The winners in Payson's spirited council and mayoral elections this week agreed that the town's voters had signaled a desire for a less divided, more business friendly community in rejecting Mayor Bob Edwards and the two candidates he endorsed.
However, the election results also threaten to immediately provoke a fresh division, with a developing legal dispute about when the new candidates can take their seats.
Two years ago, Mayor Bob Edwards cited an ambiguity in town election codes to take his seat several weeks sooner than expected.
Now, some people have suggested that the three newly elected council members should take their seats at the first meeting after the votes are certified -- which would be approximately March 27 --since all the seats were settled in the primary and the town won't have results to certify after the general election in May.
Both state law and the town code say the new members should take their seats at the first meeting after the results of the general election are certified -- which in this case would be the first week in June.
Various candidates have sought opinions from the secretary of state or the state attorney general, but have generally agreed to abide by the decision of the town clerk and town attorney. Town Attorney Samuel Streichman said he hasn't yet finished researching the matter and probably won't issue an opinion on the question until next week. The council will certify the results in a special meeting this Tuesday, March 18.
The results of the Tuesday election offered the picture of a divided electorate -- with about 45 percent voting for Edwards for mayor and Tom Loeffler and David Rutter for council. All three of those candidates, who often published joint ads and shared many of the same donors, got between 2,305 and 2,350 votes.
On the other hand, the four winning candidates all got between 52 and 55 percent of the votes, with totals between incumbent John Wilson's 2,682 and mayoral candidate Kenny Evans' 2,766.
A total of 5,123 of Payson's 8,913 voters participated in the mail-in election, for a turnout of 58 percent -- which is considered very high for a local election.
The winning candidates took pains to underscore the message they received time after time from voters was the need to reduce conflict and division and to represent the interests of the whole community, rather than certain favored neighborhoods.
"I think in Payson, and throughout the country, there's a real disdain for negative politics," said Evans, a retired Yuma grower.
"There were a significant number of people who didn't want to go back to the way things used to be -- but they didn't want to retain the same team either. I offered a choice that didn't involve choosing between the past and the present, but between the present and the future."
Evans loaned at least $8,000 to his own campaign and spent at least $25,000, which was about three times what Edwards spent and more than the combined spending of Edwards, Loeffler and Rutter.
Mayor Bob Edwards did not return repeated phone calls for comment on the election. He did answer one call on his cell phone, but when asked for comment said "take care, bye," and hung up.
Edwards had depicted the election as a choice between candidates who favored controlled growth and citizen control and candidates supported by development interests and Realtors. He also criticized the Roundup for allegedly biased coverage, driven by the efforts of the town's "old guard" to overturn the annual growth limits and regain the power he said he had wrestled away two years ago.
Michael Hughes, a Realtor and top council vote-getter, whose roughly $10,000 in spending was nearly double that of any other council candidate, said "I was not running against the mayor, so I don't know why he had that much of an issue with me and where my contributions came from.
"The mayor endorsed Loeffler and Rutter and they decided to run on a slate -- which is fine. In retrospect, that wasn't the smartest thing to do for Tom or David -- they would have done much better running independently."
Richard Croy, who helped develop several low-income housing projects for seniors, said "I think the voters did not want a select team running the town -- and we all know who the team is."
Croy had run in two previous elections and said that this time he had gotten to know enough people to win.
"I have kids, I'm a working person -- but I'm also a senior. I would just like to see the town create an environment to open up to new businesses. The feedback I get from merchants that have been struggling is that the town has been very difficult to work with."
Incumbent John Wilson who spent just $51 on campaigning for his 2,682 votes, could not be reached for comment before press time. During an election party at Gerardo's Italian Bistro Tuesday night, after the results were announced, Wilson repeated what he had said in the past, that he didn't have much to say, but was thankful voters re-elected him to another council term.
Rutter, a retired hospital administrator who Edwards recruited for the council run, knocked on more than 1,000 doors and ran a low key, positive campaign. "I'd like to thank my supporters and offer my congratulations to the winners -- and beyond that I don't have much to say."
Loeffler, a retired traffic safety engineer and school administrator, said he had no regrets about joining forces with Edwards.
"I'm kind of relieved that it's over with and a little disappointed that I didn't do a better job of convincing the voters that what I was proposing was what Payson needed."
He said that the close match in total votes for Edwards, Rutter and himself --and for the other four candidates -- did suggest the voters effectively made the choice between two slates.
"I guess you could say that for Kenny Evans too -- it seems like it was two different teams."
Loeffler, who remains chairman of the town's traffic advisory committee, also hoped the election will lead to fewer rather than more divisions.
"One of the things that is great is the amount of talent in this town -- if we could get it to work together we could really solve the problems of the world -- or at least of Payson."
Evans said he believes the election turned largely on voter's fatigue with arguments, divisions and the back and forth spattering of rumors and allegations. "There never was any articulation between my campaign and Michael's campaign -- no smoke filled rooms, no times with 10 vehicles parked in front of a dark house -- we just didn't do that.
"I think the mayor created a lot of enemies and he continued to cultivate those enemies and keep them as enemies -- and those folks were going to be on the side of anyone who represented a change. They were certainly a factor, but they would have been a factor whoever the candidate might have been."
He said that he talked to Secretary of State Jan Brewer about the confusion concerning when the newly elected council members should take their seats and learned that despite problems in several other cities in the past four years, the legislature has not cleared up the confusion in the elections law.
He said he'll leave the decision up to the town attorney.
"I've been around attorneys for the better part of my lifetime and I can tell you there will be one that will say turn right, one that will say turn left and one that will say stand on the breaks. How they'll rule, I don't know -- but I'll be happy either way."