I do for a living and being the mayor. I have to make a living, and being mayor doesn't pay very well. I am the only mayor in Arizona who is a developer, and I guess you can't do both--not in this environment. So, not to jeopardize my business or myself, I think it's best to remove myself as mayor."
That probably would have been the end of the story had he not had a change of heart over the weekend. On Monday, March 10, he rescinded his resignation and told the council that he deeply resented the accusations. Two weeks later came Suagee's letter. She followed that up by calling on the state Legislature to pass a law making it illegal for a developer to hold the position of mayor anywhere in Arizona, stating "they should put a restriction on that occupation from holding an elected position."
You can't make this stuff up.
With Fenn deciding to stay, the council then took up the matter of investigating the allegations against the mayor. Fenn wanted to know the source of the allegations and the content thereof. What he got was a group shrug, including one from Roush, the city manager, who has come under fire from some members of the council, including Al Sacco, who said, "It's time we get to work, and the council directs the manager, and not the other way around."
Roush initially admitted to a certain amount of friction with Fenn, but stated that he had nothing to do with the allegations against the mayor.
However, in a letter to Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer dated March 28, Roush called for one or more investigations of Fenn, claiming the mayor had acted improperly, both as mayor and as a private citizen. For weeks after that, Roush denied having anything to do with the allegations and investigation. Only after the letter became public did he acknowledge his actions; he then explained that he was acting on behalf of city inspector Mike Lockett; Roush claimed Lockett felt intimidated in his dealings with Fenn over some of Fenn's buildings. (Fenn claims that it's almost always a contentious, but professional, relationship between a builder and an inspector.)
By a 4-3 margin (with Fenn casting the deciding vote), the council eventually voted to authorize the city attorney to launch the investigation. After a couple of weeks had passed, Benevidez admitted that he didn't want to conduct the investigation. He said that perhaps a third party should do it, but warned that it might cost as much as $25,000 to do so. Benevidez also offered his resignation, but by a 4-3 vote, the council declined to accept it.
Tucsonan Mary Judge Ryan is currently conducting the investigation (at $175 per hour), but there is no timetable for its completion or the release of the results.
Meanwhile, Benson continues to drift, and with only two months until the recall election, things could get even stranger.
As for the recall of Tipton ... try to stay with me.
Tipton lived all over Arizona but moved to Benson a few years ago to help manage some mobile-home parks owned by her son. A man named Niles Hansen bought a trailer for his adult daughter and moved her into one of the parks managed by Tipton. Hansen painted the exterior of his daughter's trailer a peach color in April 2007. Two months later, Tipton changed the rules for acceptable colors for mobile homes in the park and demanded that the trailer be repainted. When Hansen refused, eviction proceedings were started against his daughter.
Carl Haupt, a good friend of Hansen's, was upset by what was going on, so he picked up a recall packet and quickly gathered enough signatures to force the September election. The 82-year-old Haupt claims that he doesn't think Tipton has served her constituents during her term in office.
All this time, the local newspaper, the San Pedro Valley News-Sun, has been having a field day with the various stories. (Since conflicts of interest are everywhere, it must be noted that the News-Sun is a sister paper of the Weekly, owned by Wick Communications.)
While the paper has been largely even-handed in its coverage, it does appear to give Fenn the benefit of the doubt. However, it also ran an editorial criticizing the recall effort against Tipton, stating that such drastic actions should only be taken after cases of improper conduct in an official capacity, not as a private citizen. It also ran an article stating that just about everybody on the council had relationships that could conceivably be called into question, depending on how narrowly one defines conflict of interest.
It's like saying that a phallic symbol is anything that's longer than it is wide. In a small town like Benson, there can't be more than one or two degrees of separation between anybody. Finding two people who have nothing to do with one another would be like finding two people in the Yearning for Zion Compound who don't share DNA.
Joining the fray is CAVE radio, 97.7 on the local FM dial. The station is squarely on the side of Tipton and Suagee and has blasted Fenn, claiming that the recall efforts are the work of Fenn's fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has even run commercials questioning the integrity and fairness of Thelma Grimes, who is the News-Sun's lead reporter on the ongoing story.
Among other things, CAVE (on its Web site) claims that the Tipton recall is the culmination of a 30-year-old vendetta involving the uncle of the former city attorney who was forced to resign before Benevidez took over. (There aren't enough trees left in the Amazon basin to give this part of the story any in-depth coverage. Check out the station's Web site at www.cavefm.com; it's a hoot.)
As the political storm clouds continue to gather, life imitates art. The day after I interviewed Fenn, an early-season monsoon storm blew into town, and a microburst destroyed the entire frame of the building his company was putting up near the Subway sandwich shop. Nobody was hurt.