Town Council Retreats From Gazebo Clash To Regroup

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When they couldn't agree on how or whether to restrict public use of the gazebo in Green Valley Park, Payson Town Council members beat a hasty retreat into executive session during their regular meeting Thursday night.

While the executive session was already scheduled to consider other issues, the diversity of opinions regarding whether the gazebo should be restricted to town-sponsored events, effectively barring that facility's use by religious and other special-interest groups, led the council to seek additional legal advice behind closed doors.

"You can either open the gazebo to everybody, or you can close it to everybody," Deputy Town Attorney Jeffrey Blilie said in explaining why he was seeking the council's permission to amend Chapter 11 of the Payson Town Code to restrict gazebo use and to bar the use of stakes and amplification equipment throughout Green Valley and Rumsey parks.

Several council members disagreed. "So we don't discriminate, we just throw everybody out," councilmember Ken Murphy observed early on. A few minutes later, councilmember Hoby Herron looked up at the audience and declared sarcastically, "And you thought you lived in a free country."

Town Manager Rich Underkofler sided with Blilie, pointing out that Green Valley is a "residential, community-type" park. "If you don't do this," he admonished, "you will end up with hate groups like the KKK, the skinheads, and other crazies coming up here from the Valley."

Opinions expressed by residents in attendance were equally varied. Pastor John Roy of Payson First Assembly of God, whose church was recently denied use of the gazebo for a Fourth of July patriotic service, told the council he had probably precipitated the issue, but that fundamental freedoms were at stake. "My purpose was not to cause any problems," he said, "but three of the five groups banned from using that facility by the old wording were religious groups. I say open it to everybody or open it to nobody."

Michelle Halenar, a member of the Parks and Recreation board of directors, gave the issue a broader context when she suggested the Payson Event Center should be open to both equestrian groups and individuals who want to ride their horses in that facility. Shortly after Halenar's comments, the council decided the time had come to seek additional legal advice and the regular meeting was adjourned.

It seemed to be that kind of night for the council as several other issues under consideration proved contentious, including a discussion of design alternatives for the McLane Road Phase 4 improvement project from Forest Drive to Airport Road. Public Works Engineer LaRon Garrett was directed by council last June to prepare the alternatives after some residents expressed concern that the original design was "too hard for existing development."

Garrett presented four options, including some that offered sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and other features designed to make the road more "pedestrian friendly."

Cliff Potts, former mayor of Payson and current chairman of the Northern Gila County Highways Committee, argued that McLane must play an increasingly important role as one of the town's main collector streets. "ADOT considers it an alternative to SR 87," Potts said.

"As a professional engineer," Garrett agreed, "I cannot recommend a substandard section on this roadway. However if the town council should see fit to re-classify McLane Road as a minor collector or local roadway, I could support a reduced section with traffic calming devices."

In the end, the council opted to send Garrett back to the drawing board again, this time to conduct more traffic studies and return with a recommendation based on the outcome of those studies.

Yet another issue that proved troublesome Thursday night was a request by Underkofler to submit an application for a $300,000 Federal Transportation Enhancement Grant for landscaping and scenic beautification of Main Street. Two preliminary design options were presented for council consideration, featuring a combination of landscaped medians, left turn lanes, and on-street parking.

Among those raising objections was Payson resident Ruby Finney who pointed out that the medians in the proposed designs would slow the response time of emergency fire and medical equipment from the fire station on Main Street.

Underkofler and other town staff members admitted that Finney's concern was legitimate, but pointed out that a final design would be part of the actual grant if received. "We can design around the need to provide adequate room for public safety vehicles," he said.

With that assurance, the council voted 6-0 to allow Underkofler to pursue the grant.

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