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Scottsdale political gadflies

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Posted: Sunday, September 18, 2005 6:19 am | Updated: 8:08 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Michelle Aubert has been on the scene for a relatively short time, but she was involved in one of Scottsdale’s most memorable political spats in years.

The incident was Oct. 18, during the public comment session of a City Council meeting that was broadcast live on CityCable Channel 11.

Aubert accused Mayor Mary Manross of accepting an illegal campaign contribution from Harkins Theatres, then left the podium. Manross was in no mood for it.

"If you understand the law — excuse me, ma’am! Now I have the floor now! I just got accused of this," Manross said.

"If you have the floor, I have the floor," Aubert shot back.

"Miss Aubert! Miss Aubert!" Manross shouted.

The verbal squabble lasted 90 seconds before three police officers escorted Aubert and two others from the meeting.

Aubert said she can be outspoken because she has no business dealings with the city. "I have nothing to lose," she said. "I work at a gym, so I feel I can be very forthright and forward."

She organized opposition to developer Steve Ellman’s plan to build a citysubsidized warehouse retail center at the former Los Arcos Mall site. The plan fell apart. Then Aubert opposed a plan for a city-subsidized tech center at Los Arcos. That plan moved forward.

Lisa Haskell

Lisa Haskell is trying to put a positive spin on "gadflyism."

The Scottsdale resident serves on the Neighborhood Enhancement Commission, a volunteer board that works with city officials to identify and provide neighborhood services.

Haskell blasts through conversations in breathless bursts. Yet she said it’s important to follow words with action.

"A lot of activists are known for throwing a lot of grenades, and I think you have to balance that with actually going out and doing something positive instead of always looking at the negative and throwing things and saying, ‘This is bad, this is bad, this is bad,’ " she said.

She became an activist in the mid-1990s while trying to help a drug-addicted friend. Haskell and her friend’s family developed a strategy to have him arrested, so that he would be forced to enter a court-ordered treatment program.

That led to a role in launching the Scottsdale Advocacy Center in north Scottsdale, which led to a role in starting a Scottsdale chapter of the Salvation Army, which led to a role on the Scottsdale Pride Committee.

She never minces words. One Christmas she asked a former City Council member to serve as a Salvation Army bell ringer.

She said, "He looked at me like I had asked him to swing nude from a chandelier or something and — ‘Ha! Ha!’ — I thought, ‘Maybe not.’ "

Mike Merrill

Scottsdale resident Mike Merrill represents an emerging generation of political activists — techno-gadflies. He was a fixture at Scottsdale City Council meetings for years but hasn’t been around as quite as often in recent months.

He still makes his opinion known on virtually every issue, said Councilman Bob Littlefield.

"Merrill didn’t come to the last two council meetings, but he’s probably sent 20 or 30 e-mails in that time," Littlefield said.

Merrill forwards his e-mails to elected officials, city staff members, other gadflies and members of the media. Sometimes he forwards replies he receives to his e-mails. At times, he forwards his responses to the replies.

Sometimes the flurry of electronic messages borders on spam.

Merrill credits activist Nancy Cantor for introducing him to political activism several years ago.

At the time, he opposed a plan to publicly subsidize a warehouse store development at the former Los Arcos Mall site. It eventually failed.

"It takes a lot — I mean a lot — of time to deal with all of the city stuff," he said. "I spend hours upon hours upon hours going to meetings, reading City Council packets, looking at projects and so on and so forth."

Darlene Petersen

It takes a twofold approach to shape opinions of Scottsdale City Council members, according to Darlene Petersen, a resident who has been in the opinion-shaping business for nearly 40 years.

The method:

1) Marshall support from several likeminded residents, because elected officials respect shows of force.

2) Be persistent.

"It takes going over and over and over again, because they think if they pat you on the head and say, ‘Oh yes,’ you’ll go away," Petersen said. "But there are some of us that won’t go away."

She became a political activist in the late 1960s when the city tried to keep Coronado High School students from parking their cars in her neighborhood.

The city’s original solution was to ban street parking in the area from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. Police ticketed students, but also residents who hadn’t left for work. She canvassed her neighbors, then brokered a new deal with city officials to ban parking from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., which worked better.

Petersen has developed a strategy to use when council members drift off during the public comment sessions of meetings.

She said, "You just have to stop and let a moment of silence go by — and hope that they will wonder what’s going on."

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