A group of Payson residents who say they're outraged at the town's hypocrisy launched a referendum petition drive to stop the town council from taking water out of Star Valley.
Calling the Aug. 25 council meeting "disgraceful," the Committee for Community-Based Growth initiated its petition drive Wednesday night with a cadre of 50 people who met to plan their strategy at the Payson Public Library.
The committee, formerly known as the Phoenix Street Extension Team, has grown to about 150 members said its leader, retired Payson resident and former Michigan state legislator Bob Edwards.
Council ignores petitioners
The Aug. 25 meeting, at which the council voted to pay George Randall and Roy Haught $750,000 for water from a Star Valley well to quench the town's thirst for new development, was the last straw, Edwards said.
"You have 300 people sitting in your parking lot, and only letting three of them speak for three minutes while (Public Works Director) Buzz Walker was allowed to go on forever was just disgraceful," he said.
As a former state legislator, maintaining control and decorum at a public meeting is something Edwards said he can understand, but an issue as important as water needs to be thoroughly debated and considered.
"(Walker) contradicted himself in that very meeting," Edwards said. "He is a guy who says whatever the moment demands, even if the prior moment was only two minutes ago.
"I don't know that anybody really knows what our water situation is here, and I think that's really frightening."
Payson Mayor Barbara Brewer said she limited discussion "because they didn't have anything else to add. The Star Valley people were allowed time (to address the subject) on two other occasions, she said, adding that she has heard it all before.
"It was the same information with a few stories added," she said.
The Committee for Community-Based Growth is working closely with the Diamond Star Water Coalition, the nonprofit group that is trying to incorporate the Diamond Star area to stop the town from taking its water. Coalition President Bill Rappaport was also upset at how the council conducted its meeting Thursday.
"The fact that the (town staff) could take as much time as they wanted and not allow anybody else to speak is unfair," he said. "The meeting wasn't really open; it was like they had already predetermined what they were going to do."
Both groups are involved in gathering the signatures needed to put the question of spending $750,000 for Star Valley water on the ballot. And another local political watchdog group, the Citizens Awareness Committee, has also agreed to help, Edwards said.
"We started this because we were concerned about what appears to be a closed council," he said. "But what we're finding is a lot of real frustration throughout the city, and that's what we hope to tap into; this is a good test."
Edwards, a reluctant combatant himself, understands the feeling. He was living the life of a happy retiree until developer G. Michael Horton tried to change the zoning of a new subdivision adjacent to where he lives.
"I didn't know Buzz Walker; I didn't know anybody," he said. "But as I started making some phone calls, I found some things that are not right in this town."
If the three groups can gather the 415 signatures of registered Payson voters -- 10 percent of those voting in the last election - the question will be placed on the ballot, probably in March. In the interim, the council's decision would be put on hold.
Edwards expects the council and developers to wage a vigorous fight.
"We're going to have a lot of money against us," Edwards said. "But we'll see how people respond and where they want the town to go."
Town Manager Fred Carpenter said the town's response will be limited by law.
"Town staff can't get involved at all; but town council members can campaign all they want to, although they can't use any public facilities," he said. "There would be a publicity pamphlet and people would be able to submit arguments for and against it."
Brewer said the referendum is unfortunate and could end up costing the town a lot of money.
"I'm sorry some of the people choose not to pay heed to what the facts really are," she said. "We are committed to following a plan to help the town grow, because it's going to grow."
To be on the safe side, Edwards hopes to gather several hundred more signatures than the necessary 415. But he also suspects that once the council realizes a referendum is inevitable, it will try an end run.
"Conceivably the council could come along in October and change a few words and pass another resolution," he said.
If that happens, Edwards said a drive to recall the council would be seriously considered.
"We have a lot of people who already want to do recalls," he said. "We're saying that isn't the way to go at this point, but if they continue to ignore the (constitutional rights of residents) then we'll probably have a different kind of response."
Brewer said the group's new name is a misnomer.
"Community-based growth? Why don't they act like a community then?" she asked.
"They aren't community-oriented at all in my opinion. A community is where the people come together for the common good of everybody -- not just a certain group."
Where to sign
On Thursday, petitioners set up outside Bashas' with a sign reading "Let the Voters Decide." Business was brisk, with most passersby readily signing.
The committee will not be collecting signatures over the holiday weekend, but will back outside Wal-Mart on Tuesday, Sept. 6 and back at Bashas' on Wednesday, Sept. 7.
Others will be going door-to-door, and some businesses also have petitions for their customers and employees to sign. Those willing to help circulate petitions or who want to sign can call Edwards at (928) 472-3379.
Incorporation drive almost over
Meanwhile, the petition drive to incorporate the communities of Diamond Point Shadows and Star Valley is almost over, according to Rappaport.
"We're dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's," he said. "We want to make sure when this is presented to Gila County it is absolutely correct."
The coalition has almost 800 signatures (623 are required).
See related stories:
Diamond Star water polarizes Rim Country (Aug. 30)
Diamond Star water to cost town $750K (Aug. 26)
Citizens groups to protest at town council meeting (Aug. 23)
Diamond Star rallies behind coalition
Diamond Star says, 'no deal, they still want our water'
Town officials, Diamond Star representatives agree to talk
Developer says taking water 'not a moral issue'
Neighbors question proposed subdivision