Five Payson council candidates staged a low-key forum Monday night, marked more by genial agreement than by policy differences.
The candidates soft-peddled the contentious issues that have lately divided the town council and the testy exchanges in the mayor's race that have turned the election into a referendum on the accomplishments and governing style of Mayor Bob Edwards, who is running on a slate with two of the council candidates.
In many ways, the election has exposed deep fault lines in a town in which many longtime residents complain about the rising tide of newcomers -- including many retirees like Mayor Bob Edwards and several of the council candidates, who bring diverse experience and big-city resumes to a town still struggling with a slow-moving identity crisis.
Five candidates are vying for three council seats, including incumbent Counselor John Wilson, a career IRS auditor. Newcomers Tom Loeffler, a retired highways department administrator, and Dave Rutter, a retired hospital, nursing home and retirement community executive, are running on a ticket with Mayor Edwards.
Richard Croy, a longtime Payson resident and affordable housing advocate, and Mike Hughes, a contractor and Realtor with deep local roots, are both running independent, low-budget campaigns.
The 150 people who attended the forum sponsored by the Rim Country Chamber of Commerce provided an attentive, well-informed audience -- who often murmured in anticipation when one of the candidates got a tough question. Still, the crowd filled only half the seats in the high school auditorium, in contrast to two years ago when fierce debate about water, Star Valley and Edwards' outspoken attack on the town's establishment filled the auditorium to overflowing.
Each candidate offered an opening and closing summary and then each tackled a list of different questions.
Hughes said he ran to make sure Payson gets water from the Blue Ridge reservoir to secure its long term water needs, and to put the economy on a solid foundation and heal the divisiveness that he says has afflicted the town. He said he came to Payson as a laborer, worked his way up through construction and finally sold real estate and served on the board of Realtors.
He said "Payson has been good to me" as he raised his children as a single dad and built up a successful business, after starting out living in a trailer too poor to pay the heating bill. "I make no promises of what I can and cannot do -- the only promise I can make is that I'll listen to any point of view."
Tom Loeffler first visited Payson 35 years ago and fulfilled a long-time plan several years ago to move here after he retired after long career as a teacher, school administrator and top highways department administrator.
Now his daughter is ready to graduate from Payson High School and he's running to focus on "roads, energy and a businesslike approach" to town government. "I'm not interested in changing things, I'm interested. maybe, in tweaking them to make things just a little bit better."
Incumbent councilor Wilson, who has lived in Arizona for 58 years and Payson for 16, has seven children and 14 grandchildren.
The certified public accountant retired from the IRS after 32 years. "I know how business works." He said he can make the strongest contribution through his fiscal expertise.
"I see my role as listening to all the arguments and speaking only when something hasn't been said to make sure that all aspects of an issue have been considered."
Rutter, who was a radar expert in the Air Force in Vietnam, and spent his career running hospitals and retirement communities before retiring to Payson several years ago, was recruited to run for council by Mayor Edwards.
He has since served in a number of town task forces and committees and rang 1,500 doorbells in the course of his campaign. "I need your vote to get things done. It would be my ambition to leave the town, and leave the council, better than when I walked in."
Croy, who ran unsuccessfully for council two years ago has run an advocacy group for low-income residents, especially in fostering affordable housing.
"I've lived in Arizona all my life -- and in Payson the last 16 years and been involved in a lot of local nonprofits. I just have a deep concern about Payson."
The candidates then provided thoughtful but mostly safe and well-rounded answers to a smattering of questions about issues facing the town. Since they each answered different questions, few specific contrasts emerged. Questions included:
Q: Should Payson push for a highway bypass around town?
Wilson: "A bypass highway will be beneficial if it's done right. A great deal of emotion suggests that it will kill the town. But if the town annexes the land way to the south" that includes the bypass and bans commercial zoning, then people who want food, supplies or gas will still come into town and spend money.
Q: What are three biggest challenges facing the community?
Hughes: "The number one issue is water. We need to have a substantial water source and Blue Ridge Reservoir gives us that. The second is economic stability -- we need to start looking now aggressively for businesses that will provide living wage jobs. The third is to be one community."
Q: Should Payson develop Blue Ridge or push to drill wells in the National Forest?
Croy: "I do not believe the Forest Service really wants to work with us in terms of drilling wells in the forest, so that's not really an option. The Blue Ridge is definitely the answer."
Q: How do you attack problem of affordable housing?
Loeffler: This is going to be the big challenge. We now have a housing commission that is working on this. I would like to wait until that housing commission has come back with recommendations."
Q: Should Payson be buying and selling water credits?
Rutter: "My understanding that the town bought 97 water credits for $3,700 each, which they will sell for $7,500. I would have liked to have bought some of those."
Q: How do you attract a stable work force?
Rutter: "We can work with our high school. Work with our community college -- provide vocational training. We should try to attract small industry. Before we do that, we have to take care of our local businesses to makes sure that we're doing everything we can to make them successful."
Q: Will Mud Springs Road create a de facto bypass to Highway 260?
Loeffler: "I'm the chair of the committee that's going to be working on that," who was just appointed head of the town's Surface Transportation Advisory Committee (STAC).
"I do think we can have that extension and still keep Phoenix Street and Mud Springs Road as a neighborhood road."
Q: Is the community receiving sufficient drug enforcement?
Croy: "The quick answer would be yes -- but I do have some concerns. We have one sergeant and two officers covering Payson at any one time."
Q: Should we seek federal land exchanges to extend the town borders?
Hughes: "Land exchanges are very, very long process," noting that a just-completed 220-acre land exchange near the airport took 12 years to complete. However, he said Payson should prepare a master plan for any potentially exchangeable land.
Q: What principles are you passionately attached to and will not sacrifice?
Wilson: "I don't know that I'm passionate about anything but my wife. I know that great statesmen have these great principles -- so I must not be a great statesman. All I can think of is I won't give up my integrity or my honesty."
Q: What is best solution for locating the northern Gila County courthouse and jail in our community?
Wilson: "I really don't know. Spot where they had it was a good location. But a lot of emotional rhetoric swirled around that location."
Q: Can Star Valley provide affordable housing for people working in Payson?
Hughes: "We shouldn't push an issue off on a neighboring town. Payson and Star Valley should work together on this issue as equal partners."
Q: What is your vision of what Payson is going to be in 2018?
Croy: "Payson is going to grow, it will be a better community then than it is now. It's going to take some give and take. Payson will never be a Tucson and never be a Phoenix -- and hopefully never be a Prescott."
Q: Discuss Payson's reputation with the Tonto Apache Tribe.
Loeffler: "The tribe is our neighbor, just like Star Valley is our neighbor. We should appreciate their help and work closely with them on our joint concerns, such as water."
Q: What is your position regarding the Tower Well near Star Valley?
Rutter: "They would say, don't run our wells dry. And it's important for us to remember that we know how much we can pump, and we don't pump to the detriment of their existing water sources."