BULLHEAD CITY — The concept behind Proposition 415 — city government taking over the local water system from EPCOR Water Arizona — has caused plenty of controversy locally and even across the state.
There’s an ongoing investigation of Bullhead City government messaging by the Arizona Attorney General’s office. A court case against EPCOR Water Arizona brought by the city was resolved in the city’s favor.
Add to that an array of criticism going back and forth. Anger and upset was the result of the aggressive and, at times, downright nasty campaigning for and against Proposition 415.
Gina Woodall, a senior lecturer at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies, explained that while bruising campaigns with a lack of civil discourse can hamper voter turnout, they sometimes have the opposite effect.
She responded to questions emailed by the Daily News.
Woodall purposely avoided commenting specifically on Proposition 415 and the campaign surrounding it. The idea was to look at local events and how they compare with campaigning today for ballot items in other communities, both inside and outside Arizona. Events in the campaigns for and against Proposition 415 shaped the questions submitted to Woodall.
“Research shows that, depending on the level of ‘nastiness,’ sometimes it can actually mobilize voters to the polls,” Woodall said. “Still other research suggests that it can be a demobilizer for voters if it gets nasty, personal, and not related to the issue at hand.”
In this instance, local voter turnout was nearly 42%, with 9,419 votes counted as of Friday. There were 22,772 ballots mailed out last month for registered voters across Bullhead City seeking their input about Proposition 415, according to the Mohave County Elections Department.
The last recent local, all-mail election in Bullhead City occurred in November 2017. That soughf approval of a $16.7 million bond for the fire department. That election garnered only 6,038 valid votes.
Proposition 415, which passed by a narrow margin, was more than a year in the making, the product of city officials — and many residents — concerned that local water rates had increased nearly 90% since the EPCOR acquired the system from Arizona American in 2012. Another rate increase is anticipated in the next two years as a result of EPCOR’s upcoming rate hearing with the Arizona Corporation Commission that will begin next May.
The EPCOR-funded political action committee, Taxpayers Against City Takeover, and Arizona State Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, both complained to the state and county this summer about the city’s alleged electioneering. The Attorney General’s office is investigating the complaints.
The city has denied the allegations.
The Goldwater Institute targeted Bullhead City for what it saw as a potential misuse of city resources. A commentary criticized city officials for using comments made by Mayor Tom Brady, before he approved putting Proposition 415 on the ballot, well after the referendum was approved by the city council.
City officials said this wasn’t the case.
Brady was among those who accused TACT and EPCOR of below-the-belt campaign tactics. This included the purchase and use of “Yes on 415” in at least one online domain name to redirect traffic to information posted on the “No on 415” site. Another concern of Brady’s was the creation of billboard material by 415 opponents that resembled messaging used 415 supporters, particularly use of the phrase: “Our City & Our Water.”
“That makes it sound like the city is saying it,” he said. “It’s deceptive.”
Brady also was among Proposition 415 supporters who considered the opponents’ emphasis on the maximum bonding amount and interest the city could pay to be exaggerations because the city’s valuation is substantially lower than EPCOR’s valuation of the system.
In turn, EPCOR and TACT expressed dismay and concern about insults toward EPCOR and its employees online as well as the use of anti-Canadian imagery on campaign material. EPCOR is owned by the City of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but has EPCOR USA handling American operations. Employees who work on the Bullhead City water system are mostly Bullhead City-area residents, said Shawn Bradford, vice president of corporate services at EPCOR USA.
In August, the city went after TACT after it posted political signs in public rights-of-way before it was appropriate, based on the city’s interpretation of state rules for such political signage displays.
TACT challenged the city’s interpretation of the state’s rules, which didn’t specifically address a referendum campaign such as Proposition 415. The referendum was a General Election issue and not subject to Primary Election rules, as TACT argued.
The Mohave County Superior Court ruled in favor of the city.
Woodall noted the impact that social media can have on a campaign — both positive and negative affects.
“Social media is speeding up the time between publication of a piece, campaign ad or literature, and consumption of that particular literature,” Woodall said. “There isn’t any ‘down’ or ‘consumption’ time. It’s automatic — in nanoseconds.”
She also noted that many people give such information only a cursory glance if it’s something originating from within their own “tribe” or reinforces their viewpoint.
Woodall addressed the inequity of resources that can happen in campaigns.
There were two political action committees involved in this campaign. EPCOR funded TACT with more than $400,000. The H2O Committee, a community-based PAC in support of Proposition 415, accumulated about $34,000.
TACT files campaign finance reports with the state and H2O does so with the city.
“It’s super difficult. Resources are key here,” Woodall explained. “With resources you can hire an astute social media campaign manager, print fancy fliers, hire canvassers, etc. The good thing is (for now), social media (besides Twitter) is free and with some training, it can be used productively and little resources are required to do a decent job.”
She also advised voters to be diligent consumers. That would include verifying claims — much of which can be done on Google or with some other wide-ranging online search engine.
Also, “think before sharing, verify PACs, candidates’ financial sponsors and agendas. It takes some time and effort on the voters’ part and not all voters have the necessary free-time skills to refute the disinformation,” she said.
As a society, she added, “This is where we are, currently.”