Chandler state Rep. Jeff Weninger’s district is hundreds of miles away from Bullhead City, but the Republican lawmaker has parachuted into a controversy involving that municipality’s effort to take over a private water utility.
Weninger is accusing Bullhead City officials of using public resources to advocate in favor of a proposition that would permit them to spend $130 million to buy EPCOR Water, which services the area.
Weninger filed a complaint with the state Attorney General, alleging city officials acted unlawfully by publicly endorsing Proposition 415.
The Bullhead City Council recently approved a November ballot initiative that asks local voters to authorize the purchase.
While he doesn’t represent the residents of Bullhead City, Weninger said he’s concerned the city’s actions were so “egregious” that it could snowball into more municipalities taking positions in future elections.
“I worry about how that’s gonna affect other campaigns all over the state,” Weninger said. “Just because it’s up there doesn’t mean it doesn’t set a precedent for what can happen statewide, including my district.”
Arizona law prohibits cities, school districts and other public entities from using their telecommunications, computer hardware, software, web pages, or personnel for the purpose of influencing an election.
While government entities can provide facts about a proposition, the law requires them to be neutral when it comes to telling citizens how to vote.
In his complaint, Weninger notes a video of Bullhead City Mayor Tom Brady calling EPCOR “greedy” was posted on the city’s official website.
“I hope that the voters will see through all of EPCOR’s propaganda and greed and allow us to move forward with this acquisition,” the mayor was recorded saying in a speech the day the City Council voted to put the proposition on the ballot.
EPCOR is fighting the proposition by forming a political action committee called Taxpayers Against City Takeover to campaign against it.
Bullhead argues that water is becoming unaffordable because of rate hikes, but TACT calls the city’s effort’s an extreme example of government overreach.
It’s all leading to a public-versus-private showdown with each side dispersing their own facts about the issue.
The video was posted on a city webpage that included links to a page of “Water Facts” that explains why the city wants to buy EPCOR.
“City residents and businesses have been complaining for years about EPCOR’s water rate increases and consolidation efforts,” the city’s website states. “The City has tried repeatedly to work with EPCOR and to make things better, but nothing has changed.”
Weninger thinks the city’s language is too biased and advocates for passage of the proposition.
He further accused Bullhead of using a land contract to obtain digital billboard advertisements that supported the ballot initiative.
“It’s pretty clear cut they can’t use official resources to try to attain a ‘Yes’ vote from a citizen,” Weninger said.
Brady said officials still have the right to “speak the truth,” but admitted there are grey areas in the law and thinks the city’s decision to post his speech online was “questionable.”
“I think that might be a little over the top,” the mayor said about the video. “I don’t think the city should post that, but the city’s position is that this is a factual thing that happened.”
This is a matter for the courts and attorney general to decide, the mayor added, and the city will comply with whatever orders are given.
He’s not exactly sure why a lawmaker from another district would file complaint against Bullhead City.
“We have no idea why Mr. Weninger got involved,” Brady said.
Weninger said multiple people, whom he did not identify, informed him of the dispute in Bullhead City — possibly because he’s known for not favoring eminent domain, the legal process of the government taking private property.
Before Weninger was elected to represent District 17, he served on the Chandler City Council for two terms.
In 2009, he was the only member of the council to vote against buying property through eminent domain for Chandler’s new City Hall.
Taxpayers Against City Takeover, the political committee formed by EPCOR last year, filed its own complaint Bullhead City with the attorney general, alleging many of the same accusations as Weninger.
Both complaints are marked with the same date of July 24. Weninger insists he had no connection to the utility company.
“I don’t know anybody who works for EPCOR that I know of,” said Weninger, who is not the first lawmaker to file complaints about matters outside their district.
State Rep. Vince Leach, a Republican who represents parts of Pinal and Pima counties, recently filed a complaint against the city of Tempe for passing an ordinance that might conflict with Arizona law.
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office says the complaints against Bullhead City are being reviewed and it could take up to two months for the matter to be resolved.