Taxpayers in Cochise County continue to fund a lawsuit about who will oversee an upcoming election related to financing a badly needed new jail, even though both sides indicated before the legal action even started that they were amenable to a resolution.
Which is leading to more questions of why no amendment has been put forth to the disputed Feb. 28 Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) approved by the Cochise County Board of Supervisors to temporarily place most responsibility for the Elections Department on the shoulders of County Recorder David Stevens.
The answer appears to be that neither Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes nor the county supervisors have prodded their respective attorneys to fix the problem sooner than later. Those attorneys include Timothy La Sota for the county and a handful of staff attorneys from the AG’s Office.
Mayes sued Stevens and the county board March 7 in a Cochise County court. Judge Thomas Fink from the Santa Cruz County Superior Court agreed to hear the case at the request of Cochise County’s presiding judge on an expedited basis due to the upcoming May 16 election.
The election schedule calls for roughly 76,000 ballots to be mailed out in less than three weeks, although the ballot packets must be printed several days earlier. In addition, a 36-page voter information pamphlet must be printed and mailed to all registered voters prior to the ballots being sent out.
Fink held a March 28 status conference to decide what county the case will be heard in moving forward and what the briefing schedule would be for the various filings which need to be made.
But during those discussions, Assistant Attorney General Joshua Bendor revealed the AG’s Office intends to seek a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the IGA that put Stevens at the helm of the elections department.
If an injunction is granted, it would leave Cochise County with only one elections department employee, who is not yet qualified to run an election. This could leave taxpayers on the hook for printing and postage of the ballot packets.
Even if the election takes place, the legitimacy of the results could end up being challenged.
The attorneys have agreed the AG’s Office must file the Motion for Preliminary Injunction no later than April 5. The county would have until April 11 to respond, with any oral arguments occurring the next week.
Any appeal would take a few days at least, longer still if the Arizona Supreme Court gets involved.
Critics of the lawsuit and of the county’s failure to amend the IGA to satisfy Mayes’ concerns point out the schedule ignores the realities of the all-mail election.
According to Stevens, nearly 200 ballots are scheduled to be issued April 1 to specially registered voters under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). The rest of the ballots must be mailed out April 19.
While that was the most pressing news out of the March 28 status conference, Fink had bad news to Cochise County residents who want to attend the hearings.
Two weeks after suing the county, Mayes demanded a change of venue to Maricopa or Pima County. State law requires Fink to change the venue upon such a request, but he made it clear at the hearing his choice of a new county would not be based on what was most convenient for the AG’ Office.
Pointing to the public interest in “having local matters decided locally,” Fink added he believed “public travel should be limited.” Therefore, he rejected Maricopa County as an option, leaving the choice between the Santa Cruz County courthouse in Nogales or Pima County in Tucson.
Both are about the same distance for Cochise County residents who want to attend the hearings, Fink noted. He selected Pima County, in part due to the ability of its courts to livestream.
But if the AG’s Office thought Fink would refer the case to a Pima County judge they were mistaken. “I’m going to keep this case,” he announced, noting the tight timeline due to the upcoming election.
Noticeably absent from the March 28 hearing was County Supervisors Tom Crosby and Peggy Judd, who voted for the IGA on Feb. 28 despite adverse advice from Mayes’ office as well as the Cochise County Attorney’s Office.
Crosby and Judd later commented about being willing to amend the agreement if necessary, but felt ignoring the lawyers’ advice was warranted with an election just around the corner.
A week later, Mayes initiated the lawsuit when there had been no move by the supervisors to amend the IGA to address the concerns put forth by both the county attorney and the attorney general.
The AG’s Office has made it clear the legal concerns were with how the IGA is worded, not with the idea of having Recorder Stevens oversee Elections Department functions.
AG’s Lawsuit Against Cochise County Adds To Disarray In Wake Of Elections Director’s Departure
But even that action did not prompt Crosby or Judd to pursue an amended IGA. Nor have they given constituents any indication of plans to do so to avoid a challenge to the legitimacy of the May election.
In the meantime, Stevens is moving forward as the Interim Elections Director to ensure the department is prepared for the upcoming election. He is also handling routine matters such as inquiries from persons interested in being candidates in 2024 and the current recall effort of Supervisor Crosby.
Stevens recently received a written complaint about the presence of recall supporters on land by the Hereford Post Office. After reviewing county records, Stevens was driving to work Friday morning when he stopped to talk with a man who appeared to be engaged in electioneering on federal property.
“I informed him that he was in violation of USC 39 by engaging in political activity of federal land,” Stevens explained later in the day. “He claimed he was not on federal land. I provided that the Recorder’s Office records show the parcel is one parcel and extends to the street.”
According to Stevens, the man was “dismissive” and had a “concerning” attitude which led the recorder to request a response from the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office. Several persons also used cellphones to record the interaction.
In the end, it was determined the property is privately owned with a portion of the land leased to the U.S. Postal Service.
The electioneering was not being done on the federal portion, but the property owner “does not condone or permit any type of political campaigning on our property,” according to a letter shared with the sheriff’s office and the local postmaster.