Council member accuses Gilbert of election interference, but council accepts canvass

Laurin Hendrix
Council Member Laurin Hendrix accuses the town of Gilbert of election interference in the conduct of this month's $515 million streets, transportation and infrastructure bond vote. (Screen capture from YouTube)

Council Member Laurin Hendrix accuses the town of Gilbert of election interference in the conduct of this month's $515 million streets, transportation and infrastructure bond vote. (Screen capture from YouTube)

Gilbert Town Council Member Laurin Hendrix accused the town of interfering in this month’s streets, transportation and infrastructure bond election, but council still voted Nov. 16 to accept the canvass.

Hendrix said the town did so by illegally removing anti-bond signs from resident Jim Torgeson and by staff illegally promoting passage of the bond at an informational event at the Gilbert Farmers Market.

The bond issue passed by 0.4%, a margin of 164 votes. The margin was too large, however, to trigger a recount.

Though Hendrix received support from Council Member Aimee Yentes, other council members pushed back hard against Hendrix’s assertions, and the canvass was accepted on a 5-2 vote. Hendrix and Yentes voted in dissent.

“No matter which side of the bond or any election you’re on, you should be concerned if we can’t trust the integrity of our elections,” Hendrix said.

Hendrix traced the history of the signs being removed and the town’s position on the signs and also compared Torgeson’s political signs with a number of other illegal commercial signs that were not removed.

Hendrix also said some elected officials and staff members working an information booth at the farmers market told people that if the bond passes, the town would have less congestion, less traffic and better public transportation.

“Those are not factual statements,” he said. “Those are a conclusion that you make from what the bond is paying for.”

State law limits staff members to giving only information on the bond and prohibits them from campaigning for it.

Vice Mayor Yung Koprowski, who worked the booth in spring, interrupted Hendrix to say those statements were never made. She also noted that some council members had opposed the bond from the dais. Hendrix and Yentes voted in June against its placement on the ballot.

“I want to put on the record that the statement and allegations that Council Member Hendrix stated are not factual,” she said. “We tried very hard to state the importance of the transportation bond and encouraging our residents to vote. ... I don’t appreciate allegations being made when they were not said at all.”

Hendrix wondered if the signs being down or the statements from town staff could have influenced the outcome in a close election.

Yentes said Hendrix’s allegations deserved further investigation and noted that the slim margin under the circumstances made her uncomfortable accepting the canvass.

“Because the margins were so close, that’s where the rubber meets the road for me, at least,” she said. “If this were outside the margins, if this were a landslide election, and it really would not have a made a difference, all these factors that are brought up, then I would feel comfortable moving forward and doing just what our legal obligation via statute is, which is accept the canvass. But with these swirling out there, I definitely have concerns doing that.”

Yentes said she believed because the pro-bond side was better funded and that it was an off-year election conducted by mail with poor turnout, she believed it had all the advantages in being approved and that its slim victory should be an “earth-shaking wakeup call” for the town.

She noted the town paid political consultants to conduct polling on the bond, which showed more than 60% of taxpayers supported it, something that did not materialize at the polls.

“These are issues that we need to think long and hard about as we move forward with other issues,” she said. “We’re either going to build trust with the community or break and fracture trust with the community, and I think this election is reflection that clearly we have some trust-building to do with the community, 'cause it’s not there.”

Council Member Kathy Tilque, co-chair for the bond committee, said it is not easier being on the pro side because of the limitations of what can be communicated and how it can be done. As evidence, she pointed to two school districts losing bonds by landslides.

Tilque also said the statutes on political signage and campaign finance leave gray areas that need to be cleared up and followed.

Tilque noted attorney Timothy LaSota’s letter asserted Torgeson acted as an individual with his signs and the laws therefore do not apply. However, public comment and emails suggest it was an organized group effort, Tilque said.

“Once it becomes organized, they need to be following campaign finance laws,” she said.

Council Member Scott Anderson, countering Hendrix’s assertions that Torgeson’s signs were removed because of their content, asked attorney Christopher Payne if town enforcement was based on content or statute requirements. Payne confirmed it was on statute requirements as Torgeson did not identify himself as paying for the signs, only that the signs were paid for by a “private citizen.”
By Tom Blodgett

Editor, Gilbert

Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent more than 30 years in journalism in Arizona and joined Community Impact Newspaper in July 2018 to launch the Gilbert edition. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he served as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication from 2005-19 and remains editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.


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