Taking On Town Hall

Senior stands guard as government watchdog

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Ruby Finney is not your typical senior citizen.

"I tried knitting one time, but I never did finish it. I think I did half a sleeve," she said.

Those who attend town council meetings or listen to KMOG know how Finney has chosen to spend her golden years: giving local politicians hell.

Nary a council meeting goes by without an appearance at the podium by Finney. And KMOG radio personality Don Holcombe likes to tell the story about the caller who innocently asked, "Is this the Ruby Finney show?"

"I said, 'It might as well be,'" Holcombe sighed.

What most people don't know about Finney is that her career as a political activist began just a few years ago.

"I'll tell you why I'm really irritated with this town," Finney began, setting the tone for the interview. "My daughter and I moved here from Visalia, Calif. in 1993 and bought some property. If there is one thing I have learned in life it's that you don't do anything until you check it out.

"So I went to the planning department and said tell me about the zoning across the street. The man at the counter said there is nothing they can do to reduce that property from the four-acre parcels it is zoned for because of the slopes. The town won't allow anything smaller.

"Now I've got Stone Creek over there with 133 lots. We formed a neighborhood association and managed to keep them at bay for six or seven months, and we did get a few concessions, but not many.

"Anyway, that's when I started going to town council meetings," Finney said.

Being the local watchdog is a tough job, but Finney said she firmly believes somebody has to do it.

"What I found out through Stone Creek is that the town council doesn't listen," she said.

"It's at the point now where when I get up to speak I can see their eyes blank out. But you gotta keep trying."

If political involvement is going to work, Finney thinks, it should happen at Town Hall.

"I am just so ticked off," she exclaimed, "because if you can't make contact with your government anyplace else, you should be able to do it at the local level.

"This is the place your voice should count, because you know this guy. He's not 2000 miles away from you in Washington.

"He's right here and you can get him on the phone. He understands your neighborhood and people. He ought to listen."

Overpowered at the polls

Finney made a run for town council herself last year, but thinks she lost because she is not a political animal by nature. Now, she said, the council does not match the demographics of the town.

"Demographically, more than 50 percent of the people in town are retired," she said, "and if you go out and talk to them on a one-to-one basis, ask them why they moved to Payson and what they like about Payson, it's the small-town atmosphere. When you retire you don't want a lot of folderol going on.

"Retired people are a big industry," she said. "They spend a lot of money. My daughter and I paid cash for our house. We used local contractors.

"We come in and don't require extra services from the community. Only medical from the fire department. Sweep the streets occasionally. If we need a policeman, send him.

"That's all we want, but what we have now is a six-to-one council. We have six people who belong to the chamber of commerce. We have a mayor who advocates economic growth, who is anxious to get industry in.

"What they're after is not what half of the people want. We just don't want it," she said.

And Finney thinks it's not just the retirees who want the town to slow down and smell the roses.

"You ask a lot of the younger people, and they say they want to raise their kids in a small-town atmosphere," she said. "They don't want the outsiders coming in for weekends with the drug parties and all this crap.

"So tell me, who is the town council serving? We don't have a balance."

When asked how she feels about the council as a whole, Finney holds her nose.

"The previous council was more representative and responsive. Jack Monschein would listen. He tried to be fair. Vern Stiffler was more of a representative of the retired people. He tried to hold the line on water.

"Now Green Valley redevelopment is getting everything. It's like a big funnel."

Finney did single out the people she thinks are doing a good job. Town Manager Rich Underkofler was at the top of her list.

"Rich is a workaholic, a good guy," she said. "He will do exactly what the mayor and council want him to do. That's what good town managers do.

"Rich and I can go at each other's throat, but there's no hard feelings, and I will say if he goes elsewhere I'm going to miss him."

Also high on Finney's list is Councilmember Ken Murphy. "Ken's OK," she said. "I can work with him, although we disagree a lot.

"I ran into him when he was still working out of town and said, 'Ken, I never know when you're here, and I sometimes want to chew your ear off.' He gave me his cell phone and his pager number.

"Ken is kind of a loose cannon," she added. "You don't know which direction he's going to go, but he never leaves any doubt where he stands. I have known him to change his mind, and that takes a big person."

Councilmember Hoby Herron is another Finney favorite. "Hoby likes to say there is a big difference between a statesman and a politician," she said. "A statesman is a person who listens to both sides and then does what he thinks is the very best for the community or state. A politician listens to both sides and then does whatever gives him the best benefit personally. We need more statesmen like Hoby and fewer politicians."

Another town official who earns high marks from Finney is Glenn Smith. "I've spent a lot of time on budgets lately, and I've got to say that Glenn Smith is one of the best things that has happened to this town since I've been here," she said. "He is really a good CPA."

And finally, Finney gives Councilmember Brian Siverson passing marks. "I think he wants to do the right thing," she said.

But just as you think Finney might be getting soft, she uses Siverson as a springboard to launch another attack on the council.

Big budget gripes

"I called Siverson on the radio one day and told him the council has to take a look at what is happening to our budget. Three years ago it was $19 million. Then we went to $23 million. And now we're at $39.9 million.

"For a town of 13,000 people, this is just absolutely unheard of. Our reserves are getting down very low, and our capital projects are just sky high."

Finney said she thinks the town's budget is swelling because nobody at Town Hall is paying attention. She cites the new skateboard facility at Rumsey Park as a case in point.

"We put in a skateboard rink, and then we have to put lights in. Our light bill looks like the national debt," she said.

"Now they're going to have to get police patrols, volunteers, another park employee down there full time.

"That's another $20,000 a year. This nickel and dime stuff is going to kill us."

Tourist distractions

Another Finney pet peeve is tourism. "I'd like to see us forget about attracting tourists," she said. "I'd like to go down and get across the Beeline on a Friday or Saturday. Why should I have to stay home so people can come up here for the weekend for some big thing or other.

"I guess that's not very neighborly, but all it is is a merchant's promotion. I have to give up my weekend. I have to leave town, or I have to stay in my home.

Coons and other cagey characters

Besides being a political activist, what does Finney do when she stays home?

"I like people, and I like to work in my yard, but that's another whole story," she said.

"When I went into escrow on the lot I bought, I went to the water department to check out the water situation in this town. 'No problem,' they said. 'Have plenty of water. Good, sweet water.' OK, I believed that and I had a fish pond put in.

"Well the year after, we were asked to cut back on water. 'Don't take so many showers,' they said. My pond requires topping off because of evaporation, so I've given up a lot of other parts of my yard so I could keep the pond."

But Finney's fish pond has created a new challenge. "We've had a problem with coons coming in to eat the fish," she said. Caught three last year and four this year. That's seven in 12 months.

"We call Fish and Game and they tell us the area to take them to in the forest. They have to have water."

On the homefront

Finney was absent from the last town council meeting, a rare occurrence for the lady who has made it her mission in life to keep that body on its collective toes. A quick call the next day to make sure she was OK produced this response: "I was just plain tuckered out from catching coons all day."

But Finney said her coon hunting won't replace her passion for political activism. In fact, she sees parallels between most politicians and the raiders of her fish pond.

"They're both pretty smart," she said, "but they can be trapped."

And Finney, who's 70-something, doesn't plan to abandon the hunt anytime soon. "I hate to wish this on the Town of Payson," she said with a sly grin, "but my mother lived to be 98 years old, my grandmother lacked four months of being 100, and three of my aunts were 97 when they passed away. So I've got a few years yet, and I can make a lot of people miserable in that time--or happy, as the case may be."

Finney's advice to the residents of Payson is not unexpected. "People have got to get involved if they want anything changed. If you don't, it's only going to get worse.

"And if you don't get involved, at least you have to vote. If you don't vote, you get what you deserve."

The last word

Asked what she'd like to have written on her tombstone, Finney said she has never considered the topic before.

She paused, thought for a moment, and with a look of determination that must have sent an instantaneous and collective shudder through the good folks down at Town Hall, said, "I'd just as soon not go there."

Then her face lit up with a smile, and she pronounced the words that some far away day might end up carved in stone: "At least she tried."

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