Mayor Bob Edwards' sometimes bare-knuckle effort to block the extension of Mud Springs Road to Highway 260 has revealed fractures on the town council and raised questions about the town's appointments process.
Specifically, several council members have said the mayor made heavy-handed political threats and "politicized" a key traffic advisory committee by forcing off the panel a member who opposed the extension and trying to replace him with a prominent opponent of the extension.
"In some cases, I think he oversteps and counts on pressure to get things through," said Councilman Mike Vogel, who said the mayor, at one point, threatened to get his "posse" of citizens to oppose Vogel if he didn't oppose the extension.
"There are moments when he is very strong-handed," said Councilor Su Connell. "The mayor is passionate about what he believes. He goes out and recruits people for what he believes."
"It gives me pause for concern," said Councilman John Wilson of Edwards' refusal to reappoint Surface Transportation Advisory Committee (STAC) member Gordon Metcalf and his attempt to appoint on short notice Joanie King, who gathered signatures opposing the Mud Springs extension.
"If the mayor wants to stack the committee with people who will do what he wants, I don't think that's good," said Wilson.
"But the way it's set up, we don't have the authority to say anything different."
Mayor Edwards said he's just carrying out his promise to represent the interests of Payson residents.
"We were elected to do a job and that's what I'm doing and that's what I will continue to do. I'm not going to back off simply because somebody's nose might be out of joint. If communication with the council is a problem, I'll work harder at it. I won't deny I'm a strong leader: I am and will be. That's who I am."
The issue will likely break the surface on Thursday, when the council will consider King's appointment to the council and a renewed request to approve a $42,000 design contract for the Mud Springs roundabout. Moreover, the debate plays into the current mayoral contest between Edwards and challenger Kenny Evans, who has criticized Edwards' leadership style and has supported the Mud Springs extension.
Several council members suggest that Edwards' methods, as illustrated by the mushrooming Mud Springs debate, have politicized and polarized the debate, while often leaving council members uninformed or intimidated.
For instance, several council members said that they had heard that Edwards had effectively threatened the political future of Vice Mayor Tim Fruth, who is reportedly considering a run for county supervisor.
Fruth refused comment on that report, but Edwards confirmed the gist of the rumored confrontation.
"I did talk to Tim," said Edwards. "I said, ‘Tim, you have to know this is going to be a pretty hot issue and you might want to think about that.' I think I have a right to talk to council members on any issue."
Connell said if Edwards did threaten other council members, "then I'm appalled at the behavior of the mayor. But I did not hear the conversation and I know how easy it is for things to get embellished."
Vogel also said Edwards had made a veiled threat when Vogel asked to put a design contract for a roundabout connecting Mud Springs to the highway back on the council agenda.
"He said ‘I'm getting tired of this political (bull) and I guess I'll get my posse out again,'" in apparent reference to the crowd of more than 100 residents who showed up at a recent meeting to block the Mud Springs extension.
Edwards categorically denied ever threatening Vogel politically. "That is a lie. It didn't happen. I don't recall talking to Mike about that. I don't recall having a private conversation with Mike."
Aside from the alleged confrontations between Edwards and other council members, the dispute about appointments to the STAC committee has spurred questions about the town's appointments process.
The extension of Mud Springs to Highway 260 has been a top priority in the town's transportation plan for years, since it would provide a landlocked chunk of southern Payson with easier access to the highway.
STAC has supported that $1.1 million extension and was considering traffic-slowing measures on Phoenix Street and Mud Springs. Mayor Edwards argued the extension would become a de facto bypass that people would use to cut through residential neighborhoods from the Beeline to Highway 260.
After losing several votes, Edwards advised people in a newsletter to protest the extension -- which prompted residents to gather several hundred signatures in opposition.
As it happened, Metcalf's term on the STAC committee expired just as the Mud Springs debate heated up. Metcalf has said that even though he asked to be appointed for a second term, he received no official notice that Edwards had blocked his reappointment.
The town's ordinance essentially gives the mayor the power to recommend to the council appointments to all of the town's boards and commissions. The other councilors can reject the mayor's recommendations, but the mayor makes the appointments.
Metcalf said the first inkling that he hadn't been reappointed was when a town employee asked him if he wanted to keep his desktop nameplate after the Jan. 9 STAC meeting. Subsequently, Metcalf said Edwards called and apologized for the way he was notified. Metcalf said that Edwards explained that some members of the mayor's "crew," who had clashed with Metcalf in the past, opposed his reappointment.
Edwards said he had assumed that members of the town staff would notify Metcalf and that Metcalf's support for the Mud Springs extension had nothing to do with his ouster.
"There's a group of people who have fought everything we've tried to do," said Edwards, "largely because they were the group we moved out of power. We reached out to them, but they fought us on everything. At some point you realize that this is not a positive force -- this is a negative force. So you look for people interested in moving the town forward in a positive way."
Edwards said he seeks people for service on town boards and commissions who will be thoughtful and fair. "I want people who will look at the whole issue."
Other council members questioned whether someone who led a petition drive will provide objective input on the Mud Springs issue. They also objected to the way in which Metcalf was ousted and the last-minute attempt to get King's appointment approved on the consent agenda.
"We were kind of blindsided," said Connell, adding that she had previously requested more notice and information when it came to appointments.
"I understand that the mayor always makes the recommendations. But wouldn't it be better to make the recommendation with the knowledge of the council? It's just not the way I'd run a railroad."
"Joanie (King) is a nice lady and this is not against her at all. But the mayor is politicizing appointments," said Councilor Vogel.
"I do think the council should look hard at appointments. It's not all (Edwards') fault. If we don't do our part -- then whose fault is that?"