Resident Virginia Morrisonn said the town needed to keep its options on passenger rail open in order to help alleviate congested roadways. (YouTube)

Anything to do with light rail is gone, kapute, off the table for Gilbert.

Council last week put to rest an issue that has stirred bitter community resentment since last year with opponents claiming that the passenger rail would bring in crime and homeless people while increasing the tax burden on residents.

“I want to say R.I.P to light rail,” Councilman Scott Anderson remarked.

Gilbert is now banned from using any resources, such as money and manpower, for light rail, including feasibility studies, stations and designs. The town also is prohibited from including it in its transportation plans.

“Light rail never existed to begin with,” Mayor Brigette Peterson said. “It has never existed in Gilbert and so now it’s dead even though it never lived.”

Passenger rail service became a talking point for residents after the council last spring considered spending $288,760 for a feasibility study to look at locating two transit centers in town to serve as a hub for commuter rail, intercity rail and other modes of transportation such as bus, bicycle and rideshare. But community push-back prompted council to table the study.

The light rail ordinance was one of three dealing with passenger rail on the March 7 council agenda.

Newly elected members Jim Torgeson, Chuck Bongiovanni and Bobbi Buchli also pushed a second ordinance dealing with commuter rail and Peterson was promoting her own proposal. Those two ordinances were tabled for a future study session so the council can work on a measure they can agree on for action.

Peterson explained why she was the sole dissenter on the light rail ordinance, saying she would have liked to have addressed the matter in one ordinance.

Anderson, Torgeson, Buchli and Bongiovani and Vice Mayor Kathy Tilque voted for the ordinance and Councilwoman Yung Koprowski abstained.

Three residents spoke, including Virginia Morrison, who said the town needed to keep its options on passenger rail open in order to help alleviate congested roadways.

“Now is the time to plan, not tie the hands of experts in the field,” she said. “Past councils have recognized the importance of looking at all options and planning ahead.”

Maureen Hoppe, however, said the town shouldn’t be spending any money or time on rail whatsoever.

“This current council consists of a non-speaker, another who has no clue whether the lights are on or off in this building, inside-joke comedian, the town’s personal PR professional, the school marm and another who looks like you’re just sitting here wasting your time,” she said. “This is not about your personal and professional agendas. Do your jobs and do what you were all elected to do.”

The council spent over an hour in a lively debate on the merits of the three ordinances before taking action.

The three council members’ commuter rail ordinance would have banned Gilbert from spending money on it, which included for feasibility studies, designing, building or maintaining stations and from adding it in any transportation plan.

According to Torgeson, staff inadvertently omitted a provision stating that should any expenses for commuter rail incur, it would first need council approval.

“It would force transparency that four people up on this dais would have to vote to spend that money,” Torgeson said. “If four members up here wish to vote for it, they can be held accountable by you.”

Also under the trio’s proposal, Gilbert would be prohibited from assessing a fee or tax for commuter rail but the town would be allowed to address or conduct business pertaining to commuter rail.

A sticking point previously with some of the council members was that preventing the town from participating in the discussions would tie its hands to plan for impacts.

Peterson said she could not support the proposal for several reasons, stating the omission of commuter rail from the town’s transportation plans was “poor planning and irresponsible and not transparent to our residents to not discuss that commuter rail could be coming through this community.”

Peterson’s ordinance would ban Gilbert from assessing new fees and taxes for building, maintaining or repairing rail lines or trains for either commuter rail or light rail, and any new tax to fund either would first need to go to a public vote. As a non-charter municipality, Gilbert is allowed to enact a tax without a vote of its residents.

The ordinance, however, doesn’t prevent the town from spending existing monies for rail or from spending monies on studies.

“No matter what we do at this level at the Town Council, we will not be able to stop commuter rail potentially from coming through Gilbert,” Peterson said.

“The rail lines are owned by a private entity and if an outside company such as Amtrak chooses to bring commuter rail on those lines, the Town of Gilbert will not have a say one way or the other.”

Amtrak announced two years ago a15-year plan to connect up to 160 communities in over 25 states, including providing train trips between Phoenix and Tucson. Exactly when that service might commence or the station placements made are not yet known.

Peterson said her ordinance would ensure “the public is in control of fees or taxes” and it would not jeopardize the agreement the town has with the developer of the Cooley Station community to possibly build a transit center there.

“Breaking a developer’s agreement could cost us more than money,” Peterson said. “It costs us our reputation as a town that we are open to business and responsible for contracts we pass and we stand by those agreements. The other ordinances could open us up to a costly lawsuit if we pass those versions.”

Torgeson noted that the developer’s agreement already has been broken a number of times and that the contract says the town “may” and is not committed to building the transit hub.

“I’ve heard every single person up here say that they were against light rail,” he said. “We just stop it right now. It could always be undone in the future by four council people if they voted to do so. But at least we are able to give people the assurance they are asking for.”

Koprowski said it was unfortunate that it has reached a point where council members were using ordinances as tools.

“I do feel that our current processes and procedures would allow us to make decisions on rail,” she said. “The town right now could not go out and do a transit study without that coming back to council and having discussions or approval.”

Tilque said the council needed to drop the ordinances and work together.

“What I’m opposed to bringing multiple ordinances back and forth to this dais without a working group, without us sitting down and really talking about what can we agree on and what we can’t agree on,” Tilque said. “But to continue it in the form that we are doing is insane.”

She said the council members who are trying to make good policy and do it in such a way that it should be done are all of a sudden being seen as supporters of light rail and commuter rail, which is not true.

She singled out Torgeson, Bongiovanni and Buchli for signing off on items to put on the agenda and that competing ordinances appear to give the impression that the council is divided and has no intention of working together to find solutions.

“It’s embarrassing,” Tilque continued. “I’m embarrassed and I want us to sit down and find solutions together – not in this format that is causing distress and unrest within our community.”

Buchli took exception to Tilque’s comment.

“I will never be embarrassed for representing the people that elected me,” Buchli said. “I am not embarrassed by this. And I’m embarrassed that you’ve said that. We need to show them that we are going to represent them.”

Tilque reiterated that she was embarrassed by the process that they were using and “not by any of us standing up and talking about what we believe.”

Peterson reminded everyone that she had offered to bring the issue to a study session but instead, the council was forced to a vote Feb. 21 on a more stringent rail ordinance by Torgeson, Bongiovanni and Buchli that failed.

As a result, Peterson said she decided to craft an ordinance that she thought would protect the community, answer the questions and end the discussions.

Bongiovanni said he would have preferred a discussion as proposed by Peterson over competing proposals. He also said that if the mayor really wanted a study session, she would have called for one.

“But mayor, you brought this on the agenda today,” said Bongiovanni, who called for the vote last month. “We had to put our ordinances on the agenda to defend ourselves.

“So the three of us, not knowing exactly all the processes had to come up with what we felt were representing the citizens of Gilbert by saying, let’s kill light rail. I would have rather gone your direction that you said and let’s all talk but we weren’t given that opportunity because you put it in the agenda today– so kind of feels like mama bear just scolded her three little cubs.”

Bongiovanni noted that the council could have still held a study session despite the Feb. 21 vote and that Peterson didn’t need to put her ordinance on the agenda.

“Sure,” Peterson agreed. “But I already knew you were working on ordinances to bring forward.”

“But it wasn’t handed in until we saw your ordinance,” Bongiovanni said.

“But I didn’t know that because I can’t talk to you guys,” Peterson said. “Again the public sees that we can not speak to each other and because the three that were working on the ordinances were talking to each other but they could not talk to the rest of us. This is Open Meeting Law.”

Peterson made the motion to approve her ordinance with an amendment that the town would not expend any money for the maintenance, repair or construction of commuter rail and/or light rail. Her motion died after gaining no support from the council.

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