Fountain Hills council's new conservative ideology tilts against local pragmatism
Corrections & Clarifications: State lawmaker John Kavanagh’s last name was misspelled in a previous version of this article.
Small Fountain Hills, on the Valley's fringes, often churns out unconventional officials that are as politically oversized as the town's namesake fountain, which shoots water higher than the Washington Monument.
It is home to figures such as former Maricopa County sheriff and diehard Trump ally Joe Arpaio, as well as state Sen. John Kavanagh, a longtime champion of Republican culture-war policies.
Now, a new class of local leaders has taken up that ideological torch after winning one of the "nastiest" elections Fountain Hills has ever seen.
The newly seated Town Council majority has pushed through quick changes, including firing a lobbying consultant, which most municipalities deem essential; reinstituting an invocation prayer before meetings; and cutting minuscule budget items while trying to keep big spending promises and maintaining an anti-tax stance.
It's an unusual approach in an arena that typically is not so politically dogmatic. Town officials have to deliver services such as road repair, running water and code inspection, so local government is usually an exercise in practicality rather than ideology.
'Water is power':Republican lawmakers pressure Scottsdale over community's water shutoff
Dozens of conservative city and town officials crossed the aisle last year to back Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly's reelection bid, for example.
Some of them were formally rebuked by the GOP, but they supported Kelly because his policies helped local governments, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act that provided billions in federal cash to communities for efforts like road and bridge repair ― not because he had a "D" or an "R" next to his name.
"I am a lifelong Republican, but I don’t prioritize partisan politics over what’s in the best interest of my city and my state," said Mesa Mayor John Giles, who was censured by his party for endorsing Kelly. "He’s just done a great job representing the city of Mesa. It’s not any more complicated than that."
Some Fountain Hills leaders have embraced the opposite approach.
One influential member, Allen Skillicorn, is staunchly anti-tax and opposes the single largest source of roadway funding the region has seen for decades ― a voter-approved sales tax called Proposition 400 that had been supported by virtually every local official in Maricopa County ― even though residents likely are counting on him to fund the more than $50 million worth of road repairs he promised.
Skillicorn also supports bills that would nix millions of dollars in funding across the Valley, including at least 6% of Fountain Hills' $46 million budget.
“I saw a state that was run by a big city that has very left-wing policies,” said Skillicorn, the first-term council member of the 23,000-person town, who was formerly a state lawmaker in Illinois. “I'm not going to let our state become Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco.''
A loyal majority of the seven-person council often falls in line with Skillicorn's ideological approach.
Three other members vote with him 83% of the time, including during eight of the 11 split votes on the newly seated council. Councilmember Gerry Friedel voted to kill a major policy that he previously had voted to adopt, and Councilmember Hannah Toth rejected her own motion when Skillicorn disapproved.
It's unclear if the strategy will help or hurt day-to-day services for residents, but already the financials are failing to pencil out.
Fountain Hills subsidizes some of its street work with discretionary general fund dollars, as opposed to leaning solely on money from its capital improvement fund or from outside revenue sources from the state and federal government.
The council majority's campaign promise to fix the town's streets requires it to find another $3.5 million somewhere in the budget without raising taxes. So far, the new officials only have been able to cut small spending items, such as $30,000 for a storage unit to house town-owned wheelchairs used by residents.
It's a rate of saving that's roughly 400% too slow if officials hope to deliver the promised road repair.
The new council has met only twice since newcomers were seated, but some community members already are starting to become concerned.
“Residents should be made aware that chasing $20,000 here and $10,000 there just contributes to making the roads worse by nibbling pennies and hiding the truth,” resident Eugene Slechta wrote in an op-ed for the Fountain Hills Times. “Stop the charade.”
How we got here: The product of a ‘dirty’ small-town election
Skillicorn and two of his council allies, Toth and Brenda Kalivianakis, were elected in August during what former Town Councilmember and registered Republican Mike Scharnow called the “nastiest” election he’s seen in his four decades as a Fountain Hills resident.
A scorched-earth campaign:A 'dirty' small-town election campaign shows how partisan politics seeps into Arizona communities
The council newcomers were supported by a political action committee called Reclaim Our Town, or ROT, that embraced hyper-partisan rhetoric in an effort to secure a conservative majority. It targeted the town's two liberal candidates: a 72-year-old retired English teacher named Cindy Couture and incumbent Mayor Ginny Dickey.
Fountain Hills residents Lawrence Meyers and Crystal Cavanaugh founded the PAC, which spent roughly $5,000 during the campaign.
Its hallmark bright orange signs included depictions of Dickey as a puppet master leading the town to disaster and included slogans such as “leftists ruin towns.” Other ROT tactics included:
- Branding Couture as a far-left radical because of her Facebook posts about Democratic socialism and prosecuting “anti-vaxxersfor attempted murder.”
- Labeling Dickey as a “leftist” because of her endorsement of and friendship with Couture.
- Calling Couture a “communist candidate" and, according to the English teacher, circulating a picture of her in a Soviet-style outfit.
Kalivianakis has portrayed herself as a moderate and did not engage in what she called ROT's “negative” campaigning “bad politics," while Toth and Skillicorn joined the PAC in taking swings.
The former Illinois state lawmaker went after Couture during a candidate forum last summer. It caused an uproar among the audience and led to event organizers clearing the hall for the remainder of the forum.
“There’s three of us who are telling the truth and (Couture) is not,” said Skillicorn, who went on to quote President Ronald Reagan by saying, “It isn't so much that liberals are ignorant, it's just that they know so many things that aren't so."
The tone of the campaign was one that struck both conservatives and liberals as odd. Town and city council candidates in Arizona don't run as Republicans or Democrats because local elections are non-partisan, a reflection of local leaders' often non-partisan duties.
Voters in the mostly conservative town of Fountain Hills have rarely balked at electing Democrats in the past.
“I've spent almost 16 years in elected office. I can say with certainty, I have never seen such a dirty campaign in my life,” said former Town Councilmember Allen Magazine.
Where we are: Policy changes 'sidestep procedure and thorough evaluation'
The strategy worked. Only one ROT-backed candidate, 90-year-old Arpaio, lost his election, to Dickey. The three victorious conservative candidates joined right-leaning Councilmember Friedel this year, securing the conservative majority that ROT had sought.
One month into the new council, it has become clear the rhetoric wasn't simply a campaign strategy but a blueprint for how the victorious majority plans to govern.
Nearly three-quarters of the split votes taken by the council have been between the four conservative members and three more liberal ones ― Dickey, Sharron Grzybowski and Vice Mayor Peggy McMahon. They include votes to:
- Fire a town lobbyist who was being paid $40,000 each year to monitor policies at the state level that could impact town functioning. According to Skillicorn, that made Fountain Hills the only town in Arizona not to have a professional representing its interests at higher levels of government, other than the 5,000-person town of Guadalupe.
- Exclude $30,000 from a spending plan to buy a temperature-controlled storage unit for wheelchairs that elderly Fountain Hills residents borrow from the town.
- Reinstate an invocation prayer for the beginning of council meetings to replace a moment of silence that had been used for the past couple of years.
- Repeal an ordinance that had carved out areas of the city where no signs could be displayed, a policy designed to preserve the town's character and tourism draw.
Councilmembers directed town employees to look into options for storing wheelchairs. Aside from that, none of those split decisions was made with an alternative plan in mind or much analysis provided by town staffers, which elected officials usually lean on when making important policy choices.
The council majority simply undid the sign ordinance, despite most opponents having only a few elements they objected to. Most of their issues with the policy revolved around its impact on local businesses, according to Dickey, but even the Arizona Chamber of Commerce asked town leaders not to "kill the whole thing."
The prayer invocation was reinstituted without considering guidelines, meaning there are no time limitations or resident requirements for those who would want to lead the prayer.
During the firing of the Fountain Hills lobbyist, conservative councilmembers argued the lobbying contract was a waste of money because town officials can deal directly with state lawmakers. They also called it redundant because Fountain Hills is a member of regional boards, such as the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, which already advocate on the town's behalf.
Nixing the contract may prove to be a smart move but has worried some locals because the council didn't bother crafting a solid plan to protect the town's legislative interests before booting the lobbyist.
The local paper captured that mood.
"These questions should have been answered, or at least properly considered, before the contract was severed," the Fountain Hills Times editorial staff wrote about the lack of due diligence. "We’re not opposed to change. We’re just concerned when that change is carried out in a way that seems to sidestep procedure and thorough evaluation."
Where we're headed: Culture war council's financial plan doesn't pencil out
The Town Council majority said the lobbyist's firing and sign ordinance was about money, but the financial benefits of both moves are dwarfed by the millions they need to put towards roadway funding alone to make the improvements they promised.
Skillicorn's other comments suggest a different motivation. He wrote that the lobbyist firing was "about people making our state better, not the lobbyist class and the agenda of elites," and said the sign ordinance was a free speech issue, despite those types of code restrictions being commonplace.
Skillicorn maintains that the town can fund its goals by stopping wasteful spending but said he hasn't seen a line-item budget yet to break down where those wasteful expenses exist.
He cited a roadway study that could cost around $400,000, which town spokesperson Bo Larsen said was a necessary investment to receive millions in federal cash for transportation projects.
Skillicorn also pointed to a "multi-hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollar" umbrella structure and grand staircase that he said the town frivolously purchased, a $40,000 contribution to a regional homelessness study and $20,000 for a new town logo.
"This is this is not rocket science. For the last four years, this town has been spending money on anything," Skillicorn said. "There is so much money that is wasted every month ... We are capable of tightening our belts and learning how to do more with less."
The numbers suggest that tightening the town's belt can only go so far. Even if the cuts Skillicorn mentioned are feasible, it would save less than half of the $3.5 million the town will need to hit its pavement-funding goal of $6 million. Those types of savings will also have to be duplicated year-over-year for at least a decade.
That level of savings is more than twice what the town plans to spend on its entire development services department, equivalent to about 75% of fire and medical funding, and two-thirds of law enforcement's $5.5 million budget.
Meanwhile, Skillicorn supports three state bills that would slash the town's tax revenue by roughly $3 million each year ― another reason why he proposed firing the town's lobbyist who had argued against such bills.
He's also against a regional sales tax extension of Prop. 400. That initiative has guaranteed Fountain Hills more than $6 million in roadway funding, has paid for multiple major projects across the region ― including Loops 101, 202 and 303 ― and had been supported by every local leader regardless of ideology.
Kalivianakis said she disagrees with Skillicorn on his opposition to Prop. 400 and support of the tax-revenue-killing state bills. But she has largely supported her colleague, only defying the rest of the council majority once when she abstained from a vote on wheelchair storage funding.
Friedel and Toth did not respond to requests for interviews.
But just the prospect of more cuts to town services in order to fund high-dollar roadwork without raising tax revenue is enough to prompt concern among some residents.
"I just wonder how long it's going to be before the people in town realize, 'Hey, wait a minute, the park looks crappy and crummy. How come we're not maintaining the park?'" resident Gene Mikolajczyk said. "That's because these guys took money from the park maintenance fund to put it towards the roads."
Reach Sam at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KmackSam.