Gilbert Town Council considers how to replace departing members; Paratransit changes tabled

Virginia Morrison, Gilbert Town Council, Paratransit
Gilbert resident Virginia Morrison urged Town Council to vote no on Paratransit service changes so that it could find ways to fund the service as it exists. "Reducing these boundaries greatly impacts those families that rely on this service as a lifeline to carry on their daily needs," she said. "They have relied on the service to enjoy the independence that defined their quality of life." (Tom Blodgett/Community Impact Newspaper)

Gilbert resident Virginia Morrison urged Town Council to vote no on Paratransit service changes so that it could find ways to fund the service as it exists. "Reducing these boundaries greatly impacts those families that rely on this service as a lifeline to carry on their daily needs," she said. "They have relied on the service to enjoy the independence that defined their quality of life." (Tom Blodgett/Community Impact Newspaper)

The Gilbert Town Council vacancy drew 105 residents interested in filling the empty seat, town officials said.

But for the 104 applicants who get turned away from the chance to replace former Council Member Eddie Cook, a second and third chance could be on the horizon. Cook resigned Feb. 18 after his appointment to become Maricopa County assessor.

A discussion on how to fill council vacancies and a decision to table planned changes to Paratransit transportation services to the disabled highlighted the March 3 council meeting.

Though council took no firm action on filling empty council seats, it is planning for the possibility of more vacancies next month after the April 6 deadline to file nominating petitions to run for office.

At that point, council members Jordan Ray and Brigette Peterson may be required by Arizona’s resign-to-run law to leave their position as they seek others. Ray is collecting signatures to run for justice of the peace in the Highland Justice Court and Peterson for mayor.


Mayor Jenn Daniels, who announced Feb. 3 that she would not run for re-election, expressed urgency at filling the positions if they should come open as expected. She backs the town’s plans to roll the remaining applicants into any pool that would be needed to replace Peterson and Ray.

For one, Daniels said Cook, Peterson and Ray have carried heavy loads as council liaisons to different town boards, and their departures would leave 17 such vacancies to fill—and only the mayor and three remaining council members to fill them if the other seats stay empty.

For another, the town already has delayed its financial retreat by more than a month to April 16 because of Cook’s resignation. That delay has dramatically shortened the time between the retreat and the adoption of a budget for fiscal year 2020-21.

“I just want to make it clear: We are on a time crunch,” Daniels said. “I don't look at that lightly. We have a community, a town to run, and we need to be able to have leadership.”

Council Member Aimee Yentes had expressed to Daniels concerns that Cook’s replacement should be in a position to have a say on any new openings that follow. Daniels proposed that the new member would be allowed to review the applications and interviews and make his or her own rankings of the candidates going into the next round of replacing candidates.

Council Member Jared Taylor wondered about appropriateness of former council members’ rankings of candidates being considered when it comes time to replace those same council member. But Daniels said she believed starting over or even dropping the resigning members’ rankings would delay the process at a time when the town cannot afford to have it delayed.

Adding to the dilemma: Yentes is eight months pregnant and could be unavailable for deliberations on candidates for new vacancies if they should occur in early April.

For replacing Cook, the town has chosen a process that starts with an application period that ends at 4 p.m. March 4. The application would consist of filling out the personal information from a Town Board and Commission application and filing a resume and a statement of 250 words or fewer on why they wish to serve on council and why they should be chosen.

On March 5, council members will rank the applicants, then meet in executive session to choose which six applicants will be interviewed for the position. Two alternate candidates also will be chosen.

The council will interview each of the six applicants in a public meeting March 17. The applicants all will be asked the same six questions. The applicants will be requested to not be present for each other’s interviews and will not be allowed to carry an electronic device on them when they are interviewed.

When the interviews are complete, the council will meet in executive session to discuss the applicants. They may return thereafter for a special council meeting to entertain a motion to appoint one of the applicants.

The same or similar process would be used in future vacancies.

Cook’s replacement would serve the remainder of the year and would have to run for election to continue past 2020. That is because of the timing of Cook’s resignation more than 30 days before the deadline to file nominating petitions.

However, if Ray and Peterson resign in April, their replacements would fill the remainder of their terms, which expire at the end of 2022.

Paratransit

The town tabled a decision on limiting Paratransit options to disabled residents who live within three-fourths of a mile of a bus line, a minimum standard of service mandated by federal law. The service currently is offered throughout the town.

Daniels then challenged Valley Metro, town staff and local schools to find an alternative way to keep serving the disabled community’s transportation needs.

Council members acknowledged from the dais they expected the change, as recommended by staff, to pass at the March 3 meeting. However, after hearing from members of the disabled community, who voiced concerns about the changes throughout the process and at the March 3 council meeting, the members said they could not vote for the change.

The service reduction was proposed because the town was facing a $350,000 shortfall in funding to cover the service and wanted to ensure its continued viability, Development Services Director Kyle Mieras said.

“We can look at all the data that we want, and it may seem very clear to us the choice that we need to make,” Daniels said. “But when it comes down to it, these are humans. These are people having a human experience in our community, and we want them to be participating in our community. We do not want to alienate them.”

Paratransit, mostly known locally as Dial-a-Ride, provides transportation for people with disabilities who are unable to use fixed-route transit service in their region. Paratransit usually provides door-to-door service for people who call for a ride at least 24 hours of when the ride is needed.

The proposed service reduction would have left much of south Gilbert and a portion of central Gilbert without Paratransit service.

However, those affected would still have access to RideChoice, a service that gives access to taxis and ride services such as Uber. Paratransit involves a shared ride, but RideChoice does not have to be shared.

RideChoice is cheaper for the town at a subsidy of $20 per ride vs. $49 per ride for Paratransit. RideChoice also can be cheaper for the rider, as it starts at $3 per ride, as opposed to Paratransit, which is $4 per ride.

However, a charge of $2 per mile kicks in for RideChoice users once they go past 8 miles, a restriction that Paratransit does not have. Those charges can make RideChoice prohibitively expensive, disabled community members said.

The disabled community members speaking at the meeting asked the council for more time to find innovative solutions to the funding issues.

HD South contract

Council voted 5-1 to approve another three-year contract for $50,000 in funding for HD South, which houses the Gilbert Historical Society and runs additional cultural programming at its facility.

The approval came after HD South President and CEO Kayla Kolar gave her annual report to the council on HD South’s offerings and outlined its new capital campaign.

Kolar noted that the new contract included a provision for the town to use HD South facilities for meetings as the town does renovations on its municipal buildings.

Yentes voted in dissent, praising HD South’s programming and efforts to be self-sustaining but saying philosophically she could not support giving public money to a nonprofit.

However, Daniels and other council members said they believed preserving the town’s history is a rightful function of the town.
By Tom Blodgett
Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent 30 years in journalism in Arizona and is the editor of the Gilbert edition of Community Impact Newspaper. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he now serves as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.


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