BISBEE – Following critical comments from the chair of the Cochise County Republican Committee and others, the Cochise County Board of Supervisors voted Thursday to ratify its Feb. 12 appointment of Pat Call as justice of the peace for the greater Sierra Vista area.
The ratification vote, which reaffirms the board’s earlier vote, was suggested by the Arizona Ombudsman Citizens’ Aide Office due to “concerns over the potentially misleading agenda language” in the public notice of the Feb. 12 meeting. An AZ-OCA staff attorney had advised the Cochise County Attorney’s Office that a judge could find the deficiencies “constituted a violation of the open meeting law and hold that the appointment vote was null and void.”
Britt Hanson of the county attorney’s office stated prior to Thursday’s vote that “I know the board feels there were no open meeting law violations, and I agree also.” However, Hanson recommended the board ratify the previous vote “to cure any perceived deficiencies” with Call’s appointment to the bench of the Sierra Vista Justice Court.
Although state law allowed the board to ratify Call’s appointment, which was effective March 1, the three speakers who addressed the board Thursday during call to the public urged board Chairwoman Peggy Judd and Supervisor Ann English not to ratify.
“Many things are technically legal but screamingly immoral,” Republican committee chair Robert Montgomery told English and Judd, who cast the votes last month to appoint their fellow supervisor to the court position at more than double his annual salary on the board of supervisors. “Not one person has made a positive comment about what you’ve done.”
Montgomery’s ire toward the supervisors is not about Call personally, he said, but about the board’s decision to not seek out interested applicants to fill the vacancy created last month when Gov. Doug Ducey appointed then-Justice of the Peace Tim Dickerson to a vacancy on the Cochise County Superior Court.
Current Sierra Vista Councilman William Benning implored the supervisors to forgo the ratification action, calling it “a mistake” while there is pending litigation. Benning, who spoke for himself and not the city council, said he worries about the impact the county board’s use of executive session in this matter will impact public perception of other public bodies.
“Constituents want to know why the process was done this way,” he said.
Craig Mount, a former Sierra Vista councilman and one of six finalists interviewed March 1 for Call’s board seat, also addressed the supervisors. He agreed the board had the legal right to appoint Call but believes they should have avoided “a closed-door decision” with someone who “was sitting at the table with you.”
Mount asked why the board didn’t utilize an open application process to fill the justice of the peace position but then sought out candidates when Call’s seat on the board became vacant. He also challenged the supervisors’ previous public explanation that they bypassed seeking applicants in order to fill the justice court position quickly.
“What was the rush?” Mount asked. “You wanted to make it fast; the public is asking it be done well.”
Mount also asked the supervisors to release the records of a non-public executive session, which occurred in between the two-part Feb. 12 meeting that ended with Call’s appointment, due to questions about his involvement in non-public discussions about his interest in the position.
Under the state’s open meeting law, the supervisors could not answer Mount’s questions. However, both English and Judd made brief comments during the board discussion portion of the meeting.
English, who made the motion to ratify the Feb. 12 vote, limited her remarks to the purpose of Thursday’s meeting.
“I didn’t feel it necessary to ratify,” she said, noting she was doing so because of legal advice “to perfect the record” of the earlier vote.
Meanwhile, Judd expressed disappointment with the lack of public interest in the justice of the peace vacancy before Call’s appointment.
“It’s unfortunate people didn’t attend the other meeting,” she said of the Feb. 12 meeting which was the subject of the open meeting law challenges. She added that criticism of the board’s use of a non-public executive session during the meeting was not justified.
“Executive session allowed [us] to discuss people in a manner we can’t in public,” she explained.
Call’s appointment is under legal challenge by David Welch, a Sierra Vista man who has filed a special action complaint to void the Feb. 12 vote and have Call removed from the bench.
Welch alleges several faults with the board’s decision, including violations of the state’s conflict of interest laws due to Call’s participation in the discussion leading up to his appointment and for not providing public notice of his financial interest in the decision.
The county board and the individual supervisors are being represented in Welch’s litigation by Phoenix attorney Jim Jellison, who the board privately retained. In numerous court filings Jellison has stated the county position is there has been no violations of any state laws in the board’s handling of the vacancy or Call’s appointment.
Those issues will be litigated over the next several months under the direction of Greenlee County judge Monica Stauffer. She was assigned the case due to conflicts with having any Cochise County Superior Court judges involved in a case against the county board.
The county has until the end of next week to file a challenge to Welch’s standing to file the special action petition. Additional arguments are due next month on other issues as Stauffer strives to expedite the case.
Call hasn’t commented publicly about Welch’s lawsuit. The Herald/Review sent two requests this week to Jellison seeking comment from Call but no reply was received by press time.
The ratification action was the only agenda item for Thursday’s special board meeting. Tom Borer, who was appointed to the board as Call’s replacement, was absent due to illness, according to Judd.
Judd initially announced that call the public speakers would be limited to 90 seconds, half the normal three-minute allowance. After input from Hanson, the three-minute limit was reinstated.
In Arizona, the qualifications to serve as a justice of the peace are simple – the person must be at least 18 years old, an Arizona resident, a qualified voter of the precinct, and be able to read and write English. Being an attorney or having legal experience is not a prerequisite and state law doesn’t require the board to seek applicants.
Mount began circulating an online petition Monday night after learning the board was considering ratification. He is seeking a county policy that will be used when future vacancies arise in elected positions.