Chandler political storms brewing - East Valley Tribune: News

Chandler political storms brewing

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Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2003 12:53 am | Updated: 1:34 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The clouds over Chandler are growing darker.

There's the bickering and finger-pointing among City Council members. There's all the police controversies and the hole left by the retirement of the police chief after months of acrimonious debate.

Now, Chandler has to deal with last week's loss of the city's top administrator, City Manager Donna Dreska, after her 16-month stormy relationship with the police department and some council members.

Dreska didn't give a specific reason for her resignation, but some observers blame the increasingly conflict-riddled council.

Whatever the reason, the city staff and council have no choice but to push ahead.

The loss of leaders, council discord and police issues have marred the city, which has basked in good economic weather in recent years. The city has avoided the budget turmoils that plague other East Valley cities, and capitalized on the retail boom built around the Chandler Fashion Center mall.

"Chandler has enjoyed a strong economy in the last two to three years, and I think it's been the professional leadership . . . until this controversy started to rear it's head," said former Mayor Coy Payne, who added that a prolonged city manager vacancy could hurt the city's pocketbook.

There's been growing discord on the council since the current members took office in June, when Councilman Phill Westbrooks had a falling out with the mayor for not nominating him for the vice mayor's seat as previously promised. And last fall, a heated debate over whether Police Chief Bobby Joe Harris should leave divided the group almost down the middle. He resigned about two months ago.

Then the city manager was reviewed by an outside agency — an unusual event — because of concerns she wasn't communicating well with the council.

And within the council, differences seem far from uncommon as evidenced by regular debates among its members.

But Councilman Dean Anderson said most of the council's decisions are arrived at with consensus, despite the public's perception of a significant schism. There's only one council member who's a "loose cannon," he said, apparently referring to Donna Wallace.

Wallace has asked for an investigation into the role Anderson and Vice Mayor Lowell Huggins played in a recent police purchase of 300 Taser stun guns. She said purchasing laws may have been violated by the two negotiating with the vendor rather than city staff.

"All the bickering, all the fighting is all Donna Wallace," Huggins said. "I'm not going to talk to her anymore. She is off-limits to me."

Wallace laughed when told about the remarks.

"Every time I raise an issue or ask a question, they try to label me as vindictive or whatever," she said. "I'm going to be very professional and work with them, but I'm going to speak up when I see something that's not right."

Councilman Bob Caccamo said that to make the next city manager's stay smoother, the council should, "let that city manager know up front without equivocation what our expectations are."

City officials have yet to move on finding a replacement, but Mayor Boyd Dunn said a new city manager could be found in as little as six months.

Dreska left her post Friday on paid administrative leave and will officially resign Aug. 15. Assistant city manager Pat McDermott, who has been with the city since 1989, will fill the spot in the interim.

Until a replacement is found, the council and staff will have to deal with the city manager vacancy as well as that of the police chief. There are still police concerns hanging over the city, including the pending May criminal trial against former Chandler police officer Dan Lovelace on a second-degree murder charge. And the city staff and council will soon need to dive into the laborious budget process for fiscal 2003-04 — without a municipality's equivalent of a CEO.

"One of the jobs of the city manager is to be a leader," said John Hall, a public affairs professor at Arizona State University. "So when the city manager leaves, the question (among government staff) is: What is the direction of the city?"

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