Former Tribune reporter and reporter for the Goldwater Institute, Mark Flatten, talks about issues impacting the county, including disagreements between the county manager and seven elected officials.
Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. A wildfire causing problems north of Payson. The water wheel fire is now at over 500 acres, and it's forced the evacuation of 500 homes in two Payson-area subdivisions. The fire is 10% contained with no word as yet on when those evacuated from their homes will be allowed back. For now, those displaced by the fire are staying at a Red Cross center at Payson High School. Countywide elected officials in Maricopa County want the board of supervisors to rein in county manager David Smith. The seven elected officials say that Smith does not show them proper respect and they accuse Smith of a power grab. Here to talk about all of this is Mark Flatten, who covered county issues extensively for "The East Valley Tribune" before becoming an investigative reporter the Goldwater Institute. Good to have you on the show. Good to see you again, too.
Mark Flatten: Thank you.
Ted Simons: Sheriff, county assessor. School chief, who --
Mark Flatten: The most descript, non-political --
Ted Simons: All of these people say that the county manager is not doing things right. What's going on here?
Mark Flatten: I think what's happening is there's been a huge struggle for power going on within Maricopa County for a number of years now. Wherein, you've got the board of supervisors, the five-member board, each elected by their own district and seven independently elected county officials, the sheriff, etc., who have their own responsibilities, statutory duties and there's a conflict over what runs what. If you're a sheriff, the county recorder, you have a statutory obligation to fulfill certain duties which the board really is not responsible for. At the same time, the board of supervisors is the sort of umbrella, all-encompassing elected body in Maricopa County. In days past, what they did was adopt an annual budget and approve zoning for chicken coops in unincorporated parts of Maricopa County. What we've seen in the last few years is an attempt to solidify overall spending, and this came to a head with the indictment of the school superintendent, and that was largely over control of federal money and he ended up pleading to a misdemeanor and we've seen it come to an apex with the indictment of Don Stapley, the Maricopa County supervisor, by an investigation conducted by the sheriff's office.
Ted Simons: I want to get back to that, because of collateral information there. But back to the feud. Not showing us proper respect. And for the power grab, as they're trying to say. Is what the elected officials are saying of county manager David Smith, has he been doing this to these individuals all along? Has something changed?
Mark Flatten: I think the tensions have just grown worse and worse as budget gets tighter and tighter. If I'm recorder and responsible for conducting elections, that's well and good if I have the money to do it. Plush times, there's not a big dispute. But when things get real lean as they are now and the board says we're not going to give you as much money as we used to, that's how you translate this lack of respect. The independently elected officials are saying, yes, the board has overall responsibility for the budget, but they're not allocating enough money for us do our statutory jobs.
Ted Simons: Now, we have a treasurer suing for -- he wants more money or saying that again, as you are saying, the board is not allowing him to do his job as he sees fit. He's arguing that he's not given adequate funds. And a dispute over the computer system. Smith, the county manager says we're going to bring all of these computer functions into one unit under my control, and that's created problems, and particularly with the county attorney and the sheriff's office, a criminal computer that you have to be law enforcement to be able to access it. From their perspective, you can't let the county manager be running a secured computer that has restricted access. From Smith's perspective, there's no reason we should have all of these various different computer departments and if we bring into one department, we can save a pile of money.
Ted Simons: Does it all happen if the economy is going great guns?
Mark Flatten: I think you'd still have that power struggle. Maybe not with the peripheral offices. But the ones who are the three major players in this. The most high-profile and again, this came to a head with the indictment of Stapley. Where you've got on the one hand, you've got the sheriff and the county attorney saying we have a job to investigate crimes in the county. On the other hand, you've got the board saying, you guys can't -- for instance, the county attorney, you can't sit and provide us legal advice and then conduct criminal investigations of us and prosecute us.
Ted Simons: And the court ruling seemed to uphold that. That we can't use county attorney for civil cases when he's representing us as well. Talk about that decision.
Mark Flatten: This goes back to parallel arguments that came up in the criminal case. After Stapley was indicted, the board of supervisors created their own civil litigation unit and said we've had so many conflicts with Andy Thomas, the county attorney, we can't rely on him for legal advice. Because he has a conflict of interest in so many cases so they created their own county litigation department and they were sued and said, look, it's in the constitution, we're the civil representative of the county. That got to a judge and the judge said, no, the county attorney is bound by the same ethical rules as lawyers and if he's got a conflict, a criminal indictment, the board doesn't need to rely on him for civil advice and upheld the decision to create their own litigation unit.
Ted Simons: Who looks after the board of supervisors? Who watches what's going on over there and can the county attorney constantly ship these cases out to other counties?
Mark Flatten: You've got two questions there. You've got this from two perspectives. Can the county attorney be the civil representative at the same time it's prosecuting a member of the board and can he be while -- it looked at the civil side and said if you're prosecuting him, that's sort of the ball that this is wrapped up in. If you've got conflict of interest, the board is within its power to create a separate unit. The more intriguing question is can the county attorney prosecute a member the board. This is similar with the case in the '80s that's sort of unresolved and I've got to think this is going to wind up at the Supreme Court because it comes down to the fundamental roles of various elected officials. The board of supervisors says we can't trust the legal advice we're getting from someone who is prosecuting one of our own. In other words, if you -- basically, there's nobody to watch -- nobody watching the store.
Ted Simons: And the judge's decision, should say, decision, also referred to public records policy as well and this could have far-reaching ramifications.
Mark Flatten: It could be very, very troublesome in the future if, one, if the decision stands and two, if it's applied broadly. Basically what happened is again as part of this ongoing dispute, the sheriff's office was trying to obtain public records -- records from the public records request. Which is quicker than going through subpoenas. The county created their own mechanism, basically you've got to go through the city manager's office. The policy applies to county agencies but the judge's ruling says the law really allows government agencies to set up their own mechanism for delivering public records so that could probably be taken to the next step of any public agency saying, well, you know, our policy is you've got to wait a year.
Ted Simons: Right.
Mark Flatten: That's extreme, but finding that middle ground, assuming this decision stands, which I don't know if it will or not, but that could create a cumbersome process that would allow it to be cumbersome when they don't want to allow public records.
Ted Simons: You've got a bunch of other things happening with that particular set of players, may make sense or you're attacking certain issues in certain ways, but these players aren't going to be around forever. What's going on in regard to future policies governing the county?
Mark Flatten: When it finally plays itself out, is what we're going to be left with? Because there are court decisions being made. We talked about a couple of them. In this particular set of circumstances, whether you agree with the decision or not may or may not make sense, but when you start taking sort of these bad scenarios and taking them to court and getting court precedent for this, these are decisions and policies that people are going to have to live with long into the future, long after these players are gone.
Ted Simons: Last question, right now, you've got the future to worry about, let's worry about right now. How is county government being compromised by this fussing and fighting?
Mark Flatten: You could make the argument and it's been made on both sides that this is extremely expensive proposition. We've got a couple million in legal bills, and side issues -- for instance, the sheriff's office used outside funds to buy the bus. The board of supervisors said even though you've bought it, since you didn't go through us, we're not going to let you drive them, sitting in the garage somewhere, over the board of supervisors saying you didn't check with us first. It's got real ramifications in terms of budget and spending and complicated legal precedents.
Ted Simons: And it's not over yet. Good stuff. Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.
Mark Flatten:Reporter, The Goldwater Institute;