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AJ restaurant feud with city over noise complaints goes to Legislature

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers are moving to subject noise complaints to the same standards as speeding violations.

Only cops could issue them.

And the officers would have to have measure the sound level with a calibrated meter, much the same way that speeding violations require the use of a calibrated radar gun.

The 5-1 vote Monday by the House Committee on Regulatory Affairs spurs from complaints by Mehmood Mohiuddin, owner of the Hitching Post restaurant in Apache Junction, that he has repeatedly been cited by city officials for excessive noise. He told lawmakers that was based on complaints from neighbors who were armed only with videos.

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said that's totally arbitrary.

Central to the issue is a state law that makes it a public nuisance to interfere "with the comfortably enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood or by a considerable number of persons'' in a way that is "offensive to the senses or an obstruction to the free use of property.''

"So that's up to interpretation by whomever is reading this,'' Townsend said of the current law. "And it's quite vague.''

She wants the law to reflect that any prosecution under state public nuisance laws based on noise complaints "must include an accurate recording and measurement of the noise made by a peace officer.''

But her HB 2389 is even more technical than that. It spells out the scale to be used, how samples should be taken, and even the technical requirements for the type of sound meter that would have to be used.

Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson, said that effectively would require all police departments to outfit patrol cars with these meters.

Townsend conceded she has no idea how much that would cost. But she said it's fairer than what occurs now where the "evidence'' produced against property owners often consists only of cell phone videos from nearby residents. And that, Townsend said, hardly qualifies as "valid for sound measurement.''

But Mohiuddin said those kinds of videos -- he claims they have been altered -- have been the basis for hundreds of complaints against him that he has had to defend himself against noise complaints at the city's board of adjustment. He told lawmakers he has had to sell his home to pay his legal fees.

Townsend, in seeking to apply the requirement for police-gathered evidence statewide, said there's no reason that these complaints are being handled without real, measurable evidence which has been gathered by a peace officer.

Nick Ponder, lobbyist for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said the legislation puts cities in the business of having to intercede every time someone files a noise complaint.

"The last thing that our police officers want to do is respond to a noise call, frankly,'' he said. "They have other things they could be spending their time on.''

Townsend was unconvinced.

"I understand a police officer doesn't want to have to go and see a call on noise,'' she said. But Townsend said it's important for a judge or hearing officer to have all the relevant -- and reliable -- evidence.

"If you're going to charge somebody they're going to have to defend themselves and spend thousands of dollars,'' she said. "We don't want this happening on a he said/she said basis by somebody who's disgruntled.''

That argument was buttressed by Braden Biggs who is a member of the Apache Junction board of adjustment.

"When one of our police officers cites somebody for a speeding violation they have to do so with a radar gun,'' he told lawmakers.

"That gun is required to be calibrated and logged and tracked, consistently,'' Biggs said, providing documentation that the officer is able to review and present when there is as hearing. "That should also be the case when it comes to noise violations.''

That still leaves the question of cost.

Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, said he did a quick Google search and found sound meters for as little as $19.90 and as much as $376.95. There was no immediate indication which of these, if any, would prove acceptable for use under Townsend's legislation.

Powers Hannley told Mohiuddin that it sounds like he's being targeted.

"And it's very unfair,'' she said. "I'm not sure that this bill is the fix for it, though,'' saying one of the issues for her vote against the measure is the potential cost.

Townsend said she does not want this to be an unfunded mandate on cities, suggesting that if her measure advances she may look to have the state provide some dollars to communities to purchase the devices.

The measure now goes to the full House following routine constitutional review.

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CGUHS high-powered rocket project aims to get teens interested in space
 mstaude  / 

CASA GRANDE -- As they design, build and prepare to launch a high-powered rocket to travel 10,000 feet above the ground, a few teens at Casa Grande Union High School hope to ignite a passion for space among their classmates.

“Our goal is to infect other students with a love of space and to inspire curiosity,” said John Travis Daniel, 17, a senior at CGUHS and a member of the school’s new Students for the Exploration and Development of Space chapter.

SEDS is a nationwide nonprofit organization that encourages young people to learn about space exploration.

Of the 79 SEDS chapters nationwide, most are in universities and colleges. The Casa Grande chapter is one of three SEDS chapters in Arizona and the only one based in a high school. John Morris, math and engineering teacher at CGUHS, is the chapter adviser.

mstaude / Melissa St. Aude/PinalCentral 

Students with the SEDS chapter at Casa Grande Union High School are currently running simulations while designing a high-powered rocket. Preparing their test rocket for launch are, from left, Benjamin McFann, Gehrig Dixon, John Travis Daniel and Cameron Garey. 

For the new CGUHS chapter, the first mission is a three-step process that includes designing and building a rocket that can achieve an altitude of 10,000 feet, launching the projectile with a student-made sensor package attached to collect atmospheric data and analyzing the data once the rocket is recovered.

The rocket, which will likely be made of fiberglass, will include a parachute to help it return safely to the ground.

“Through this mission, we’re learning how to build and launch a rocket and also how to interpret the data it collects,” said Benjamin McFann, 18. “There’s a lot of calculus involved.”

As well as designing and building a projectile and control system, the students are learning about air flow and determining the center of pressure and center of gravity for their rocket. The chapter hopes “to learn to solve problems beyond the atmosphere, educate others and create a team environment that fosters transparency and cooperation to prepare students for the future,” Morris said.

The students plan a mid-April launch date.

Some club members are working on acquiring Level 1 High-Powered Rocketry certification and the appropriate authorization needed prior to launch.

“This rocket will be a lot more powerful than an average backyard rocket,” Daniel said.

Students are consulting with Casa Grande fire officials to ensure safety measures are followed.

About seven students are members of the CGUHS SEDS chapter, but as they begin to work on the rocket, they hope to garner excitement for the project and inspire others to join.

“We’ve started outreach to try to get more students to join us,” McFann said.

Club members have visited middle school and freshman classes to spread the word about the chapter and its goals. They’ve also started a new podcast.

“The podcast will have different space topics,” McFann said. “Today’s topic was space programs in school.”

Some members of the group dream of careers in space.

Next year, McFann plans to study astrophysics at the University of Minnesota and Daniel is set to major in electrical engineering at Arizona State University.

Both hope for careers in the space industry.

But the club welcomes those thinking of other, non-space professions.


Cameron Garey

Cameron Garey plans to study forensic science when she attends college.

“I’m not really thinking of a career in space right now, but who knows,” she said. “There are so many careers in space opening up.”

Daniel said the club is about exploring the possibilities as well as learning about space.

“We’re hoping to expose people to what space is and what kinds of opportunity are beginning to open up in the space industry. Space careers go beyond engineering and math. There are space lawyers, jobs in space economy and so many other fields,” he said.

Those with questions about the program may visit the CGUHS SEDS website at https://sedscguhs.weebly.com.

Study: Most firearms deaths in Arizona are suicides

TEMPE — More than 3,100 people in Arizona died from firearms from 2015 to 2017 and 71% of those deaths were suicides, according to a new report released by Arizona State University.

The report, presented Wednesday by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU, includes a detailed breakdown of types of firearm deaths and the victims, with the intent to use the data to prevent gun violence in Arizona.

“This is information that’s crucial to our understanding of firearm deaths in Arizona,” said Melissa Kovacs, associate director for research for the Morrison Institute, who is co-author of the report.

“What we’re talking about might feel foundational or basic and might raise more questions than it answers, and we have a lot of questions ourselves.”

Among the findings:

  • Over the three-year period studied, from Jan. 1, 2015, to Dec. 31, 2017, the number of firearm deaths increased nearly 18%.
  • Of the total 3,188 firearms deaths, 71% were suicide, 23% were homicide, 5% were undetermined and 1% were unintentional.
  • There was a 14% increase in firearm suicides in the three-year span, from 702 to 798. The rate of firearm suicide per 100,000 people increased from 10.6 to 11.7.
  • There was a 27% increase in firearm homicides in the three-year period, from 208 to 265. The rate of firearm homicides per 100,000 people increased from 3.1 to 3.9.
  • Firearms were used in 59% of all suicides and in 69% of all homicides in Arizona during the period.

“You can see the numbers have gone up but Arizona’s population has increased in this time as well,” Kovacs said, noting that it’s important to consider the rate per 100,000 and not just the numbers.

The report is a collaboration between the Morrison Institute and the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety, both in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at ASU. The center houses the Arizona Violent Death Reporting System, which draws data from law-enforcement agencies, death certificates, medical examiner reports and other sources, such as hospitals. In 2015, the state system began a partnership with a national reporting system that’s part of the Centers for Disease Control, with the goal of creating a set of high-quality data to help prevent violence.

Besides homicides and suicides, the researchers also looked at the 42 unintentional firearm deaths in Arizona in the time period. There were five in 2015, 12 in 2016 and 25 in 2017.

“These represent pretty notable increases and this is something we’re all hoping is not a trend,” Kovacs said.

Three-quarters of the unintentional victims were male, as were 90% of the shooters. The median age of the victims was 21, and of the shooters, 24. In nearly two-thirds of the cases, the shooter was playing with, displaying or cleaning the gun. There was one unintentional death related to hunting and none related to target shooting.

While there is a big set of data, it’s filled with holes, for two main reasons: poor reporting by the participating agencies or nonparticipation, according to David Choate, senior research analyst at the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

Significantly, Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone withdrew his agency’s participation in the Arizona Violent Death Reporting System when he took office in 2017. The Arizona Department of Corrections and the FBI also don’t participate.

“We’re also hampered by the quality of information,” Choate said.

“When you read a law enforcement report and the entire narrative summary says, ‘See Medical Examiner’s report,’ we’re not getting a lot of information. We get a substantial number of reports with such thin information that we’re unable to code anything.”

That narrative information is important to show the context of violence, in order to find ways to decrease it. For example, in 28% of homicides, the relationship between the victim and the suspect is unknown and in 27% of homicides, the type of gun used is unknown.

The presentation also included policy recommendations by Charles Katz, director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

“One of the things we’re repeatedly asked for is our recommendations, whether it be for statutes, ordinances, policies or practices, and most of the time, we stay away from it because it gets in the way of our primary role of shedding light on what the real problems are,” he said.

“But we have been repeatedly requested to make recommendations and we’re starting to move in that direction very conservatively,” said Katz, who also is a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Katz’s 10 recommendations for communities to consider, most of which have been based on randomized control trials, are:

1. Expanding the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, which allows law enforcement agencies to more efficiently identify guns that are used repeatedly in violent crimes.

2. Use a “focused deterrence” strategy to fight violent crime, which identifies the “worst of the worst” offenders, who are provided with intervention and social services with the caveat that they will be prosecuted quickly if they stray. “It’s one of the most well researched programs out there that shows there’s at least a medium effect.”

3. Use “Operation Peacekeeper,” a program in which “violence interrupters” work on the streets.

4. Consider “hot spot” policing, in which resources are focused on small areas where violence is the worst.

5. Create homicide review commissions, which gather community members quickly after a homicide to review information and identify trends.

6. Launch education campaigns for safe gun storage. “Perhaps the strategy that is most effective in reducing youth suicide is education campaigns for how to deal with firearms,” Katz said. “The only way youths can get the firearm is through a parent or friend where the firearm is not secure.”

7. Boost child-access prevention laws to increase consequences for unsecured firearms.

8. Increase background checks for gun buyers.

9. Revoke stand your ground laws because research shows that states that adopt these laws see a small increase in homicides.

10. Increase research on violence in Native American communities.

“In some years that we’ve examined the data, when you combine homicides and suicides, American Indians have the highest rate of violent death in the state,” Katz said.

But no one is sure of the Native American population, both on and off reservations. Census data varies widely from tribal counts, he said.

In addition, tribal agencies do not participate in the Arizona Violent Death Reporting System.

“We’ve had to call each nation and try to collect that information and we’ve just made a small dent,” he said.

“The bottom line is that when you call them and ask for it, they say no. It’s their data and they’re permitted to share it with whomever they like.”

Even with all the numbers, the researchers were able to keep the bigger picture, according to David Schlinkert, senior policy analyst for the Morrison Institute, who is co-author of the report with Kovacs.

“Sometimes, when we aggregate quantitative data, you’re less able to see what you’re really talking about. Melissa and I have been looking at this data for 10 months now, and the stories in there are about people,” he said.

“The deaths are violent and it’s not the most pleasant thing to think about. But when we say that number — 3,188 — those are all individual people with lives and stories.”


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Gourd art is focus of annual festival
 mstaude  / 

ELEVEN MILE CORNER — A celebration of the humble, hard-shelled gourd and all its possibilities will take place Feb. 7, 8 and 9 with the 17th annual Running of the Gourds festival at the Pinal Fairgrounds and Event Center.

The festival attracts an estimated 12,000 people each year, including artists, crafters, vendors and shoppers as well as people interested in learning more about the variety of fine art and craft items that can be created from a gourd.

Visitors to the festival will find gourds in all shapes and sizes that have been transformed into bowls, decorations, paintings, ornaments, lamps and other works of art.

A world-class gourd art show that’s judged by the Arizona Gourd Society is a featured part of the festival.

Running of the Gourd festival

Among the 47 classes offered this year are chances for gourd artists to learn various painting, decorating and carving techniques that transform the simple yet shapely gourd into a work of art.

A gourd is a typically large fruit with a hard shell-like exterior. While many gourds are edible, the ones featured at the festival are grown for decorative purposes and are widely prized for their appeal to artists. The hard surface of the decorative gourds may be carved, painted, sanded, dyed and transformed into various works of art.

The gourd festival is a family-run event started by the Wuertz family 17 years ago to educate the public about gourds and to serve the flourishing gourd artistry market. It’s one of the largest gourd festivals in the country, attracting hundreds of artists and vendors every year.

A lot of work leads up to the event every year, including loading up semi-trucks and hauling thousands of gourds from the Wuertz farm to the nearby Pinal Fairgrounds and Event Center and setting up gourd-themed displays.

The festival includes live, non-stop music along with a farmers market, games and food as well as plenty of gourd-theme puns including a “Flash Gourden” character and a “kindergourden” for young people to learn about gourds.

One of the more popular events at the festival is the “mini-gourdster” racing competition in which tiny cars are made from gourds, then sent racing down a 30-foot ramp.

The gourd festival hours are:

  • 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday
  • 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

Admission is $10 at the gate. The Pinal Fairgrounds and Event Center is at 512 S. Eleven Mile Corner Road.