A sometimes tense debate turned confrontational in its closing moments, when Payson Mayor Bob Edwards accused challenger Kenny Evans of politicizing propane bills and manipulating emotions -- drawing a slashing response from Evans and objections from the audience, when Edwards tried to have the last word.
The clash about propane bills highlighted a debate in which style and approach distinguished the two candidates more than positions on the issues. On the core issues, Evans and Edwards agreed -- including the importance of Blue Ridge Reservoir, economic development and relations with the Tonto Apache Tribe.
But Edwards seized the opportunity to draw a more direct contrast in his closing statement, which he presented first by virtue of winning the opening coin toss. Edwards said high propane bills that have upset many residents were the result of a 39-day billing cycle -- which amounted to a 26-percent increase in the total.
He said the propane company had received an increase in only one of three components of the bill this year. Then he took aim at Evans, who has been promising to investigate propane billings in his campaign appearances.
"It's easy in a campaign to play politics with a highly emotional issue. As leaders, it's important that we investigate first and not play politics with people's emotions," said Edwards.
Evans, a former Yuma farmer and businessman who is heavily involved in various charities and groups in Payson, shot back, saying he had been lobbying the rate-setting corporation commission on this issue since July. He reeled off the names of the commissioners and said the commission had assigned a staff person to look into Payson bills, that in many cases have topped $500. He said that the 39-day billing cycle could account for only a small percentage of the increase people face.
"This is not a political issue. It doesn't matter if I'm elected, I'm going to push this forward.
forward. Semstream is so big that they can adjust that situation to fit their fancy. That's the difference between the mayor and I -- I don't want to go out and fight anyone very aggressively, but I will fight an issue very aggressively. There is a difference between us in our approach.
"Now you have a choice between two good candidates who have a very different approach to how they get things done," Evans said.
Ironically, the most clear-cut difference on policy between them involved an issue on which the council has relatively little say. It did illuminate the primary fault line in the campaign that has pitted Edwards' aggressive style of taking a personal lead in a whole array of issues and fighting so hard for his positions that other council members have complained about being threatened or sidelined. Edwards is running this time around on a ticket with council candidates Dave Rutter and Tom Loeffler. He ran last time on a ticket with Councilor Ed Blair, who votes fairly reliably with Edwards.
In the opening statement, Edwards elected to go first and summarized two years of whirlwind activity.
"I've been your mayor for 20 months: Two years ago Ed Blair and I made some promises. We promised to secure a permanent water supply -- we secured Blue Ridge. We promised to fix the streets -- and increased the street budget by 37 percent -- and the drain budget is up 370 percent.
"We promised to manage growth -- and gave you the smart growth to build-out plan. We promised to communicate, and twice a month I put out a report. We promised to involve all citizens -- and we have 21 task forces with 150 volunteers -- not all of whom supported me in the last election. We promised strong leadership -- we made the tough decisions without flinching."
He vowed that with the help of Loeffler and Rutter, he would conclude the tentative deal to bring Blue Ridge water to Payson, improve fire safety, attack crime, make the town more business friendly and promote Payson as the "fun center of Arizona and the festival capital of Arizona."
Evans spent his opening statement trying to puncture Edwards' claims, particularly his effort to take credit for the recent announcement that Payson and the Salt River Project were close to agreement on a deal to give the town rights to 3,500 acre-feet of water from a reservoir on the Rim if the town can finance a $30 million pipeline and agree to limit its groundwater pumping.
Evans compared Edwards' claim to have secured Blue Ridge water to President George Bush's staged event on an aircraft carrier when he declared that major combat operations in Iraq were over and the mission accomplished.
"Having a tentative deal is very different from having a deal done. I give the mayor great credit, but big hurdles still remain. We need to make sure that those other hurdles are being addressed, lest we make the same mistake as the President in declaring the battle over."
Other than the direct clashes in the opening and closing statements, the two candidates offered a detailed, knowledgeable view of town affairs, with few clear-cut policy differences between them.
Asked to envision the town in 2018, Edwards conjured a vision of an idyllic town with a comprehensive trails system, many festivals, a thriving tourist economy, plus a revitalized Main Street and American Gulch.
"This is the town to come and see," he said. "God gave us everything and the Beeline gave us the rest."
Evans observed, "I would like to see a community first of all that knows who it is and understands what it can and cannot do. Someone who tries to be everything to everyone all the time is nothing for anything."
He suggested the town focus on kernels of development that can seed the efforts of private enterprise.