Recall efforts and personal attacks between current Oro Valley Town Council members have irreparably harmed the body’s relationship with the public, a challenger trying to snag one of three available council seats has charged.
Challenger Donald Bristow said at a debate this week he’d be an impartial voice on a divided council that has chosen sides and cut people out of the circle.
He is hoping to unseat one of three incumbents — Joe Hornat, Mary Snider and Lou Waters — who are seeking new terms.
The council candidates, plus Mayor Satish Hiremath and challenger Patrick Straney, discussed the issues in a two-hour debate before an audience of about 115 people Wednesday.
While Snider said the council can get over the hurt from the recall action, Hiremath didn’t seem ready to let it go.
Hiremath supported the unsuccessful recall of Councilman Mike Zinkin last year, and harshly criticized Zinkin and another council member for their criticism of Oro Valley Police Department spending and political tactics. Snider and Hornat were also targets of earlier unsuccessful recall efforts.
Without mentioning any specific incident, Hiremath said it’s his job to enforce the rules. He said he had no choice but to bring serious allegations against a council member to light.
“We have no sanctions unfortunately against each other,” he said, “and that’s why you see elected officials run amuck.”
Bristow said, “You’re breaking the relationship with the people that way. It never will really heal.”
The incumbents, who are running as a slate, told success stories of inheriting a $3 million deficit and turning it into a surplus, passing an open-space code for new developments, maintaining top-notch public safety and building the new aquatic center.
The challengers focused on their roles as community leaders — Straney is president of the Rancho Vistoso Community Association board and Bristow is president of the Wildridge Homeowners Association. They emphasized the importance of early neighborhood involvement in planning for new development, a policy the incumbents also support.
Asked about the discord on the council, the incumbents said the council members have more in common than not.
Hornat and Waters said there were only 15 votes that split the council 4-3 in the past term, and the council is getting its job done.
“There’s nothing wrong with a lively exchange about what you feel,” Hornat said. “I think people expect that from us.”
Straney said he would draw on his experience as a business executive. “I like energetic discussion of issues and I purposely seek alternate opinions,” he said.
“Aggressive discussion, I love. Poking in the eye for the sake of making a point, I don’t. That’s a waste of our people’s time.”
All the candidates agreed the town’s general plan is more like a set of guidelines than a blueprint, and said revisions are needed in the next round of planning, both for clarity and because the town’s demographics are changing.
Snider said the town now has as many kids and teens as adults over 65, and their voices will be heard for the first time in the new general plan.
Bristow said he wants to see the next general plan include “clearly spelled out” directions so it isn’t seen as open to interpretation.
Several major multifamily housing projects under construction are a hot topic.
Hornat said apartments will be part of the community. “We’re not all going to live on three acres anymore,” he said.
“It’s not the American dream anymore to have a house with a white picket fence, one boy, one girl and a dog,” Hiremath added.
He and Snider said apartments will help house talented employees of high-tech companies.
Straney said apartments are an issue “in communities like ours” and the town should work with developers to make sure they’ve heard community concerns and that they’re held to density and open-space requirements.
All six candidates said a recreation center to meet the needs of residents of all ages is emerging as a town priority .
With no town property tax, the council relied on an increase in the utility tax to balance the budget after the recession.
Straney said it was billed as a temporary tax and “the council has every responsibility to make moves to retire that tax,” and should have had a plan from the start to sunset it. He said one way to deal with the drop in revenue would be to reduce spending without cutting services.
Bristow said a good time to give money back to taxpayers would have been when the town’s reserves grew, but now the budget relies on the utility tax revenue.
Hiremath and Waters said the town shouldn’t give up the utility-tax income but should continue to grow revenue from sales taxes by encouraging tourism and business development. Waters said investing some of the money into projects like the aquatic center has helped generate new revenue.
Snider and Hornat said if the town reduces the tax it would have to replace it with another reliable income stream. They said the town should avoid being too dependent on the sales tax.
Early voting begins at the end of the month. The election is likely to be decided in the Aug. 26 primary election.