Few would argue that Mesa is a conservative city. Republicans dominate the political landscape — on the City Council, in the Legislature, in Congress and on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. The chairman of the Arizona Republican Party is, in fact, a Mesa resident.
But within the city whose leaders are sometimes stereotyped as a homogenous, conservative — and often Mormon — group, there are competing visions emerging for the future of the city.
This split in ideology — which crosses religious lines — has been highlighted by the Riverview at Dobson election that will be decided Tuesday. Community leaders are not always aligned in the same way as they are on the proposed Riverview retail center at Loop 202 and Dobson Road, and opponents on one issue can find themselves aligned on the next.
But even as those traditional forces have shown their differences, another force has emerged.
Increasingly, Mesa’s political and civic direction is being driven by a small but active group that has forced a shift in the traditional dynamic that for decades was evident in the city. The group, Valley Business Owners (And Concerned Citizens), along with its supporters, has successfully used the referendum and initiative process to break up Mesa’s established political structure, repeal taxes and put Mesa voters in charge of future city spending.
Through anonymous financial contributions, the support of former Arizona Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost and in most cases the backing of the Mesa electorate, the group can claim numerous successes since organizing in 1996 to oppose Mesa’s smoking ban.
"All of our efforts are to direct the City Council down a path of fiscal sanity," said Valley Business Owners president David Molina. "All of our actions are interrelated, and they haven’t figured that out yet."
Their frequent political opponents are willing to spend money to make Mesa what they see as a well-rounded community, either through incentives to attract national retailers like Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, or the building of new swimming pools, creating a new streetscape for downtown or construction of the $94.5 million Mesa Arts Center.
Vice Mayor Claudia Walters said that Valley Business Owners’ apparent vision for Mesa "certainly isn’t the community I moved to."
In the case of Riverview, Valley Business Owners have been joined by Groscost —who funded the referendum effort but has not been publicly involved in the campaign — state Sens. Karen Johnson, RMesa and Marilyn Jarrett, RMesa and three Gilbert legislators who represent a portion of southeast Mesa — state Sen. Thayer Verschoor, RGilbert and state Reps. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert and Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert. State Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, has supported Valley Business Owners in the past, but has not taken a stand on Riverview.
On the other side, former GOP Congressman Matt Salmon and prominent Mesa lawyer and 2004 Mesa Man of the Year David Udall — who are both being paid by the "Yes on Riverview" campaign — have been visibly promoting the "Yes" vote. Other endorsements have come from state Rep. Gary Pierce, R-Mesa, Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley, RDistrict 2 of Mesa, Gilbert and Scottsdale, and former supervisor and state Sen. Tom Freestone, R-Mesa.
With Mesa’s most wellknown Mormon politicians lining up on both sides of the debate, people quickly point out that Riverview is not a religious issue.
"I don’t think religion has anything to do with this one," said Councilman Mike Whalen, who is not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "The issue is some people don’t like incentives."
Valley Business Owners has found a way to tap that sentiment.
With slogans such as "Promoting truth in government through the public’s right to know" and "Encouraging the overall economic well-being of the community," the group has played to a receptive segment of city residents.
Molina, a legal consultant, is president of the nonprofit group that shares the same federal tax status as a chamber of commerce, allowing it to receive anonymous, unrestricted financial contributions used at the discretion of its seven-member board. The group can become involved in political issues, but cannot endorse candidates.
The group’s secretary-treasurer, Jan Hibbard, is a certified public accountant while the other most active member against Riverview is Fred Phillis of Gilbert, who is retired from a career in public relations.
Valley Business Owners is a 501(c)6 nonprofit organization, according to the federal tax code, which allows it to receive anonymous donations. If someone gives to the organization, their name cannot be made public without their permission. If someone gives to a Valley Business Ownersbacked political committee created for a specific campaign, the donation is public. However, if someone gives money to Valley Business Owners — which members say comes with no strings attached — that money can later be allocated to a political committee. The donation will show that it came from Valley Business Owners, not the actual donor of the money.
Molina, Hibbard and Phillis have all unsuccessfully run for City Council. Molina and Hibbard in Mesa, and Phillis in Gilbert.
In many ways, Molina and Hibbard have become a greater force in Mesa politics than if they sat on the council.
"I see (Valley Business Owners) as a very small group that’s been able to push all the right buttons and had someone like (Groscost) who knows the steps to take," Mesa Councilman Kyle Jones said.
But Johnson, whose financial reports are voluntarily prepared by Hibbard, said she generally finds herself with Valley Business Owners on most of the issues.
"They are very much centered on protecting the taxpayer and that’s certainly the viewpoint I come from," Johnson said.
Hibbard said she first became interested in Mesa politics when the city passed an ordinance in 1996 that banned smoking in her office. Hibbard, a smoker, has since moved her office to a county island.
Valley Business Owners was pursuing a referendum against the Brown and Brown Chevrolet deal, where Mesa condemned downtown property and sold the land to Brown and Brown for $1. The dealership built a parking garage on the north side of Main Street.
Hibbard said a Mesa attorney told her to back off or she would be sued. The group backed off.
Then came the issue of successfully creating council districts, which is how the group started its long-term relationship with Groscost, who did not return calls for this article.
"All of the council members at that point lived in the same neighborhood," Hibbard said. "There was really no representation on the council . . . and no one to represent east Mesa."
Then the group led a successful initiative to repeal Mesa’s sales tax on food sold at grocery stores. The group was successful in defeating the 2002 referendum on the Arizona Cardinals stadium.
In March 2004, voters approved two initiatives launched by Valley Business Owners. As a result, the city now cannot spend more than $1.5 million on a sports arena, entertainment or multipurpose facility. And if the city condemns land, it cannot sell it to a private owner for 10 years.
Win or lose on Tuesday, Riverview will not be the end of Valley Business Owners’ influence on Mesa, members say.
The group still is awaiting an oral argument date in the Arizona Court of Appeals with the hope the court will force Mesa to move forward with last year’s utility rate increase referendum. Mesa did not accept the signatures gathered to overturn the rate hike, and later prevailed in Maricopa County Superior Court.
The group also is moving forward with at least two initiatives. The first will ask voters whether all future utility rate increases should go to a public vote. The second will ask voters whether all development agreements that include developer incentives or subsidies — retroactive to Dec. 1, 2004 — should require a public vote. The deadline to file the signatures is in November.
Valley Business Owners members also say any attempt by Mesa to seek a property tax or sales tax increase next year will be opposed.
Hibbard said city officials have not learned from their mistakes and this process is the only way to keep them in line.
"They’ve abused their power and when you abuse power, you get it taken away from you," Hibbard said.
But Councilman Rex Griswold of northeast Mesa, who said he’s agreed with Valley Business Owners as often as he’s disagreed, does not believe this is the best way to run a city.
"Do you want a republic or a pure democracy where everyone votes by computer on every traffic light?" Griswold asked.