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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wild Politics in a Tiny Desert Town

(CN) - Quartzsite, Ariz., a tiny desert town that draws huge crowds of "boondocking" snowbirds every winter and hosts sprawling outdoor swap meets and gem shows, is roiled with political acrimony.

The town of 3,500 people in the Sonoran Desert, north of Yuma and east of Blythe, Calif., has been sued at least 20 times, according to the Courthouse News database - seven times by resident Jennifer Marie Jones, who filed the latest lawsuit last week in Phoenix Federal Court.

Jones claims that town officials tried to ruin her dog grooming business and run her out of town in retaliation for her political activism.

Jones's 39-page lawsuit - filed by an attorney in Kalispell, Mont. - claims that town administrators and Town Council members conspired to lodge 603 false charges against her and her pet-grooming business, which she has "operated out of a variety of recreational vehicles for almost a decade."

Jones claims the harassment began after she announced her intention to run for town council in 2010 and began speaking out against the council's its failure to discipline Quartzsite's former police chief.

Jones also publishes a newspaper. She claims in her lawsuit that the 603 charges, all of which were dismissed, ranged from vending without a permit and zoning violations to disorderly conduct and criminal trespass.

"These unlawful, false charges are part of an ongoing campaign of malicious prosecution, harassment, First Amendment retaliation, denial of equal protection under the laws, abuse of power, political retaliation, interference with contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and conspiracy to violate the rights of plaintiff, on account of her perceived political expression, because of her opposition to the policies of the Town, because of her activities as a journalist and publisher which are critical of the Town, and because of her running for office against incumbents on the Town Council," the lawsuit states.

Founded in 1867, Quartzsite boasts the High Jolly monument, a little stone pyramid topped with a camel, named for Hadji Ali, a 19th century Muslim Arab who worked with the U.S. military to introduce camels to the U.S. Southwest as beasts of burden. When the experiment failed, he remained in the area as a prospector.

The town's average temperature in July is around 110 degrees, a month whose average precipitation is zero. No new single-family houses have been built there since 2009, according to city-data.com. The town's median age is 67.1 years - not quite twice the Arizona median - and the estimated median value of a house or condo in 2100 was $19,089 - one-eighth of the statewide median value of $153,000, according to city-data. Ninety percent of town residents are white.

Each winter, the desert's warm days and cool nights draw about 1.5 million visitors, many of them snowbirds driving RVs. These "boondockers" prefer to park their rigs outside developed campgrounds and parks.

During the winter, thousands of boondockers park on desert land around Quartzsite that is managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The town's huge outdoor swap meets and gem shows hit their peak in January and February when the whole town seemingly becomes one big tarp-covered booth.

The fractious local politics produced at least 20 lawsuits against the town since 2005, many of them featuring abuse-of-power accusations against former Police Chief Jeff Gilbert. The Town Council fired Gilbert last week after years of complaints by police officers and residents, including Jones.

Ten of the town's 13 police asked the Town Council to investigate Gilbert in a 2010 letter. The officers' letter claimed Gilbert misused his power to help and protect his political allies. The officers claimed that Gilbert was obsessed with local politics to the detriment of his duties, and that he ran license plate checks and criminal history reports on his political enemies and others. Gilbert was named as a defendant in Jones' previous lawsuits, not in the latest one.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety investigated Gilbert in 2011, and there are ongoing investigations by the State of Arizona and by the FBI, but no charges have been filed, the Arizona Republic reported last week in a story about Gilbert's firing.

Actually, Gilbert has been fired twice. Last year the acting town manager fired him for "gross negligence and willful misconduct," without a vote of the Town Council, which promptly fired the acting town manager and reinstated Gilbert.

In her most recent lawsuit, Jones sued interim Town Manager Laura Bruno, Community Development Director Stephen Henrichs, Town Prosecutor David Ward and current and former Town Council members Mark Orgeron, Norma Crooks, Mike Jewitt, Carol Kelley, and Patricia Anderson. She claims they violated her rights to free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, and accuses them of retaliation, malicious prosecution, failure to train, intentional infliction of emotional distress, conspiracy, and interference with contract.

The defendants' "systemic abuse of power, intimidation, retaliation, malicious prosecution, and false charges, were done with overt, malicious intent as part of a conscious conspiracy among the defendants ... to prevent plaintiff from being able to ply her trade and to ruin her business in an attempt to induce her to leave town," she says in the complaint.

Jones seeks punitive and damages. She is represented by Elmer Rhodes of Kalispell.

Requests for comment from town officials and council members were not immediately returned.

After he was fired last week, Gilbert told the Republic: "This is a conspiracy. They've pretty much ruined my career."

According to Republic reporter Dennis Wagner, Quartzsite's residents "have formed camps based on longtime resentments rather than distinct ideologies."

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