A rancorous recall election in Avra Valley's Marana Domestic Water Improvement District left all five incumbent board members in place after organizers of the recall failed to place any candidates on the Nov. 4 ballot.
The recall was prompted primarily by a jump in water rates last year that opponents claim the board passed without the knowledge of district residents.
Board members say the allegation is unfounded and they plan to ask for regulations that would prevent "untrue statements" from being printed on future recall ballots.
The recall election, which MDWID officials say will cost district rate-payers an estimated $8,500, saw only three write-in candidates arise to challenge the board of the small water district that serves about 700 customers in unincorporated Pima County west of Marana.
Recall organizer Luis Castañeda said a conscious decision was made to have opponents run as write-in candidates rather than return signed petitions that would have placed the opponents' names on the ballot.
An election official and MDWID Board President Bob Flood disagree. They say the challengers simply didn't get their petitions returned to Pima County Elections Division by the Sept. 5 filing deadline.
"They missed the filing date," Flood said. "They did all their homework and got their petitions in for the recall, but they didn't do their homework well enough and didn't get the petitions in to get their names on the ballot. He (Castañeda) can say what he wants to say, but I saw the look on his face at the last meeting he was at, and he wasn't a very happy camper. I'm sure he found out he was going to have to run as a write-in candidate."
Brad Nelson, director of the county's election division, said ballot petitions were taken out by some of the challengers and were not returned in time.
"There was the opportunity for the challengers to go out and circulate petitions and get signatures and have their names printed on the ballots, and I believe some of the write-in candidates may have been in that process; however, they did not turn in the required paperwork in time," Nelson said.
Castañeda, who ran for the board chairman position against Flood, came closest to unseating a board member. He received 53 votes, or 37 percent, of the total 140 votes cast.
Recalled board members Thomas Knagge, Lillian Payne, Donald Peetoom and Anthony Sostarich all retained their seats with Sostarich, who gained 91 percent of the vote, having the clearest margin of victory.
The other write-in candidates were Castañeda's father, Louis Castañeda, and district resident Gary Hendricks.
Luis Castañeda said the challengers decided to only mount write-in candidates because they were being "hounded by the press and all the commotion and any of the mudslinging that may have come up in the election."
A check of media archives showed the Northwest EXPLORER and Arizona Daily Star had each run two articles about the water district in the year before the election.
Luis Castañeda, who manages a video game store in Tucson, also blamed voters for the challengers' loss in the election, claiming district residents were uninformed about the issues and elections in general.
"I was outside handing out fliers all day at the polls," Castañeda said. "We're talking about 140 people out of 790 people that were registered to vote that showed up - people that really live out in the country that are so uneducated that they are unaware of political parties actually handing out fliers and leaflets. I had a good five or six people telling me what I was doing was illegal. That just goes to show you how often these people really go out to the polls and vote or have ever been to a big city election. That's how far back in the woods these folks are."
State law allows recall organizers to provide a statement outlining their reason for the recall election which is printed on the ballot. Candidates targeted for recall are allowed to provide a response not to exceed 200 words that is also placed on the ballot.
The statement advocating the recall in the Marana Water election charged the water board with "… misusing power of a public official and making important community decisions without proper community representation, such as a rate structure increase resolution, retirement resolutions. Thus granting proper reason for a recall."
All of the board members except Sostarich filed responses to the charges. The four board members denied that they had acted improperly
Luis Castañeda said in previous interviews that the board acted "in secret" when it raised the district's base rate for water service from $16 to $21.40, increased the per gallon charges across the board and added new fees.
Castañeda and other district critics say there were no residents in attendance at the the Nov. 5, 2002 meeting when the board members voted to implement the rate changes and claim the board went out of its way to keep its intentions quiet.
Flood said formal notices of the meetings were posted at two locations and published in the Daily Territorial newspaper, but no residents showed up for the meeting. He said the rate increases and fees were necessary in order for the district to receive $1.6 million in grants and loans from the Rural Development program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"They're not happy with the rates, and we've made it clear that we're not happy with the rates either, but if they want to continue to have water, we're in the middle of a federal program that's going to guarantee that," Flood said.
"Its really just been kind of a vindictive thing in that (the Castañedas) were mad at the board for other issues and they just tried to carry it on and I won't be surprised to see the same two take out petitions and try it again."
Flood said the board has drafted a letter complaining about the language placed on the ballot.
"We plan to send the letter to either the county board of supervisors or the state's attorney general. If there was some mechanism available for investigation of the charges that were made the recall wouldn't have happened. The claims that they made on the ballot were untrue and there was a traceable path to prove that they were untrue. The legislation needs to change. It's not fair to people in office when the claims are empty," Flood said.
The right to recall is guaranteed under the Arizona Constitution and existing state laws governing the process do not address the type of statements that can be placed on the ballots.
Nelson said any false or libelous information submitted on a ballot would probably have to be addressed through a civil court action.
"Within the statute that pertains to recall, the only thing that is mentioned there is that the statement opposing the recall can be no greater than 200 words. As for the factualness of the content - libel, slander or what have you - nothing is mentioned in the statute at all," Nelson said.
Luis Castañeda said he plans to watch the activities of the water district board closely and may extend his scrutiny to the board of the Avra Valley Fire District, which he claims is also failing to serve the needs of district residents.
"I think I'm going to actually start a community watchdog group in my area that I think is going to be much more beneficial in getting the community involved," he said. "I'll be monitoring the water district board and the fire board very closely."