Water rates dominate Phoenix City Council race

PHOENIX — A formerly uncontested City Council race by three incumbents has evolved into a heated debate over communication and water rates that will provide voters with a trio of write-in candidates to consider Nov. 2.

While Mayor Carlos DeBritto remains unopposed, incumbents Herm Blum, Mike McKey and Mike Stitt have drawn write-in challenges from residents Carolyn Bartell, Karen Jones and Bruce Sophie.

The three said their bids for public office are spurred by concerns over a lack of communication from City Hall and a recent hike in water rates.

Water rates were increased in August, which led to some residents paying up to 33 percent more for water.

After public outcry, the council reverted to the old rates for 90 days while city officials and an ad hoc committee study the issue.

Even with water rates changed back — and credits forthcoming for some residents — election signs and pamphlets from challengers are springing up around town, and candidates expect a hotly contested race.

Council members say reverting to the old rates was a response to citizen concerns, while the write-in candidates claim the council decision was a result of new competition in the race.

Stitt, owner of an auto-repair business, said he hoped the coming election was "not just about water." He pointed to a slew of improvements in recent years, including the addition of a community kitchen, better city parks, a healthy city budget, socials at the local grange and promises of urban renewal.

Stitt, who is council president, said he wanted another term to help finish some of the work started by the current council, including the city's part in the much-needed rebuild of the Fern Valley interchange.

Blum, a retired chiropractor who was appointed and elected in 2008, said he felt the current council has done a good job.

"The budget is the big thing, and we're in the black. That alone tells how hard we've worked," Blum said.

Carolyn Bartell, whose husband, Stan Bartell, is seated on the council, said she would push for review of the city's budget and encourage better communication between City Hall and residents.

She called the council's decision to rescind the rates after public criticism "a decisive victory for the citizens."

Carolyn Bartell acknowledged a water-rate increase is needed, but said any rate increase should have citizen involvement and advance warning.

Both Jones and Sophie concurred with Bartell on the need for improved communication.

A local gardener and active Neighborhood Watch participant, Jones said she would push for review of every aspect of the city budget and work to improve communication.

Sophie, a former council and budget-committee member who resigned from the budget committee in protest over the new water rates, said he would work to ensure citizens' voices are heard.

Council member Mike McKey said last week he welcomed citizen involvement and said whomever is elected will "have plenty to do."

"I can absolutely, totally, 100 percent agree that this water issue was not put together the best way, but we took a few steps back and we're getting the people involved," McKey said.

"Without the rate increase, we don't have a contingency fund and we can't really do anything. Talent's bill is way higher, but they did a better job of PR.

"After all this, we're going to come to the conclusion the rates need to go up," he added. "It's easy to be a critic. If they end up winning, I'll be glad to watch from the other side and be the critic."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.

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