Council members, citizens demand Mayor Valenzuela resign for misuse of town bank cards “I made a mistake,” Valenzuela pleads as Council enacted new safeguards against personal withdrawals
By James J. Hodl
Calls for Superior Mayor Jayme Valenzuela to resign erupted from both Town Council members and angry citizens in the overflow crowd at the January 14 Council meeting following the reading of an auditor’s report that confirmed Valenzuela had used the town bank card eight times since 2012 to withdraw $2,300 for personal use.
But Mayor Valenzuela countered that he had not done anything wrong and would not resign, prompting talk of a possible recall election.
The Town Council responded by voting to request that the Arizona Department of Public Safety to conduct a criminal investigation into the findings of the auditor’s report, and to adopt tighter controls over the use of town credit and debit cards. The Council also voted to begin the search for a new Town Manager with a financial background to replace current manager Margaret Gaston, who was criticized for the tardiness in which the card withdrawals were discovered.
Scott Powell of the auditing firm Colby & Powell PLC delivered the report, which found the withdrawals by Valenzuela were double what was reported by former Superior Town Clerk Rachel Sanchez at the December 2015 meeting. Sanchez, who reported discovering four of the withdrawals from the town debit card some months earlier, made her discovery public as the Town Council considered retaining her as Town Clerk beyond her six-month probationary period. Mayor Valenzuela cast the deciding vote not to retain Sanchez.
The auditor’s report found that all eight withdrawals were made on a town debit card issued to the mayor for town business. Because the card issued by the Bank of the West is processed by a third-party firm, all the auditor could secure was the address of the ATMs where the card was used but notthe business at that location. These locations included the towns of Chandler, Gilbert and Florence. While Mayor Valenzuela said he had used the town card by mistake in place of his own and had refunded the withdrawals before the December Council meeting, Powell noted that the refunds were actually made in two checks after that meeting; the last the day before the January meeting.
The report did not sit well with some Council members.
“I’m disappointed in you, Mayor,” said Council member Michael Alonzo. “You said this was a one-time occurrence; that the mistake resulted from similar PIN numbers between yours and the town’s. But you lied to us. You made all-cash withdrawals and half the receipts are missing.
“Your lack of accountability in this matter is unacceptable,” Alonzo continued. “This was not a mistake. You hid this from us. There is no justification for what you did and for repaying only after the matter was brought up. What you did was stealing from the town,” he added, prompting loud applause from the more than 100 citizens who attended the Council meeting.
“You have lost the trust of this community and the town staff. How can we ask a bank to loan us money if we cannot show we properly use what funds we have? How can we justify raising taxes to balance the budget if we don’t have the people’s trust?
“There is only one way to start restoring that trust. Resign!” Alonzo told Mayor Valenzuela, to more applause from the audience.
Upset that word of the ATM withdrawals was not reported to the Council until December 9, Council member Mila Besich-Lira asked Powell when they were first discovered. When told the third week of November, Besich-Lira fumed, “We took the word that the town staff was working hard to watch our money. Being too busy isn’t an excuse. This is going to affect our credibility in the community.”
She added, “Mayor, you like our community. Then do what is best for the community. Resign so we can move forward.”
While Council member Stephen Estatico refused to pass judgment, he asked Mayor Valenzuela to “do what is best for Superior. As much as I feel, I must ask you to resign.”
Vice Mayor Olga Lopez bristled about being blindsided by the report of the Mayor’s transgression, she chastised the town staff under Town Manager Margaret Gaston for not telling the Council sooner.
Responding to the report and Council members, Mayor Valenzuela admitted he made a mistake, apologized for it, and noted that he had returned the $2,300 plus $45.50 in transaction fees incurred while using ATMs not operated by the Bank of the West. Valenzuela noted that until he was elected mayor Superior government never conducted audits, which he said “were important” in catching wrongdoing. He thanked Town Manager Gaston for her hard work and having to endure all the personal attacks since the withdrawals became known.
He concluded, “I remain committed to working for what is in the best interests of Superior.
Thanks to those who never doubted my commitment and integrity. I made a mistake.”
He did not mention resignation in his comments, prompting Councilman Alonzo to express disbelief that the withdrawals were merely a mistake and to renew his call for Valenzuela to resign. Council member Besich-Lira then moved that the Council adopt as policy the safeguards against fraudulent card use proposed by Powell after reading the auditor’s report. These included having the mayor and other Superior government officials to sign out town credit or debit cards, stating what the intended use would be. Receipts would be presented when the card is returned, verifying that it was used for the stated purpose. Two staffers would be required to verify that the necessary invoices or receipts were received with the card. The date and time of when a card is checked out or returned would be mandatory. Debit card transactions would need to be reconciled every month on the town’s
The proposal was adopted unanimously by the Council.
Immediately afterwards, the Council voted to request that the Arizona Department of Public Safety conduct a criminal investigation on the misuse of all town bank cards (not just the mayor’s) described in the auditor’s report.
Also on the agenda was a proposal for Superior government to post the positions of Town Manager and Financial Director for possible hire. After Councilman Estatico noted that Superior doesn’t have funds for two positions, it was voted that the two positions be combined and posted as a single position. The measure was adopted unanimously.
Calls for Mayor Valenzuela to resign continued into the Public Comments section near the end of the meeting. Among those lending their voice to the chorus was Superior Chamber of Commerce President Sue Anderson, and residents Pamela Dalton-Rebago and Nancy Vogler.
“Considering all that has been revealed, the people can never trust you again. Your only choice is to resign,” Anderson told Mayor Valenzuela, speaking as a resident of Superior and not as president of the Chamber.
Dalton-Rebago went further, praising Rachel Sanchez for uncovering what was being covered. She called for an investigation of how the cover-up occurred, and criticized town attorney Stephen Cooper for ruling in December that it wasn’t a conflict of interest for Valenzuela to cast the deciding vote to fire Sanchez.
Vogler noted that when Valenzuela ran for Pinal County Sheriff in 2008, he told the Arizona Republic that the most important asset a candidate could have was integrity and that a candidate’s downfall was arrogance. Yet she now found him without integrity and arrogantly denying any wrongdoing. She asked how Superior could find honest employees if they fire people like Sanchez.
Citizen Sonny Stamson went so far as to suggest than Sanchez be hired as the new Town Manager during his comment.
The biggest tongue lashing came appropriately from Marilee Lash, who told Valenzuela, “I voted for you in the recall election because you stressed integrity and that you said you’d find out what was going wrong with town finances. Instead you took our money. That is a crime. Even if you give it back, it is still theft. Resign and leave with dignity. I’m sorry I voted for you.”