Attempts by Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis to address concerns raised by councilmembers and staff regarding Councilmember Paula Abbott's alleged lack of preparation for meetings over the past several months have been rejected out of hand by Abbott.
The grousing has focused as well on her frequent lateness at meetings, an assortment of procedural problems, what some perceive to be Abbott's often erratic questioning of staff members and her failure to prepare ahead of time to highlight the issues she wants to discuss.
Loomis, who is the most likely person to support Abbott's stance on various issues before the council, sought to meet with Abbott and Town Manager Chuck Sweet in April to discuss issues such as Abbott's timeliness, organization, ethics and courtesy.
Abbott canceled the meeting after receiving an agenda that seemed to indicate the meeting was going to boil down to an evaluation of her performance as a council member.
"I asked for an agenda," Abbott said. "When I got that information, I declined the invitation."
Abbott said she declined mainly because at the time she was tied up in council discussions regarding a new General Plan that will be presented to voters Nov. 4 and in council study sessions on Sweet's proposed $103 million budget for the coming fiscal year beginning July 1.
"I find it disruptive to spend valuable time on issues previously addressed," Abbott told Loomis in an April 24 letter, adding "I respectfully decline your private meeting request; however, I will take your written, specific comments under advisement."
But Abbott said she also turned down their invitation because "it seemed to me intended as more of an evaluation. I thought this was inappropriate and out of line. The mayor is my equal. Chuck Sweet works for us (the council) and I work for the people. I felt if you have an issue, I'm willing to discuss it. But if you're going to do this, it needs to be done in the public's eye. There are no town evaluations of councilmembers that I'm aware of and I wondered why I was being singled out.
"I need to be able to make informed decisions and if asking questions is the only way I'm going to get there, I don't make any apologies for asking questions. I'm there to do a job and that job is to represent the people. I'm not going to change that. I'm always going to be asking questions because we're making very important decisions regarding such things as land use, zoning, decisions that impact people's lives, and there's a lot of responsibility to that," she said.
"If I need to ask questions to do that, then other councilmembers are just going to have to accept that. If they're not willing to ask the questions, that's fine. If they're comfortable with their information that's fine.
"But it's out of line for them to set up an evaluation of an elected official. Are we going to start evaluating each other?"
Abbott said that as far as she's concerned, her evaluation takes place at the polls. "I'm an elected official and they need to respect that. They just have to accept that it's my first year and I'm doing the best I can."
Loomis said Abbott is "100 percent correct" in saying that council members are all equal and that their performance ought to be evaluated by voters rather than their peers.
However, the objective of the meeting, Loomis said, was simply to see how she might be helped in such areas as highlighting issues of concern, planning ahead, setting up a calendar and flagging the points she wants to make ahead of time.
"There have been concerns expressed as to how can Paula become more effective," Loomis said. "That's what this was all about. None of us is going to do any sort of evaluation. It's never been done and never will be. If she wants to do what she does, then so be it, but during council meetings I want to try and have organized discussions and not be scatterbrained up there."
Abbott, elected a little more than a year ago when Loomis won his second term, is the youngest and least experienced person on the council. Newly-elected councilmembers receive some training for their new jobs through the Arizona League of Cities and Towns and council retreats are held to address overall town policies and procedures for speeding up council discussions.
"I am interested in receiving training that will increase my knowledge," Abbott said in her April letter. "In November 2002, I paid close to $400 out of my family's budget to attend a training conference in Washington, D.C. At the council retreat in November 2002, I was surprised to learn that training on 'Robert's Rules' is provided for all newly appointed Oro Valley board and commission members, yet not offered to newly elected officials. I indicated to everyone present, including council members and the town manager, that I would be interested in the same training.
"I am also interested in receiving training that addresses land use law and zoning issues," Abbott wrote. "If you have books or any reference materials on these issues, I will consider reviewing them. My recommendation would be for someone to prepare a suggested reading list of books or purchase books used in training programs and place them in the council meeting room where they can be easily accessed."
Councilmembers have said privately they have been biting their tongues for months to keep from criticizing Abbott in public, hoping to solve the problem in-house and avoid contributing to an impression that they're picking on her. They emphasize their concerns have nothing to do with how she votes.
Staff members have echoed similar concerns about Abbott "flitting back and forth" from one point to another during discussions and her lack of awareness of basic town policies and code requirements.
"This harassing of staff members, the frequent, lengthy bantering back and forth between Paula and other councilmembers and Paula and staff, it just doesn't look good and at times it's been downright embarrassing," said one staff member who asked not to be identified.
"You sit there and listen to this bantering going on for so long and you say to yourself, 'My God, why didn't she just call someone beforehand.'"
Bill Adler, Board of Adjustment vice chairman and a regular council meeting observer, noted that Abbott isn't the only councilmember who takes time out at the meetings to ask rudimentary questions or pontificate on a particular point of view.
"They all hold forth from time to time and all have contributed to the problem and so they ought to treat it as a councilwide issue," Adler said. "Instead they're treating it as an individual issue and that's simply not appropriate. If they can't see that, that's a problem.
"If they want to address this as a councilwide problem, fine, but to single out Paula, I'm offended by that. It's just sexist. If it wasn't, they wouldn't be picking on Paula, they'd be picking on each other. There is no question certain councilmembers speak to her in a condescending fashion and she ought to address that."
Adler acknowledged Abbott's tardiness at council meetings but said that is something she has to account to her constituents for, particularly if her tardiness means missing discussions on topics of critical interest to them.
As she enters her second year on the council, Abbott said the job of being a council member has been a challenging one, beginning with discussions on the budget and then plunging into continuous meetings on the General Plan.
In retrospect, Abbott said there was little she would have done differently.
"It's been a good growing year, a good learning year," she said. "I really don't have any regrets. I think I've done as much as I had on my mind to accomplish," especially while being in a "revolving door" during the General Plan hearings process.
"Some people have a couple of years under their belt before they have to go through the General Plan," Abbott said. "With me it was right there and I didn't have a chance to even get my feet wet. I felt pretty green and there was a lot of information to digest. A reading job is what this is and you have to pay attention to the details because sometimes the answers are in the details. So it's just a matter of taking that extra time."
Loomis acknowledged the challenges of serving on the council.
"It's a challenge for all of us, but what we all have to realize is that as soon as you're sworn in there will be decisions you have to make that you can't put off," he said.
Loomis said he tries to accommodate everyone on the council by trying to make sure the information they need is available and that they are provided with opportunities to reach a decision. "I won't call for a vote until I'm satisfied that everyone has had a chance to debate an issue and make up their mind," he said.
Lately, however, certain council members have taken the procedural step of calling for the question on various issues as a means of cutting off Abbott's inquiries.
Abbott didn't help her cause awhile back when she rankled Vice Mayor Werner Wolff during discussions of assignments of council members as liaisons to various boards and commissions.
In opposing the appointment of council members to consecutive terms on the Planning and Zoning Commission, she appeared to be trying to usurp Wolff to gain the liaison post for herself. She didn't get it. Wolff was reappointed.
"I know he was uncomfortable," Abbott said of Wolff. "I was just focused on it being a good thing. I think we should be rotating liaison positions so opinions can be more diverse and I wanted to continue discussions because Bart (Rochman) wasn't there."
But Abbott said she wasn't offended because she didn't get her way.
"I'd love for the council to listen to my arguments," she said. "But if they choose not to listen, I can't control that. I'm not going to spend my time being frustrated at their not listening to me. All I can do is make my argument and hope for the best."
Abbott said there have been delays in staff deliveries of information to her, at least in part due to an e-mail account she shares with Loomis.
Loomis said that Abbott has the e-mail account he once had and all she has to do to remedy the problem is get the password changed.
Abbott said she's been told by the town's information systems analyst that much more is involved than simply changing passwords and that it's a Qwest problem.
Abbott said she inquired about what could be done to resolve the problem at the end of April and still hasn't heard back from either the information systems analyst or Sweet.
In terms of her attendance, Loomis said Abbott can't be faulted for excessive absences. "It's not a case of missing meetings, but of not telling us when she's going to be late," he said.
Abbott said the council's 4:30 p.m. study sessions have been difficult to make on time because of family commitments, but she has told Loomis to go ahead with the meetings and she would be there shortly.
As Abbott's first year in office draws to a close, the most frustrating thing she's had to deal with, she said, is seeing audience-packed council meetings and hearing many residents offer compelling arguments for or against a particular issue only to have the council dismiss those views.
"That bothers me," Abbott said. "We have people showing up at all these meetings, the Development Review Board, the Planning and Zoning Commission, etc., and what happens is they just get burned out."
"By the time they get to the council they think they have a sympathetic ear and it's just sad when an issue gets continued and people leave feeling helpless and hopeless," she continued.
"This is unacceptable to me. We're supposed to represent the people in these cases and I think we're doing them a great disservice.
"People say 'Gee, whiz, why do we even come,' and the thing is that has a spillover effect because you have other controversial issues come forward and people say, 'Well, we saw what happened on this issue last time, why should we waste our time coming to all these meetings to turn around and not be heard. We have people on the council who just don't care about how we feel and we don't want to waste our time.'
"That bothers me," Abbott said. "It is really disturbing. I don't want people to feel they have a council that is not representing them. So I continue to ask them to come to the meetings and I try to give them all the reasons why they should come. They've got to participate. Actions speak louder than words."
Abbott said she feels she's beginning to get that message across as happened when a certain zoning classification was eliminated due to safety concerns in the Wilson K-8 School area, when elements were preserved in the General Plan to encourage developers to communicate with the school district about the impact their developments will have on enrollment or when adjustments were made to deal with traffic problems because residents were concerned about massive construction in their neighborhood.
As a mother of two boys ages 11 and 15, and the only woman on the council, Abbott has been vocal about family and children's issues. She said she's tried to integrate these issues into considerations about what is best for the town overall because they haven't been factored in in the past. To that end, Abbott said she'd like to see more representation of families on the council.
As an example of her integrating children's issues, Abbott was among council leaders recently getting recreational areas located farther away from major roads in Rancho Vistoso. She also serves as the council's liaison to Amphitheater Public Schools.
Asked if she thought she was perceived as being anti-development, Abbott responded: "I hope not. I'm not. I understand development is going to happen. It's just a matter of making sure everything is in its proper place. We have to look at infrastructure. We have to look at the many elements that development impacts. It's how we develop. We have to develop with common sense and it is this element that at times has been lacking."
Overall, Abbott said she's pleased with her first year performance on the council. "I really had no idea how much progress I could make and I am pleasantly surprised in discovering I have made progress. Although I may have been just a squeaky wheel in many cases at first, it was enough at times to have the council re-examine an issue and go in a different direction."
Abbott recalled that her first council meeting focused on the budget. "I was overwhelmed," she said. Even so, Abbott contributed to the council's decision last year to approve pay raises for police many thought to have been taken off the table.
"I raised awareness," Abbott said." If I hadn't been there I don't know if the police would have gotten it."
In terms of the General Plan itself, though she voted for it, she said she's gotten many complaints from people about the town's failure to notify residents that the issue was coming up for a vote.
There were about 100 people in the audience that night, but the vast majority left after the council eliminated a controversial mixed use neighborhood designation from the plan.
"It made me think a lot of other people were concerned about the General Plan adoption but just didn't know about it," she said. "At the 11th hour, not to notify people, that's unacceptable. People should have been given the opportunity to come and speak out. People feel the process has been flawed from the beginning."
Abbott said her priorities in the year ahead will be to help sustain the quality of schools, advance the Arizona Preserve Initiative to protect natural open space and address problems related to the long-term costs of annexation.
Abbott said she is concerned about the council's predilection toward bringing more apartments into town and sees that as inconsistent with residents' desires.
Another issue of concern to Abbott is the possibility of increasing the council from five members to seven, which the council may take up later this summer.
"I don't know why this issue is being raised now," she said. "We spoke about it at the council's retreat and I thought we had agreed that when the town's population gets to 50,000 or 60,000 we would visit it then.
"The question is why now. I'm wondering if it's just an easy way for certain council members if they want to be re-elected, to increase the probability.
"You have to question what is the motive … I think there are political deals here. I'm kind of in the middle. I'm concerned that every time a certain council member is running for office, it's a good thing and when he's not running, it's a bad thing."