Friday, January 13, 2012

Another Day in Maricopa County Government


I had to cover a Maricopa County Board of Supervisors meeting this week. In most counties a "Supes" meeting (also called county commissioners in some states) is a yawn inducing exercise in government minutiae. For photographers, in some places, "supes" meetings assignments are as popular as court assignments. In others words, not at all popular. But this is Maricopa County and nothing is as it should be. 

This is the county where the Sheriff arrested two of five supervisors on corruption charges, where the chief deputy (since fired) has been quoted as saying the goal was to arrest 3 of 5 to deny the board a quorum. The county where Supervisors hired a private eye to sweep their offices for listening devices, fearing the Sheriff had "bugged" them. The county where the Supervisors are suing the Sheriff's department for malicious arrest. Americans like to make jokes about "banana republics" usually thought to be small Latin American countries. But for the last six years, Maricopa County has been the prototypical banana republic. 

At almost every supes meeting, a group of human and civil rights activists opposed to Sheriff Joe Arpaio picket the meeting and speak out against the Sheriff whenever the MCSO is on the agenda. It doesn't matter why he's on the agenda, his opponents will use the opportunity rail against him. This week the Sheriff's department was on the agenda for a relatively routine budget adjustment. His opponents were there and monopolized the first hour of the meeting. Some were critical of perceived racism by MCSO deputies on the immigration sweeps. Others spoke out against the way his jails are run, especially after a video was released showing detention officers repeatedly shocking a man, an unarmed veteran with a history of mental health problems, with a taser then locking him in "safe" cell (basically a padded room), where he went into cardiac arrest and eventually died. 

Lately the other side of the issue has been showing up, speaking out in support of the Sheriff. At first it was just a couple of local Tea Partiers. Now, members of the Oath Keepers are attending the meetings to support the Sheriff. 

Thanks to the tit for tat back and forth protests, meetings that should take 45 minutes to an hour take two or three hours to get through. But they are sure are entertaining. This week the anti-Arpaio people spoke out against the Atencio death and then a the pro-Arpaio Tea Party and Oath Keepers spoke in support of the sheriff. Finally, Randy Parraz, the public face on the historic recall of Russell Pearce, spoke out against the Sheriff. Parraz' supporters stood in silent support, the Tea Partiers started shouting and it was off to the races. The stand off ended when Parraz and his supporters walked quietly out of the room, but not before an Oath Keeper (top photo) lunged towards the human rights' activists. He was pulled back to his seat by the woman, also a Sheriff's supporter, behind him. 

When they got outside, members of Citizens for a Better Arizona taped a notice to the door of the Supervisors' building that they intend to put the Sheriff's department back on the agenda in the two weeks time. I can hardly wait.