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Casa Grande to gradually reopen city parks

CASA GRANDE — The city of Casa Grande may reopen this week parts of its park system that have been closed since March.

Mayor Craig McFarland made the announcement at the end of Monday’s City Council meeting. Staff have to look at how much time it will take to replace some of the equipment, like basketball hoops, that were taken down to discourage people from congregating in large groups at the parks, he said.

The city plans to roll out the reopenings over several days, City Manager Larry Rains stated in an email.

“We have developed a measured approach that essentially allows use under the (federal and state) guidelines. We anticipate adding signage at our facilities promoting ‘safe and healthy’ use in which proper social distancing can be practiced and exhibited,” he said.

The plan is to open the A Leash on Life Dog Park, the gun range and North Mountain Park on Friday. No organized events or reservations for events will be allowed and the ramadas will remain closed. North Mountain Park will be open for hiking only.

The city will open the pickleball and tennis courts on Monday for individual play only. No leagues or tournaments will be allowed. The basketball and volleyball courts may reopen on May 16 and will also be limited to individual play only.

McFarland stated in an email the city will also be patrolling the parks, and park rangers will be reminding residents to follow social distancing guidelines while using the parks.

The park ramadas, restrooms, playground equipment, splash pad and aquatic center will remain closed until additional guidance is received from the state, Rains stated.

The city is also looking at gradually reopening the libraries.

“We are developing a proposed plan that would open circulation services only in phase one of the national guidelines,” Rains said. “Materials would be quarantined for a period of time, then cleaned, after returned. When moving into phase two of the reopening guidelines, there would be modifications to various programs and services that would allow patrons and staff to follow the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines.”

“Guidelines for recreation centers and gyms are still being finalized,” he said. “Staff is also developing a proposal for extending memberships to patrons who were customers prior to the closure of the facility.”

The city also plans to make modifications to check-in, front desk and transaction areas before the centers reopen in order to protect the health and safety of staff and residents.

McFarland also gave the council an update on a new executive order from Gov. Doug Ducey. The order will allow barbershops and nail and hair salons to reopen on Friday and dine-in restaurants to open on Monday under some restrictions.

Those restrictions for hair and nail salons and barbershops include service by appointment only, requiring staff and customers to wear face masks and following federal social distancing guidelines.

Dine-in restaurants will be required to limit the number of customers they serve to those they can comfortably seat at least 6 feet apart and maintain other federal social distancing guidelines.

“This is just the first phase of opening things up,” McFarland told the council. The state and city will have to move through two more phases before things come back to some semblance of normal, he said. However, even after the state reaches phase three, there will probably still be requirements to maintain social distancing, wear a mask and do frequent hand washing.

The city is also working on a publicity campaign called Come Back SMART CG to remind residents to continue to follow CDC guidelines as businesses reopen, McFarland said.

SMART stands for: Shield your cough and sneeze, Mask up in public, Apart six feet, Rinse and wash your hands for 20 seconds and Tidy your space with disinfectant/hand sanitizer.

The council also discussed if the city could use funds from a more than $64,000 U.S. Justice Department grant to purchase masks and gloves for members of the public who may need them.

Councilman Dick Powell made the suggestion, saying that he didn’t think the city was doing enough to help residents find the resources they needed to protect themselves from COVID-19.

Police Chief Mark McCrory told council members that the way the grant was structured prevented the department from spending the money on purchasing supplies for the public. The grant only allows the funds to be spent on overtime pay and equipment, such as gloves and masks, for police officers or other public safety providers such as firefighters. It can’t be used to provide masks and gloves directly to the public, he said.

Rains said his staff would work with Pinal County to see if there were other sources of federal funding that could be used to purchase gloves and masks for the public. If no federal funding was available, he would look into other sources of funding.

Rains also pointed out that multiple residents in town have been sewing or making masks and selling them or giving them away.

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CGUHSD leaves open option for possible in-person graduations

CASA GRANDE — Superintendent Steve Bebee reiterated to the Casa Grande Union High School District Governing Board on Tuesday that his office and the graduation committees of both high schools looked at several ways to hold an in-person graduation ceremony for seniors this year.

But they found that most in-person ceremonies just wouldn’t meet current federal and state social distancing guidelines and the prohibitions on large gatherings at this time.

However, Bebee said that by pushing out the dates of graduation to June 16 and 18, the schools are hoping that those restrictions may be lifted or reduced and the district may be able to hold a modified or full in-person ceremony for seniors. If not, a virtual graduation will go forward and the schools will look for a way to honor seniors in the fall, possibly at Homecoming.

“There’s nobody in this district that wouldn’t prefer to see us have a traditional graduation for our seniors. Everybody would prefer a traditional graduation,” Bebee told the board.

He reminded the board and people watching the livestream of the meeting several times that the state and federal governments were in charge of the social distancing guidelines and were responsible for closing the schools, not the district.

He said graduation and all of the other celebrations that come with senior year were at the top of all the administrators’ and principals’ minds the day after the schools were closed.

“No decisions were made out of our lack of desire or our inability to run a modified in-person graduation,” he said. “We can and we’ve talked about all the possible options and again current regulations don’t permit that.”

The district has looked for other ways to honor seniors, Bebee said.

Every night the district has turned on the stadium lights at 8:20 p.m., or 20:20 in military time, at both high schools for 20 minutes, he said. Graduates at both schools will be getting yard signs to alert residents that a graduate lives in the home. The district is also honoring seniors with blurbs about the students on the high schools’ and district’s websites and social media. Administrators from both schools have also gone to the homes of the valedictorian and salutatorian to honor them, he said.

“As far as our rationale to move to an online format, the reason that we went that way is because of the guidelines that have been set for us and you have to remember at the time, we didn’t know until April 29 what would happen with our stay-at-home orders,” Bebee said.

On April 29, Gov. Doug Ducey extended the stay-at-home order until May 15 but also started to loosen some restrictions on businesses.

Bebee pointed out that even after the state reaches the third phase of the federal guidelines on reopening the economy, the restrictions on large social gatherings would prohibit the district from holding an in-person graduation ceremony.

Even if the district did a ceremony without an audience, there would be more than 10 people on the stage and schools wouldn’t be able to have all of the graduates sit together because there are more than 400 graduates at each school, which violates the prohibition against large gatherings, he said.

Bebee also told the board that he consulted with the district’s attorney, who also warned against having an in-person graduation.

Knowing that the stay-at-home order had been continued and that large gatherings were still prohibited, Bebee said, he and the administration of each school tried to come up with a way to honor graduates, and an online graduation ceremony was one solution.

Bebee acknowledged that a lot of parents and students have expressed some anxiety around what a virtual graduation might look like.

“People don’t know what this looks like and so ‘If I don’t know, it’s just a bad thing,’” he said.

He said he would try to get some examples out to parents of the ceremony.

The ceremony will have all of the parts of a traditional graduation including all of the welcoming statements and speeches from students and administrators, but it won’t have the audience or the graduates crossing the stage, he said. Instead of having graduates cross the stage, as each student’s name is called, the page and video that the student created will be flashed on the screen.

Contrary to what some people may think, holding a virtual graduation isn’t easy, Bebee said.

“I can tell you from my principals and everybody else it’s ten times harder to do this graduation right now than it would have been to just roll out a traditional graduation the way we’ve done it year after year after year. It’s taken a lot of time and effort and there’s also been some delays,” he said.

Bebee said he’s also heard a lot of ideas from community members and parents about holding a graduation ceremony and thanked them for their ideas and offers to help.

“I haven’t seen one yet that fits within the current social distancing guidelines that we have to follow,” he said.

Every high school in the county is doing a virtual graduation, he said. But CGUHSD is the only district in Pinal County that has moved its graduation dates to buy some time “before we have to, for sure, say ‘no way’ to a traditional graduation.”

Board member Jack Henness asked if the district could do something like Tucson Unified School District. Tucson is holding a virtual graduation on its scheduled graduation date but is also reserving a date in June to hold an in-person ceremony, if social distancing guidelines allow, he said.

Bebee said because of a number of factors — the delayed delivery of the graduation caps and gowns, having each senior create their own page and 10-second video and recording the speeches of the valedictorians and salutatorians and administrators — the company putting together the virtual graduation won’t have enough time to meet the original graduation date.

“So knowing that we were already going to have to push it (the dates of graduation), what we have decided to do is to land on those dates (in June) and if we cannot come together because social distancing still does not allow that, (and) there’s not any way to do some modified version of an in-person graduation, digital graduation will run,” he said. “If we can do something in-person, we will do something in-person and run the digital graduation.”

He wasn’t sure what an in-person graduation at that time would look like, but the graduation committees at each school will start work on the possibility, Bebee said. The district would also communicate with families and students ahead of time if an in-person ceremony was possible, so they could be ready for it.

If the district was unable to do an in-person ceremony in June, the schools might look at honoring the Class of 2020 in the fall, Bebee said — perhaps at the start of the school year or at Homecoming.

“Again we can’t put any ‘for sure,’” he said.

The city has also reached out to the district and offered to honor graduates during the Fourth of July fireworks show, if the city is able to hold a show at that time, Bebee said.

Henness asked if the district could bring parents or students into the planning process. Seniors from student leadership have been involved in the planning process from the beginning, Bebee said.

Henness also asked if Bebee would communicate to students, parents and the public about the situation the district found itself in surrounding graduation.

Henness said he’s had at least one conversation with a parent who seemed confused on what the district was planning to do with graduation.

“I think we all agree 100% as a person that we would all love to have a graduation. We would all love to see the kids walk,” Henness said. “And I think what you’re trying to do right now is at least offer some alternatives and what could be potentials in the future and not completely close the door on not having a physical walk-through graduation. We need to communicate that to them.”

Bebee said he plans to meet with principals on communicating directly with parents about graduation and that he would put out a press release to the media. The press release on Thursday included much of the same information as Bebee’s letter about graduation in the district’s April newsletter, as well as links to the website where student profiles are being posted and a paragraph on the possibility of an in-person graduation ceremony.

“It’s just a very, very sad time in our country. There are high school students across the country, there are college students across the country that are not going to be able to participate this year in a traditional graduation because of this pandemic,” Bebee told the board.

Senior profiles

Casa Grande Union High School and Vista Grande High School graduating seniors will have student profiles and photos for each school at:

Casa Grande Union: www.cguhsd.org/cgSeniorSpotlight.aspx

Vista Grande: www.cguhsd.org/vgSeniorSpotlight.aspx

If you are a senior at Vista Grande, please send your information to Jennifer Korsten at jkortsen@cguhsd.org, and if you are a senior at Casa Grande Union, send your information to Brian Mabb at bmabb@cguhsd.org.

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Lamb challenger knocked off primary ballot for Pinal sheriff

FLORENCE — An election nomination petition filed by the only candidate challenging incumbent Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb has been invalidated by a Superior Court judge.

The case was heard in Pinal County Superior Court after Lamb filed a lawsuit challenging about 130 signatures on Tim Gustafson’s party nomination petition. Lamb’s challenge successfully invalidated 127 of those signatures.

In a written decision on April 29, Judge Kevin White said the number of valid signatures gathered by Gustafson to put him on the Republican Party’s primary ballot on Aug. 4 was just not enough.

Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer said there is still a possibility that Gustafson could run as a write-in candidate.

Volkmer said Lamb filed the lawsuit against Gustafson as a candidate and not in his capacity as county sheriff. The County Attorney’s Office represented the county recorder, Virginia Ross, in the lawsuit.

“The recorder initially made the determination that Mr. Gustafson should be on the ballot,” Volkmer said. “Mark (Lamb) challenged and said, ‘no, we don’t think he should be on the ballot.’ We defended the recorder and the election director as to how they made the decision Gustafson should be on the ballot.”

During an April 27 hearing, the court determined that only 398 of the 525 signatures on Gustafson’s nominating petition were valid. A candidate must have 402 valid nominating signatures to be considered on the party’s ballot in the August primary.

This means Lamb will run unopposed in his first re-election attempt in November as the Democrats have not fielded a candidate.

In White’s April 29 decision, he determined one signature was a duplicate, one person signing the petition was not properly registered, five had signed Lamb’s nominating petition before signing Gustafson’s and 120 signatures were “invalid electors” who are required to properly provide their name, address and date of signing the petition.

The county recorder said that she found signing problems with the 123 signatures that were challenged by Lamb.

“The county recorder also explained in her testimony that the classification of a signer as an ‘invalid elector’ in the report based on ‘invalid date’ includes circumstances where there is only a partial date and also where the voter signs on a date when the signer is not properly registered,” White wrote in his decision.

White also denied Lamb’s challenge to three more signatures that the current sheriff believed were duplicates.

White wrote, “Chiefly through his witness Kevin Cavanaugh, Mr. Gustafson attempted to show that numerous signers deemed ‘invalid electors’ by the county recorder should be considered ‘qualified electors.’ … The court finds that the testimony, opinions and determinations of the county recorder’s office carry considerably more weight than that of Mr. Cavanaugh. While Mr. Cavanaugh’s effort and good intentions are evident, the foundation supporting his testimony is ultimately lacking, particularly in comparison to that of the county recorder’s office,” White wrote in his decision.

White stated Cavanaugh’s testimony relied on a “stale hearsay report” that was not even admitted into evidence. He stated that nothing was convincing to challenge the Recorder’s Office report on Gustafson’s nominating petition.

Volkmer said there are a variety of reasons why petition signers were invalidated, and the court determined 127 of the signatures on Gustafson’s petition were invalid, leaving him with just 398 signatures, four less than the required 402 to appear on the ballot.

“If you don’t get 50 percent more signatures than you are legally required, you should expect a challenge,” Volkmer said. “I think there were eight or 12 challenges in Pinal County this year. Five of them were for the corporation commission. I know that Boyd Dunn was challenged, and he was kicked off the ballot. David Farnsworth was running for corporation commission; he was challenged, and he was kicked off the ballot as well.”

Volkmer added that candidates launching signature challenges like this are very common in Arizona politics.

Both the Lamb and Gustafson campaigns were contacted for comment by PinalCentral but neither responded.