The two candidates for the Payson mayor's job unleashed mutual criticism, but surprisingly few differences of substance at a forum sponsored by the Payson Citizens Awareness Committee on Monday in the Payson library.
Mayor Bob Edwards and challenger Kenny Evans faced a record crowd of nearly 100 at the standing-room-only face-off and spent two hours answering both the 10 established questions and a barrage of audience questions.
They blasted one another's campaigning style and leadership, although few substantial differences on key issues emerged in the long sequence of questions.
"We have reached out to the other side, but we've had our hand continually slapped," said Edwards, who framed the election as the attempt by the town's old guard, united behind Evans' campaign, to re-fight old battles.
"The choice is simple: Do you want to continue in the direction we're going or go back to where we were? He says that I'm a dictator: Does that refer to involving citizens?"
But Evans countered that Edwards' campaign had consistently spread rumors and falsehoods -- even on Edwards' campaign Web site.
"I know a lot of rumors are floating around, but no rumors about you are printed on my Web site. You've made plenty of enemies and don't need my help in doing that."
The campaign has apparently divided the town along some fundamental fault lines. A relative newcomer, Edwards has dominated the political scene since his election two years ago through an energetic,
hands-on style that has spurred both praise and criticism. Although the Payson ordinances give the mayor little more real power than other members, Edwards has spurred headlines and pushed his agenda -- from setting up 21 task forces that report directly to him to tenaciously fighting the extension of Mud Springs Road to State Highway 260. Supporters have lauded his accomplishments and detractors have accused him of dominating and manipulating.
Edwards' leadership style proved the key difference between the candidates. When asked to name three areas on which they disagreed, both candidates cited issues of style.
"Differing leadership styles," said Evans. "Not as much about doing different things, as it is about doing things differently."
Beyond that, he cited his 40 years of experience with water issues as a grower in Yuma and an emphasis on solving problems, rather than simply raising them.
Edwards concluded, "I'm not sure there are three big issues we disagree on. I'm not as afraid about water -- I think we have that 900-pound gorilla whimpering in the corner. As to leadership style, people have said I'm too aggressive. But that's my nature: I see a problem and I want to solve it. That's not going to change."
Nonetheless, differences in emphasis emerged in the course of the back and forth discussion in response to the wide-ranging questions.
On one issue after another, the candidates mostly agreed with one another. They both expressed skepticism about using tax dollars to invest in partnerships with private businesses like a YMCA recreation center; they both hailed the $30-million Blue Ridge Reservoir as vital; they both made a strong pitch for economic development, especially to increase tourism; they both stressed the importance of the current surge in street building, although Evans worried that it has depleted the town's reserves on the brink of a recession.
They each said nice things about one another.
When Edwards faced a skeptical question about a complicated deal in which the town spent $388,000 to buy back water rights for 97 housing units, Evans jumped in and started writing figures on the board to demonstrate what a shrewd deal the town had struck.
When Evans voiced a sharp objection to using taxpayer money to support charitable groups, Edwards seconded him and complimented the political candor of Evans' answer.
But despite that lack of fundamental policy disputes, the pair exuded a mutual tension, with stiff body language and a subdued hostility. Ironically, their rivalry dates back to when they served as president and vice president of a Payson homeowners association and disagreed about whether the association should work actively for growth limits.
Repeatedly, they bristled at one another about rumors and attacks made by their various supporters.
"The rumors say that the council is my puppet, but someone forgot to send them the memo," said Edwards. "The only turmoil I know of is coming from the people we've replaced."
But Evans countered that in his campaign events and coffees, "whenever the discussion turns negative, I stop that individual. We have to lower the level of rhetoric. I have no team members running with me because I believe we need a diverse council," he added, in a shot at Edwards, who is running jointly with Dave Rutter and Tom Loeffler to create a block of votes that would potentially control the seven-member council.
"We need to do our best for all the citizens of Payson, not some of the citizens of Payson," said Evans, referring to criticism that Edwards has a core of supporters from whom he seeks advice and with which he has populated town boards, commissions and task forces.
But Edwards insisted that in the past two years the town has made major gains in securing a long-term water supply, managing growth, improving roads, encouraging greater citizen input, establishing a comprehensive trail system, setting up a design review board, hiring top department managers and launching projects to increase tourism and economic growth.
Edwards made no apologies for a hands-on approach in which he has interjected himself into each of those issues and pushed hard for the policies he favors, such as his opposition to connecting Mud Springs Road to Highway 260.
"Kenny says we make it difficult for businesses to come to town, but please note: We didn't create that problem, we inherited it ... I agree I've run an aggressive campaign -- I'm an aggressive campaigner."