/ Modified jan 19, 2011 10:29 p.m.

Wild West Stand-Off in Pinal

Water utility may be fanning the flames of San Tan Valley discord

This story represents a collaboration between AZPM and the San Tan Valley Today newspaper.

We last visited Pinal county's San Tan Valley in the summer of 2010. Residents there both supported and opposed a vote for incorporation. They never got the chance to vote because the Florence city council held the trump card, exercising their statutory right as a municipality within a six-mile boundary to vote against the citizens' petition to hold and election.

SanTanWater 617x347 San Tan Valley residents square off over incorporation--and water rights--in this collaboration between AZPM and *San Tan Valley Today* newspaper.

More than six months later, the dust hasn't settled from the fracas that overtook Pinal county. They've witnessed some unusual happenings recently, including an aerial display at the community holiday party. Someone hired the plane to circle the event with the message that incorporation would cost each San Tan Valley resident an extra $5,000 per year.

Pinal county supervisor Bryan Martyn doesn't know where, in his words, "those knuckleheads" get their numbers because no vehicle exists to raise that kind of tax.

Stacy Duprey Purper has heard an earful from people all over San Tan Valley. She co-owns and publishes San Tan Valley Today newspaper and has documented the clash of wills. Lately things have turned ugly and arrows all point to George Johnson, a developer and owner of Johnson Utilities that supplies water to the region.

Jana Bommersbach described Johnson as a "rogue developer" in her article in Phoenix Magazine. Duprey Purper has printed numerous readers' complaints about their water bills and water quality. State agencies have already fined Johnson $12 million. Although he continues to admit no wrongdoing, these fines rank as the largest ever levied in Arizona's history.

"This company appears to have a long history of taking a stance and coming after any customers that speak out about anything they may not like about the company," Duprey Purper says.

According to the publication, that includes placing gag orders on citizens complaining about sewage backing up into their houses and attacking supporters of incorporation and Martyn in particular.

Wearing a crisp white shirt and suspenders, Martyn was working at his office in a strip mall in San Tan Valley. He says he remembers only one month in the last calendar year when he wasn't featured in monthly inserts in water bills to 24,000 customers. He asserts that Johnson funded a failed recall election against him and states he's not going down without a fight.

"That man’s company is not serving the best interest of this community, and I will say that in court. And chances are after this interview I will get that opportunity," Martyn says. "He keeps saying I'm going to sue you. And I'm, bring it old man. You want a fight? Let’s go. I’m done playing nice with this guy."

Representatives of Johnson Utility and George Johnson have repeatedly declined to comment, and both AZPM and San Tan Valley Today have a stack of email to prove it. Lately the skirmish has taken an interesting twist, expanding the scope to personal vendetta.

Janet Anderson stands outside on a warm November day and turns her back.

"I feel like there’s a big target. Is there a big red X on my back? I don’t know but I feel like a target," Anderson says.

As the organizer for nearly a decade of Polarfest, the community's holiday fundraiser, Anderson reluctantly excluded two local businesses from the festivities, Johnson Utilities among them. She felt an immediate backlash when she realized she was the most recent victim in the rash of vitriol spilling from her water bill.

"Then all of a sudden the flier in the water bill, without Johnson Utilities even calling me and asking me, 'What’s this about?'" Anderson says.

Duprey Purper thinks she knows the answer, although she has encountered a sea of obstacles obsuring the truth. She wonders, could it be coincidence that Johnson Utilities seized her correspondence to the county along with that of other private San Tan Valley citizens and county officials? And things turned really nasty when the utility attacked her personally in a recent water bill insert, along with other private citizens who have challenged Johnson Utilities.

"I think people like this really count on the fact that they have more money than the average citizen," Duprey Purper says. "And they have more lawyers and bigger business and they count on the fact of wearing people down. It’s a typical bullying mentality. I was raised that you don’t give in to bullies, you stand up to bullies and you don’t quit."

Duprey Purper and Martyn both believe the Arizona Corporation Commission has the muscle to intervene. But when interviewed in her Phoenix office, where she chaired the commission before giving up her seat in January, Kris Mayes says the legal lines are blurred.

"I think if that’s a concern and going on it probably should be addressed in some form, probably at next rate case," Mayes says. "I would say it's highly unusual for utilities to get involved in that way in political battles. I‘ve never seen that before, so it's unusual."

More sleuthing brought forward some interesting findings. Don Kempton, a former employee of Johnson Utilities, came forward after weeks of debating whether to tell what he knew. Concern for his family gave him reason to sign an affadavit that states:

"During my tenure with Johnson Utilities, I was told to install a water main between Johnson Ranch and Oasis. This water line crossed the AMA (Pinal/Phoenix). When I voiced concern I was told it was not my responsibility, to continue installing line. This was more than 10 years ago."

Recently information has been uncovered that Johnson Utilities has submitted plans to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, as required by state statutes, that do not match the actual lines the company has placed and put in use.

Further, the map filed by Johnson Utility with the ADWR clearly shows no water lines exist between Oasis at Magic Ranch and Anthem of Florence. Yet a network of water lines follows the Hunt Highway between the two communities.

That makes Duprey Purper wonder what else Johnson Utilities might be hiding, and why Johnson Utilities would oppose incorporation. She offers this advice for other communities who may face bullies in the wild West.

"If you think that there is a problem, be part of the solution, don’t be part of the problem and sit idly by and do nothing out of fear," Duprey Purper says.

For his part, Martyn has already caught the ear of key legislators to fix the state law that allows adjacent municipalities to deny incorporation votes by their neighbors. Johnson Utilities continues to send political information in utility bills, and attempts to discredit local residents who speak. Belying its formerly bucolic identity, this community is itching for a fight.

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