An insulting comment emailed from the principal of a Peoria Unified School District (PUSD) elementary school to another employee in which she called some parents “whackos” and criticized the district board’s handling of a meeting has been called out by a former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Diane Douglas called on PUSD Superintendent Dr. Jason Reynolds to publicly address “the overt and covert contempt which has been and continues to be expressed towards the community” by Tonja Neve, who is principal of the Desert Valley Elementary School in Glendale until June 30.
“That board meeting was ridiculous,” Neve wrote on Feb. 1 to Jennifer Mundy, an administrator of another district school. “”I’m sick of us giving these whackos a platform to spread propaganda without making any correction statements.” Neve was referring to about one dozen parents who addressed the board about Critical Race Theory.
Another email between Neve and Mundy that day shows the principal believed the administration “has some control to quiet those pushy voices.” She also provided information about a court case which reinforced the power of principals to set boundaries in parent-school communication.
Douglas directed her comments at Reynolds in an opinion published last week in the American Daily Independent. But she was not merely relying on her experience from 2015 to 2018 in a state executive office where she was responsible for ensuring the accurate and lawful distribution of nearly $6 billion in education funding.
In her comments, Douglas points out she has an even bigger reason for speaking up, having been elected as a member of the PUSD board from 2005 to 2012, serving as board president in 2008 and 2009.
Douglas’ letter was prompted by PUSD’s release of some of Neve’s emails in response to a public records request. There was also the fact the school’s American flag was displayed inverted on June 14 – Flag Day.
“As if an employee of a government school, funded by taxpayer dollars, referring to the parents and citizens who pay her salary as ‘whackos’ was not bad enough, now there is the displaying of an inverted American flag,” Douglas noted to Reynolds. “Such utter disrespect to our country and the very citizens she is hired to serve would be disgraceful on any day. But that such a stunt occurred on June 14th Flag Day –the day we honor and commemorate the adoption of the American Flag– makes it all the more inexcusable and unforgivable.”
Douglas added that “the only saving grace is that school is out of session and the students weren’t witness to such blatant disrespect of our flag by an entity of the very government it represents.”
Neve’s contract with PUSD expires June 30 after which she will move her family to take a principal position at an elementary school in New Hampshire. Earlier this month she issued a statement about her emails.
“My comments were unprofessional and I apologize for that,” Neve said. “My comments were in regards to audience members who were coming to our board and calling teachers out by name and misconstruing and devaluing the hard work they do. My comment was made in the heat of the moment and in defense of my profession and colleagues.”
But Neve’s departure should not be the end of issue, Douglas told Reynolds.
“With all due respect, in my humble opinion, the Board and the PUSD community are entitled to an explanation as to how administration intends to handle such incidents of disrespect toward the community going forward,” she wrote.
Although two Yuma County women charged by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office with ballot fraud are scheduled to be back in court next month, two local election integrity watchdogs say the problem in their county runs much deeper, and it has garnered the attention of the FBI.
Last week Gary Garcia Snyder and David Lara revealed in a radio interview with Sergio Arellano that they utilized hidden cameras to record ballot harvesting incidents at two San Luis polling stations on Aug. 4, 2020, which was primary election day. The city of 33,000 is in the far southwest corner of Arizona on the Mexico border.
Among those seen on the video dropping off more than their one personal ballot were Guillermina Fuentes, a member of the Gadsden Elementary School District board in San Luis, and Alma Yadira Juarez. Both women have been indicted on a Class 6 felony of ballot abuse for allegedly collecting four ballots which were later processed and counted by the Yuma County Recorder.
Snyder and Lara, who are local businessmen, discussed the problem of fraudulent ballot harvesting with Arellano, who has testified at the Arizona State Senate about ballot harvesting in Southern Arizona and how voters can be taken advantage of, particularly in majority-minority areas.
Lara first wanted to clarify that the type of illegal ballot harvesting taking place in San Luis does not involve simply helping someone get their ballot to a polling station. Instead, it is much more insidious, he says.
What most people commonly think of as ballot harvesting involves a closed envelope with a ballot that had been voted by the voter. But the men say what is happening in some communities, particularly Latino and low-income neighborhoods, is the taking of someone’s blank ballot and signed early ballot affidavit envelope.
The ballot is then filled out and dropped off (aka harvested) without the voter’s input. Because the real voter signed the early ballot affidavit, there is no way for election officials to know someone other than the voter filled out the ballot.
“It’s done in such a manner that it’s so subtle and gradual that the community believes it’s the norm,” Lara explained. “They think that it’s acceptable and they think this is the way it’s done; this is the way you do things.”
Snyder said that among the videos he turned over to the FBI is one purportedly showing Juarez, 41, bringing multiple early ballots to a local San Luis polling station. The footage, he says, shows the early ballot affidavits were signed but the envelopes were not sealed. Fuentes, 65, is reportedly at the same table when the ballots are dropped off.
The women have been ordered to appear in Yuma County Superior Court for a July 1 case management conference. If they do not enter into a plea deal by that date then Judge Roger Nelson will set their cases for trial later this year.
According to Snyder, others in the San Luis area -including elected officials- have been fingerprinted as part of the attorney general’s investigation. He believes it is being done to compare fingerprint evidence obtained from ballots.
“Yeah, of course we’re a smaller demographic, less votes, less ballots but one ballots very important. It’s the integrity of our voting system,” Snyder told Arellano.
Ballot abuse can be done by local officials but also various staff members of non-profits which come into contact with residents, Lara explained.
“So what happens is this: you go to a non-profit, you know as a member of the community, and you ask for help,” he told Arellano. “It could be housing, it could be health, it could be whatever, filling out documents, you name it. When you walk in they will ask you, oh, by the way, are you registered to vote? Oh, well, no, I’m not. Is your family registered? No. Well, we can help you.”
After building trust with that staff member or the organization in general, the new voter is likely to seek help understanding the ballot. And that, says Lara, is when a new voter is told ‘well, don’t worry about it, just sign it and I’ll take care of it for you’ or they are instructed who to vote for.
“They’ve actually tricked the community in believing they’re doing the right thing, they’re voting, they’re participating, yet they’re not really informing the community that they’re being lied to, used, and manipulated,” Lara added. “San Luis is ground zero as far as voter fraud. That’s where it started in 1997. It has spread through the state and it was perfected in San Luis.”
Lara also noted how significant it can be for those living in smaller communities to preserve the status quo by what he called “the tricks of the trade.”
“Being a board member and especially if you have majority, if your party or your group have majority on the school board then you control each year the hires, new hires, rehires, contracts, fires,” he explained. “So what happens is if somebody wants a job — bring me your ballots, your neighbors’ ballots, your family’s. It becomes a web.”
He added that the same incentive presents itself for various city employees and those who control non-profits serving the area.
That prompted Lara and Snyder set out early on Primary Election Day 2020 to see what they could discover. They were ready shortly before 7 a.m. with Snyder hunkered into his vehicle with his camera at one of the polling stations. Lara left to keep an eye on the other polling station.
It was not long before Snyder had evidence of alleged criminal conduct.
“I pop in my iPad and put Netflix on so that [poll observers] think I’m just watching Netflix, but during that whole time I was recording any movement, any voters that would walk up to their booths,” Snyder recounted to Arellano. “And, yep, within 5 to 10 minutes after David left, the first crime was committed.”
Snyder later went to the other polling station.
“I found another criminal act,” he says, describing one incident in which an elected officials appeared to be “blocking” so another elected official could receive an unsealed ballot envelope.
Throughout the day Lara passed along Snyder’s videos to Yuma County Recorder Robyn Pouquette, who notified local Sheriff Leon Wilmot. It was not long until the FBI got involved, and then the attorney general’s election integrity unit.
Both men are hopeful many other people seen in the videos will be indicted. Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office did not respond to a request from AZ Free News for comment on the status of the investigation.
In the meantime, a recall is underway in the San Luis community to remove two city council members and all three Gadsden school board members. Fuentes is one of the officials under recall; if she is convicted of a felony -either via a plea deal or found guilty at trial- she will be disqualified from holding public office.
The experience has not soured Snyder on Yuma County politics. The Republican has announced he is running in 2022 for State Senate against Lisa Otondo, a Democrat who has been in the legislature since 2013.
Republicans in the Arizona legislature are on the cusp of passing significant tax relief for hardworking families and small business. With historic levels of surplus cash sitting in the state coffers (over $4 billion for FY 2022 alone), returning this money to taxpayers makes sense. In fact, it would have already happened if not for two lone holdouts within the Republican caucus, claiming the $1.9B tax cut is just “too big.”
Are they right? Should the size of the tax package be reduced to avoid a funding cliff in the future?
For an answer to this criticism, it makes sense to examine current revenue projections being provided by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC). For years JLBC has been relied upon as an independent source for revenue and budget projections by the state legislature. JLBC has never been accused of partisanship or of “cooking the books” to produce rosy budget scenarios. If anything, they have historically been too conservative in their figures, often because they don’t use dynamic modeling for their growth projections.
With this in mind, JLBC is projecting that by FY2024, baseline revenue for the state will be over $14.5 billion, a figure that has been growing with each month. For perspective, legislators were budgeting just shy of $11.1 billion in ongoing revenue prior to the pandemic—meaning that Arizona is expected to see a 31% increase in state revenue in four years.
Where is all this new revenue coming from? While a portion of this surplus is expected from economic growth, that is not the only source. Much of this new revenue is from a series of tax increases that continued to be ignored by opponents of the budget.
Remember the “monumental” new gaming compact Ducey signed in April—the one allowing for sports and fantasy sports betting? That is projected to rake in $300 million of new revenue annually by FY2024.
Gov. Doug Ducey was expected to call a special session any day now to address the legislative stalemate of 11 budget bills which have been the subject of some opposition even among the Republican majority. So his announcement Thursday of a special session related solely to funding for natural disasters caught many lawmakers off guard.
“I am calling a special session to make sure we have the resources needed to contain current wildfires, possible flooding, and any other natural disasters that arise from this emergency,” Ducey said in his announcement. He did not include a start date for the special session but legislators have been told it will take place next week.
News of the special session unrelated to an overall budget package came as Ducey and key Republican legislators representing communities burning under the Telegraph and the Mescal fires toured the damage. It also came one day after the governor said he would be agreeable to working with the Democrat caucus to resolve the budget stalemate that threatens Ducey’s last chance transition Arizona to a flat rate income tax.
Democrats, however, have been outspoken against the current wording of the flat tax portion of the budget package, although some have left the door open for passing the majority of the spending bills, as well as a tax cut funded by Arizona’s more than $1 billion surplus.
It is more likely, however, that Ducey and legislative leaders will need to amend the 11 bills in order to get the necessary 31 votes in the House and 16 votes in the Senate. If that cannot be done in the next week or so, the governor can call another special session dealing exclusively with the budget. Or lawmakers could end up approving with a bare-bones “skinny” budget to avert a state government shutdown on July 1.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita tweeted Thursday she supports Ducey’s special session to deal with the wildfires. But she could not resist a poke at the governor for his response this year compared to last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Ugenti-Rita, Ducey’s “leadership solution” last year was “to shutdown the economy, support the legislature prematurely ending session, issuing 50+ executive orders and steadfastly refusing to convene a special session” which she and other lawmakers requested.
“Now, under the guise of another emergency, you want to wait until next week to call the legislature into special session. I find your call for a special session in this scenario incongruent with your past decisions,” she tweeted, pointing out the legislature was in session on Thursday “ready and available to help” but both chambers adjourned until next Monday because key lawmakers were with Ducey touring fire damaged communities.
A vocal critic of this year’s budget package is Sen. Paul Boyer, who has called for one-time tax cuts for one-time revenues. “Rebate taxpayer’s money now,” he tweeted earlier in the week. “That is conservative.”
Some lawmakers in the Republican majority like Boyer object to the amount of the surplus which would get returned to taxpayers as tax cuts under the current budget bills. They point to the fact the cuts would likely also result in less shared revenue to Arizona’s cities and towns, while not focusing enough on the state’s debt, including serious under-funding issues with the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System.
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee and staff from Ducey’s office are expected to continue working on a proposed compromise over the next few days.
On Tuesday, while hammering out the budget, members of both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees stripped Secretary of State Katie Hobbs of her ability to defend election lawsuits. Hobbs’ responsibility for the oversight of the Capitol Museum was also taken away.
The provision, which bars Hobbs from hiring outside counsel, would lapse on June 30, 2023.
Katie Conners, the Attorney General’s Public Information Officer, told the Yellow Sheet that the language is necessary because it would clear up confusion “created by the Secretary of State about who speaks for Arizona in court.”
The actions come in part from Hobbs’ failure to to pursue the defense of Arizona including in the case of its ballot harvesting law currently being challenged in federal court. The responsibility would go to the Attorney General’s Office.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich has defended the ballot harvesting law in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Almost two years ago, Hobbs, in what was seen as a clearly political stunt, snuck a gay pride flag into the museum and hung it from the balcony of the Capitol. No one objected to the flag itself, but to the manner in which she disregarded the Senate President and Speaker of the House who should have been consulted on the subject prior to taking any action.
Under the provisions of the new bill, care of the Capitol museum would be turned over to the Legislative Oversight Council.