Taking Town Hall To Task

Reorganized political action committee keeps council on its toes

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At its best, democracy is an exercise in citizen participation, and for a quarter of a century, Rim country politicians have had to deal with a group that plays that role to the hilt.

Rarely does a town council meeting go by without one or more members of the Citizens Awareness Committee, a registered political action group, reminding councilmembers to "show some fiscal responsibility," or to serve "all the people."

The organization which recently reorganized and drew up new principles and objectives was initially formed back in the mid-1970s, former councilmember Jack Monschein said.

The first group formed to monitor the Gila County Board of Supervisors, Monschein said. "They'd go to Globe whenever anything was on the agenda that had to do with Payson."

Two former mayors Vern Stiffler and Cliff Potts said they think the group had a positive impact on county government. "They took buses to Globe, and they were able to get things done," Stiffler said.

Potts, who was a member of the organization in its early days, said the group's primary concern was securing equal services for Northern Gila County. "I really believe we made some headway in that area," he said.

The group also influenced town government, Stiffler said.

"When the organization started, it provided positive input into the political process," he said, "and believe me, when 30 people walk into a meeting, you listen."

The issue that most often brought the committee to council meetings was water.

"First it was the Gookin report, then the Southwest Groundwater report," said Citizens Awareness Committee member Ruby Finney. "The council didn't like what the first one said, so they paid big bucks for the second one, which just told them the same thing."

Local lobbyists

Now, with the creation of an official steering committee and the adoption of a set of principles and positions, the committee is growing in numbers and, its leaders hope, strength.

The reaction from local politicians has been mixed.

"They have every right to exist," said Payson Mayor Ray Schum, "but they are one reason good people shy away from running for office. They are a small, divisive, but very vocal group."

Town Manager Rich Underkofler is more diplomatic in his assessment of the committee.

"They obviously have a different agenda than the town council," he said.

People band together to further an agenda, Councilmember Ken Murphy said, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"Groups have a focus," he said. "They want to grow in some cases because their business depends on growth, and other people, because of their quality of life, don't want growth to occur. But remember, they're the ones paying the bills."

Disabling developments

While county representation and water were the catalysts for the first two incarnations of the group, a related issue growth is the new group's focus.

"We are opposed to growth at any cost," said Jim Winter, a retired lawyer and member of the steering committee. "We'd love to retain what we came here for. We think most people come here for the same reasons."

Many of the committee's members think the council is paying more attention to the developers than the needs of the town's residents.

"Future wants have a lot of backing from the present council and citizen's needs don't," steering committee member Jack Jasper said. "If the town was citizen friendly, it would ... provide for our needs before it ... provides for the wants."

But CAC members think their aims and motives are frequently misunderstood, especially the notion that they're anti-growth.

"People have labeled us no-growthers," secretary-treasurer Hilda Crawford said, "but if you look at our principles, we say, '... the proper function of local government is to manage growth.'"

Preventing growth, Winter said, is not an option.

"Considering our location an hour and a half's drive from a metropolitan area, that just doesn't make sense," he said.

"It's impossible to have a situation where you don't have growth, but to solicit it when you don't have the resources is a different thing," said Walter Babecky, steering committee co-chairman.

Taking a stand

To better delineate where the organization stands, the steering committee has developed a list of seven positions all of which, committee members say, are quality of life issues. The group also has formed sub-committees to research topics related to those positions, including parks and recreation, the airport, roads, water, growth, and planning and zoning.

"We are going to identify the issues, collect the facts, take positions and make them known," Winter said. "Then we'll support those positions with appropriate political involvement."

The group, which has 80 members, meets at 2 p.m. on the second and fourth Mondays of each month at the Womans Club next to the library. Open to all, the meetings draw an average of about 40 people, Michaelis said.

Opposing agendas

Conservative Councilmember Hoby Herron, who was supported in the town council election last year by the founding members of the committee, is a regular at the meetings.

"These people campaigned for me when I was having both knees replaced," he said. But Herron said he attends the meetings because he agrees with the group's principles.

"I have personally felt for a long time that this town has not been concerned for the citizens."

Herron has a following within the committee, the mayor said, but residents who support economic development were the clear winners in the last election. "We won big," he said.

Members of the CAC steering committee who were defeated in that election include Finney, Crawford and Jasper.

Economic development is in the best interest of all Payson residents, Schum said, but the Citizens Awareness Committee exaggerates the water issue to further its no-growth objectives.

"We don't have a water crisis; we have a water concern," he said, "and I believe we'll address that concern down the road."

And although former mayor Cliff Potts, a local Realtor, thinks the committee's perspective is too narrow, he said he hopes its efforts will ultimately lead to a more meaningful dialog.

"In the end," he said, "we need to look at the bigger picture together what we want Payson to be, what quality of life we want, and how we are going to get there."

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