Gilbert’s 2014 was filled with a mix of progress and tumult among its governing entities. Its main school district continued to earn high marks but still went through a contentious year, while the town government itself faces a suit in the U.S. Supreme Court.
But there were still signs of optimism for the town, highlighted by the opening of the 142nd Mormon temple nationally and some significant additions to the local economy, both of which could provide a boost to the town in the years ahead.
Here are a few of the most memorable moments that took place in Gilbert in 2014.
• The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened two new temples in Arizona this year, including one in Gilbert.
The Gilbert Arizona Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an 85,000-square-foot facility that reaches 195 feet, making it the largest building in Gilbert. Dedicated in March, Elder William Walker said in February the temple would have 200 wards assigned to it and a membership of 100,000, which he said would reduce the burden on neighboring temples like Mesa.
Located at 3301 S. Greenfield Road, the temple features ivory exteriors, several stained-glass windows with agave flowers on them that appear as a motif in the temple. Inside the Celestial room, which is considered the heart of the temple, is a Swarovski chandelier that is 18 feet tall, 8 feet wide and weighs approximately 1,500 pounds.
The Gilbert temple was the 142nd in the world when it opened; the church now has 144, including a temple in Phoenix that opened in November.
• Gilbert Public Schools and its Governing Board garnered a significant amount of attention tied to controversial decisions and staffing changes.
Issues with the district began early in the year during the hiring process for the new superintendent to replace Dave Allison. Allison, who resigned in the summer of 2013, was followed by a pair of interim superintendents, Jack Keegan and Jim Rice, before the board tabbed Christina Kishimoto to be the permanent district head.
The hiring process though was contentious, with board members Staci Burk and Daryl Colvin pushing for attorney Dwayne Farnsworth — a cousin of state Rep. Eddie Farnsworth who had little experience in education. Colvin described Farnsworth as a friend on a Facebook post; Farnsworth called Colvin a friend, but not “a long-lost friend.”
The board made national headlines in October after it voted to redact a portion of a biology textbook that mentioned abortion as part of a section on contraception. The board voted 3-2 to remove the passage from the book, used by honors students at the district’s high schools, after a complaint from the Alliance Defending Freedom the passage violated state statute. A review from the district’s attorney and the state Department of Education indicated the passage did not violate the statute, ARS 15-115, which requires textbooks to offer childbirth and adoption as preferred options to abortion.
The move drew criticism from the ACLU of Arizona and the two board members who voted against it, Jill Humpherys and Lily Tram, along with the national media. However, the board stepped back from the redaction at its final meeting in December after Kishimoto recommended adding supplementary material to the text to align it with state regulations.
The year concluded with the election for two seats on the governing board, which went to Humpherys and Charles Santa-Cruz, who will replace Burk on the board.
A number of district staff left Gilbert Public Schools throughout the year, including dozens of teachers and all four assistant superintendents.
• Gilbert’s governing bodies found themselves retaining a few old faces while adding some new ones to their boards.
Aside from Gilbert Public Schools, where Humpherys and Santa-Cruz defeated Dawn Brimhall, Ron Bellus and Reed Carr, voters elected incumbent Venessa Whitener and Greg Wojtovich for the Higley Unified School District during the November election. Whitener and Wojtovich defeated challengers Rebecca Jarman and Michelle Anderson; the latter fell to Wojtovich by just 93 votes.
The August primary election ended with town residents selecting all four of its new Gilbert Town Council members. Incumbents Eddie Cook, Victor Petersen and Jordan Ray retained their seats and were joined by newcomer Brigette Peterson. They defeated T.J. Tillman, Jason Cvancara and Tim Rinesmith in the council race.
• A months-long investigation into a case involving the death of 21 dogs at a local kennel concluded with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office dropping animal cruelty charges against four defendants.
The case started in June when 21 dogs were found dead at the Green Acre Boarding Facility. The owners initially claimed one of the dogs chewed through drywall and an electric cord to knock out the air conditioning in the room. Investigators from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office found no evidence the a dog cut through the cord, and an ensuing investigation led to charges of multiple charges of animal cruelty against owners Jesse and Maleisa Hughes and caretakers Logan and Austin Flake. The latter is Sen. Jeff Flake’s son.
But the attorney’s office announced on Dec. 22 it dismissed without prejudice the counts of animal cruelty against all four defendants after the presentation of the case to the grand jury did not include the possibility the air conditioner malfunctioned. The Hughes still face one count of fraud.
• The town of Gilbert currently is defending itself in the U.S. Supreme Court in a case about the size of temporary signs on church property.
The high court announced in July it would review Reed v. Town of Gilbert, a case involving an ordinance that limited the size of signs and the number of signs a church can have on its property, along with the length they can stand. Prior to the Town Council amending the ordinance in 2011, church signs were limited to 6 feet and could be displayed for 14 hours; political signs could be as large as 32 feet and could stay in place during election season.
The suit was brought by Good News Community Church Pastor Clyde Reed in 2007 and is backed fiscally and legally by the Scottsdale-based ADF. Arguments are scheduled to commence on Jan. 15.
• The town of Gilbert had its reputation as a safe municipality reinforced in November after a website named it one of the safest cities in the nation. Law Street Media tabbed Gilbert as the second-safest municipality with a population of at least 200,000, a distinction the town earned for the second consecutive year. The rankings are tied to statistics released by the FBI concerning violent crimes like murder, aggravated assault, robberies and forcible rates; the number of such incidents is then divided by 100,000 to create a comparable ratio.
Gilbert earned high marks for a murder rate of 0.44 per 100,000 people and a violent crime rate of 86 per 100,000. Both represented decreases from 2013, when the town’s violent crime rate was 95.68 per 100,000 and the murder rate was 2.33 per 100,000.
Irving, Calif., finished in the top spot for the second-straight year, with Scottsdale finishing seventh and Chandler No. 10.
• One of Gilbert Fire Department’s battalion chiefs resigned this year allegedly violating multiple town policies.
Battalion chief David Rodriguez left his position with the fire department on May 28 the same day the town released an investigation into allegations of misconduct. The investigation revealed Rodriquez solicited firefighters from Gilbert to work at the Fire Lakes Fire District in Coconino County while on duty in Gilbert, or requested firefighters use sick time to work at the Fire Lakes station.
Investigators also determined Rodriguez, who has served as that department’s fire chief since 2008, used Gilbert Internet resources and other forms of technology in connection with his position at Fire Lakes.
Additional allegations that Rodriguez used his own sick time to serve in Fire Lakes were unfounded.
All of the allegations made by the town are violations of Gilbert policy that can result in warnings and suspension to dismissal, among other punishments.
• Higley Unified School District lost a large chunk of its funding, and is in line to lose even more, after a decision by the state Legislature concerning charter schools.
The district had $730,000 cut from its 2014-15 budget after legislators reduced the amount of funds public schools could use to convert campuses into charters by more than $8 million. Higley was one of several districts hit by the decision after it opened two of its new campuses, Cooley and Sossaman middle schools, as charters. Public school districts that convert campuses to charters can receive additional funds for those campuses, although those funds are designated for use at those campuses only.
The decision by the Legislature came as an alternative to eliminating the additional funds wholesale ahead of the 2014-15 school year. That option, however, could be on the table for the 2015-16 budget to compensate for an expected state deficit.
• A multitude of complaints from town residents effectively kiboshed a planned addition of a large-scale BMX facility.
Town officials announced in April they would stop progress to build a complex with USA BMX — the BMX governing body. The proposed complex would have housed the BMX USA office and hall of fame and included a BMX course, a 4,000-seat arena and a bike park residents could use for free. The agreement would also have led to the facility hosting four national BMX events every year.
Mayor John Lewis said in a press statement the town wanted to turn its attention to other projects first, but that announcement came shortly after a series of complaints from residents about noise and traffic issues, the latter related to the possible location near Greenfield and Germann roads near the SanTan Village Mall. Residents also complained about the potential cost of the facility — estimated at $20 million total and $15 million up front for the town — although the agreement did allow for the town to recoup funds through lease payments and a hotel stipulation.
• Despite the loss of the BMX complex, Gilbert did pretty well for itself in terms of economic development in 2014.
The town celebrated the groundbreaking in November for the Rivulon development located off of Gilbert Road and by the Loop 202 Santan Freeway. The complex already has an LA Fitness Franchise and the headquarters for Isagenix, and international health company, set to move in during 2015, and the entire Rivulon project will double Gilbert’s current office space.
Gilbert added a new entertainment option located near the SanTan Village mall in December with the opening of Topgolf. Topgolf, which combines golf with a nightclub experience, added 450 new positions to the area and is expected to serve 450,000 clients in its first year.
The town also made gains to the downtown Heritage District with the opening of a new parking facility and the announcements of new restaurants. Zinburger opened in the fall, and it will be joined by Barrio Queen, Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles, and Pomo next year.
• The Gilbert Town Council concluded its 2014 by passing an amendment to an ordinance that allows for some gun owners to bring weapons into town government buildings.
Proposed by Councilmember Victor Petersen, the amended ordinance now allows for people with state-licensed concealed carry permits to bring weapons with them into buildings owned, leased or run by the town government. People visiting town buildings were not allowed to bring in weapons at all, and people without permits are still required to hand their weapons over to police officials.
“Unless we have at least one good guy with a gun around to protect us from bad guys with guns, we shouldn’t take people’s guns. That’s just common sense to me,” Petersen said during the council’s Dec. 18 meeting.