By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
In a political climate increasingly characterized by hostility and division, Sun City West last week became the setting for peaceful protests as a throng of residents and activists demonstrated at PORA headquarters, 13815 W. Camino del Sol.
A crowd, described in varying accounts as consisting of 150 to 200 residents from Surprise, Sun City Grand and Sun City West, arrived around 1:30 p.m. to speak with staff from the office of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who were at PORA for posted community office hours Feb. 8.
Sun City West is one of many locations the senator provides office hours around the state, where his staff meet one-on-one with constituents to address issues they may have in dealing with federal agencies and to answer questions and concerns.
The senator’s office hours at PORA are usually 1:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month. During February, office hours are also scheduled for locations in Globe, Apache Junction, Payson and Fountain Hills.
“Usually, there are few who take advantage of this opportunity,” said Bonnie Boyce-Wilson, a Sun City West resident and community advocate who was recently named chairwoman of the Northwest Valley Connect Board of Directors. “But today, more than 100 peaceful demonstrators appeared to express views, concerns and fears and to ask questions.”
Though some at the demonstration said they had arrived expecting a town hall meeting, the senator’s website makes clear the purpose and limitations of the community office hours.
A message at www.flake.senate.gov states, “Office hours serve as an opportunity for residents having problems … to seek assistance. Appointments are not necessary. Due to limited time and space constraints, we are unable to accommodate meetings with groups during our community office hours. If you are a group wishing to meet with a staff member, please contact our office …”
Sen. Flake did not respond as of press time to requests for comment made by phone and email to his Arizona and Washington, D.C. offices.
Undeterred, demonstrators chanted, “We want a town hall!” Some carried signs and many lifted cell phones high to capture photos and video footage of the initially chaotic scene.
Following the arrival of what some described as more than a dozen Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office units, a fire marshal arrived at the scene and determined it would be safe to allow up to 46 people at a time to stand inside the PORA office to address questions to a senator’s staff member. Attendees were also given comment forms to fill out.
Over the course of an hour, protestors waited outside for a chance to speak with a staff member identified as Mary, who took questions and collected the comment forms. Questions addressed a range of topics, including confirmation of President Trump’s controversial cabinet picks, immigration issues and Sen. Flake’s introduction of a bill to suspend provisions of the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931.
“I want for Senator Flake to speak to us,” said Stephanie Rogall, who said she has been a Sun City West resident for 17 years. “He doesn’t respond to my emails.”
She said she has sent dozens of emails to the senator through his website’s contact form, but has yet to receive a response. Ms. Rogall said she is worried about what she described as the new president’s “aggressive stance” toward women, immigrants and foreign leaders.
Juliet Gustavson, who claimed affiliation with Indivisible Surprise, a local chapter of Indivisible Arizona, read from a prepared statement, which she also submitted to the senator’s staff.
“For the last two and a half weeks, it looks like we the people will be depending heavily on the legislative and judicial branches to preserve our democratic republic by standing for the Constitution and against abuse of power in the executive branch,” Ms. Gustavson said. “Is Sen. Flake prepared to play that courageous role when necessary?”
In a press release issued by Indivisible Surprise, Surprise resident Michael Johnson said his group is concerned about the senator’s vote in favor of confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary, as well as his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, among other issues.
A number of attendees said they plan to demonstrate at future community office hours at other locations and they will continue to call on the senator to conduct a public town hall event to hear and discuss their concerns.