Mayoral candidate Jim White swears he never said it.
White's opponent, Ken Murphy, swears he did. To a certain degree, Gila County District One Supervisor Ron Christensen agrees.
White, in turn, calls Murphy a "desperate" politician, and says that Christensen is either forgetful or a "liar."
So goes the latest controversy surrounding Payson's top political race, and the dust does not appear likely to settle until the ballots are punched and counted after the March 12 election.
The latest verbal barrage was launched during the closing moments of a Feb. 11 public forum for council and mayoral candidates hosted at the Payson Public Library by the Library Friends.
Murphy, standing before the packed house, claimed White had told Christensen during a private meeting that, if elected mayor, he would fire key department heads within the town government including Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner, Town Attorney Sam Streichman, Public Works Director Buzz Walker, Building Inspector John Cadd and former Town Manager Rich Underkofler, who recently left his position to take a similar job in another state.
When White subsequently took the floor, he told those in attendance he would not respond to Murphy's allegations. In a later interview, when asked by the Roundup why he did not answer, White said, "I am going to take the high road. I am not going to respond to everything that's said by Mr. Murphy. He can say what he wants ... He can call me names if he wants ... but I am not going to respond to that."
Christensen, contacted by the Roundup yesterday, said that his recollection of the private discussion with White basically matched what Murphy had said.
"I met with all the mayoral candidates regarding partnerships with the county," Christensen said. "White did express there were many people within the current administration that he was not going to keep ... He did name Underkofler ... he did express that he was not going to keep those people ... I don't recall the exact language that he used, but that was the essence of the message."
Christensen said that while he couldn't remember all of the names mentioned by White, "I believe he mentioned the attorney (Streichman). I don't recall him saying anything about the chief of police (Gartner)." Christensen said that White also "mentioned Walker" and "went through quite a list which I assumed was most of the present staff."
Upon hearing Christensen's recollection of their discussion, White had harsh words for the supervisor.
"Mr. Christensen is either a liar or he doesn't remember what we talked about ... we'll find out which it is at a later date," White said.
White said the only town employee he discussed with Christensen beyond Underkofler was Walker, whose name was brought up because a portion of their discussion entailed a water alliance with the county.
"Buzz Walker has been a great resource for me," White said. "I respect and admire the man."
Walker, responding in a later interview, said he had not felt that his employment with the town was "the least bit threatened" by White.
"(White) was the first candidate to come into my office. He has been in at least 10 times," Walker said. "... He has said he was not here to get in the way, but to offer help."
White also adamantly denied that he had ever threatened Gartner's position as Payson's chief of police. "I never said (I would fire Gartner). Gordy and his wife are (my) friends," White said. "He gave me the opportunity to run the first police volunteer program here in town. I respect him as a chief and I respect him as a person."
Gartner said the rumored claims that White, as mayor, would have him replaced were not something he took seriously. The chief added that the police volunteer program organized by White has saved his department thousands of dollars in man hours.
White said he has fielded complaints from Payson residents regarding Cadd, but added that he has never stated a desire to do more than sit down with Cadd and discuss the problems.
Although White did express "concerns" he has with the town attorney's office, he added that they have nothing to do with Streichman personally.
"I have said, and I will say it publicly, that I'm going to have to look at that department," White said. "... There may have to be some cuts made because my philosophy is that the town manager should be the highest paid department head because he works with the mayor and council."
"I have expressed in several meetings that when you hire a prosecutor, especially when he's the highest-paid town employee, I would hope that he would be knowledgeable enough to handle small things like contracts without having to call somebody in Phoenix to get an opinion."
White said he also had "issues" with Underkofler's conduct as town manager and that, if he had been mayor during Underkofler's term of employment, he would have made a council motion to fire him based on those issues.
White said he felt Murphy's allegations about him are "acts of desperation. I think when people get desperate, they do desperate things. I know that my opponent (Murphy) has lost a lot of his friends who are supporting me. I think that has made him angry. He's made statements to other people that his only goal in life is to beat me."
The claim made by Murphy, White said, is false and is not the first untrue thing the mayoral candidate has heard about himself since the campaign began.
"There are at least eight or 10 rumors," White said. "And I am sure there will be more before the campaign is over. I am going to take the high road. I am not going to respond to everything that's said by Mr. Murphy ... I am running on what I think I can do for the town with my experience and background."
In an interview which took place after the Library Friends' forum, Murphy told the Roundup it was his understanding that White had made similar statements about firing town department heads while addressing a crowd at Chaparral Pines.
The Roundup contacted Donna Ward and council candidate Andy Kaiser, who were at that meeting. Both said White made no such remarks during his presentation.