By Amanda Lee Myers
PHOENIX — The far western Arizona town of Quartzsite was in disarray Monday after the town council ousted the mayor from power and declared a state of emergency, all over an online video that shows a woman being arrested.
Mayor Ed Foster told The Associated Press on Monday that the town council held a last-minute meeting that was closed to the public Sunday night, declaring a state of emergency in the 3,600-person town just east of the California city of Blythe.
The council's declaration put police Chief Jeff Gilbert in charge, making Foster the "deputy chief executive of nothing right now," he said. It also allows the five-member council to meet without public notice and suspend all public comment at the meetings until they declare the state of emergency over.
"I'm going to tell you frankly, this council is out of control," Foster said. "The chief has been out of control for some time and I've asked the state government to help a number of times," to no avail.
Foster described the government and Gilbert as corrupt and abusive of their power, and said all their recent actions are frantic efforts to cover up millions of dollars of money from lining some of their pockets.
Both Gilbert's and the town hall's phone numbers rang busy most of the day Monday, and all five council members and the town manager did not immediately return email requests for comment.
A man who answered the town hall's phone later Monday and did not identify himself said he would deliver a message to Town Manager Alex Taft but said council members were unavailable.
Vice Mayor Barbara Cowell told The Arizona Republic on Sunday that Foster's characterization of the council imposing "martial law" was inaccurate, saying that a recording of the meeting will be made available to the public Monday.
There was no evidence that the recording or meeting minutes had been posted by Monday evening.
Cowell defended Quartzsite's leaders by saying the town is audited every year and that they're not corrupt.
"Our people work so hard," she said. "We've had to cut back on staff ... just to keep us solvent."
Foster said the council declared the emergency because they claim they've received threats from members of the public who saw a video posted on YouTube.
The video shows a woman identified as Jennifer Jones being arrested and hauled away from a council meeting after she said the council was violating open-meetings laws. Jones was speaking during a public comment period, and Foster is heard on the video telling other council members who ordered her removed that "the lady has the floor."
"She's exercising her First Amendment rights," Foster says in the video before telling officers: "You are in violation of my rules of order."
The officers remove her, anyway, and in the process injure her elbow, which is now in a sling, Foster said.
The video has gotten nearly 32,000 views and has people from across the U.S. and world sending messages of support to Foster and messages of outrage to the council. Foster has a Facebook page of supporters and on it, people have posted messages that include, "Kudos from Mississippi. Keep the rats scurrying" and "You have Colorado's support!"
Foster said a woman from England sent him a note with just one line: "How could America be considered a beacon of democracy in the world when freedom of speech does not exist in Quartzsite, Ariz.?"
Foster was elected in May 2010 on a campaign promise to investigate corruption allegations in the town.
He said since being in office, he has discovered that every pay period, eight to 10 paychecks go to unnamed people and that he has been denied access to financial records to find out where the money goes at every turn.
He said that's been happening since 1991 and amounts to $250,000 every year. "That's literally millions of dollars," he said.
He said he's gone to Gov. Jan Brewer's office, the Attorney General's Office and the FBI with his allegations and pleas for an investigation, and that he's been ignored. He said he was contacting the FBI on Monday with information about Sunday's meeting declaring an emergency, which he said was illegal because it was closed to the public and in violation of open-meetings laws.
Brewer spokeswoman Tasya Peterson said Foster visited with the Governor's Office of Constituent Services about his complaints, and they referred him to the Attorney General's Office and the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.
Amy Rezzonico, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Tom Horne's office, said that the office has gotten phone calls and emails from people "interested in issues dealing with the town of Quartzsite," but that no formal complaint had been filed.
FBI spokesman Manuel Johnson could not immediately confirm whether Foster had contacted the agency.
Foster also said he has been targeted repeatedly by police Chief Gilbert, arrested or investigated for "bogus" reasons that weren't prosecuted and didn't prove any wrongdoing.
Most recently, he said Gilbert cited and released him on charges of disorderly conduct and interference six weeks ago when he tried to stop him from arresting Jones for the third time because she had sued the town for $2 million on allegations of police harassment.
"She called me and I went to the scene and I told the chief, `What, are you crazy? Are you trying to give her and her attorney a field day in court?" he said. "And then he arrested me."
He said he also is the target of a recall election, in which 171 signatures were gathered, and that one of the town council members resigned to run against him in hopes of ousting him next month.
"I ran on a campaign promise to look into this money and I've been stymied, stifled, stopped at every turn," Foster said. "Every time you get into a political thing like this, it always goes back to money."
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press