Residents Outraged By Penalty

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A $500 slap on the wrist.

That's all a grassroots political group believes the attorney general gave the Gila County Community College Board of Governors for violating the state's open meeting laws.

The group, Citizens for Better Payson Government, spent thousands of dollars in financial contributions and hundreds of hours in research to pursue action on the violations.

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Harry Swanson, seated, dean of the Payson Campus of Gila Community College, listens as Don Crowley, Citizens for Better Payson Government, expresses his concerns.

"We just think this is a gross miscarriage of justice," Don Crowley, co-chairman of the group said. "We spent in excess of $20,000 and (the attorney general) failed miserably."

Crowley and his political partner, Gordon Metcalf, are speaking out against what they said is a lenient punishment handed down by Attorney General Terry Goddard Dec. 20.

Goddard's office levied a $500 fine -- the maximum defined by state law -- against acting college board Chairman Bob Ashford. The attorney general also required that the five-member board sign a consent agreement and participate in open-meeting law training sessions.

Board member, Dick Wolfe -- who replaced Chairman Ron Christensen in April, and didn't join the board until after the violations occurred -- relinquished his post Dec. 27 as a result of the ruling.

"By agreeing to the consent agreement, there is an implication that I was part of the problem, when I was not remotely involved," Wolfe wrote in his resignation letter.

In March 2005, the attorney general's office took a similar action, with stiffer punishment, against the Yavapai County Community College Board of Governors. Each member of that board was fined $500 and required to attend open-meeting law training sessions for misuse of e-mail and failure to post meeting minutes.

During the hot summer months of 2005, Crowley and Metcalf compiled and presented hundreds of documents and e-mails to the attorney general's office. The documents, they said, showed egregious breaches, specifically the exchange of confidential information among board members and outside parties.

Crowley said these illicit transactions were directly responsible for booting Pima Community College out of Gila County, and replacing it with Eastern Arizona College as Gila County's educational provider.

"There were clearly shared machinations that brought the whole (Eastern Arizona College) thing to fruition," Crowley said. "These e-mails represent just the tip of the iceberg."

The college debate began in earnest shortly after the newly elected board of governors took office in January 2005.

Three members of the board -- Bob Ashford, Bernadette Kniffin and Mike Pastor -- supported a contract that ended a lawsuit between Gila County and Eastern Arizona College over assets obtained when Pima Community College became the county's post-secondary education provider in 2002. In return, Eastern Arizona College agreed to pay off the $1 million judgment over five years -- the main stipulation of the agreement required Gila County to host Eastern Arizona College as its educational provider for 10 years.

Board members and residents from northern Gila County clamored over wording in the agreement that stripped the board's statutory powers, turning it into an advisory body.

EAC, according to its 2005-2006 budget, charges Gila County $1.8 million in administrative fees. That means taxpayers are compensating EAC and Graham County to make many of the college's operating decisions, such as personnel, textbook selections and class schedules, which, by law, are reserved for the board of governors, said Wolfe.

"The board has final authority over the hiring and firing of personnel," added Wolfe. "And that was given to the college. All they do is issue a report every month and do whatever they want to do."

"EAC could build a swimming pool," said Metcalf. "And there's nothing we could do about it."

For Crowley and Metcalf, the bottom line is cost. Metcalf said the property taxes designated for the college head straight to Thatcher, bypassing Gila County.

And since the population of northern Gila County is nearly double that of southern Gila County, residents this side of Highway 188 are carrying most of the burden.

In 2005, according to deputy assessor Larry Huffer, the property tax levy countywide, on average, is $1,093 per property owner. Of that, four percent, or $45.53, is allotted for the community college.

Payson, with a population of 14,820, precluding other parts of northern Gila County, contributes $674,754 to the college kitty. Southern towns Globe, Miami, Hayden and Winkelman, totaling 9,791 residents, kick in $445,784.

"They need us more than we need them," said Crowley. "Graham County has been eating off the plate of Gila County for a long time."

Crowley said he, Metcalf and Citizens for Better Payson Government have exhausted their legal avenues, and now the power to change the status quo is through the elective process.

"We're going to get the most exposure we can," Crowley said. "After that, it's up to the voters."

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