Payson’s boards, commissions and committees form an inconsistent hodgepodge of citizen involvement and ought to be overhauled, a study group reported to the town council.
The group recommended a broader and more organized method of picking the citizen members and change in how the groups pick their leaders and the downgrading of two of the most active citizen groups.
One of the major recommendations involved making sure commissions and boards report to the town council, but that committees report to town department heads.
The effect of the recommendation would shift things so that the Surface Transportation Advisory Committee would report to the public works director instead of the town council.
In addition, the changes would make for a less direct connection between the town council and the Green Valley Redevelopment Committee and the Payson Event Center Committee.
Currently, the 10 boards and commissions and four committees all report to the council. The members to the committees are all recommended by the vice mayor and confirmed by the full council. The groups each pick a chairman and vice chairman, which must then be approved by the council.
The recommendation by the study group set up by Mayor Kenny Evans represents the latest phase in a long-running debate about boards, commissions and committees.
The council heard a report on the recommendations during a study session, which spurred a long and ultimately inconclusive discussion about the issues. If the council makes any change in the current system, the issue would require several hearings at a regular council meeting.
Councilor Michael Hughes observed “some of these committees are just operating by inertia over time. You get committees that will speak sometimes with the authority of the town that they don’t have.”
For instance, he said STAC should report to the public works director, who would assign it specific tasks.
STAC has undertaken several initiatives on its own in the past year, like prioritizing road construction projects and studying whether changing speed limits on various streets would improve the flow of traffic through town. In addition, STAC has held a whole series of hearings to come up with changes to slow and control traffic on Phoenix Street and Mud Springs, which have largely placated once-fierce neighborhood opposition to an extension of Mud Springs to the highway.
Councilor John Wilson said the Green Valley Redevelopment Commission has been “struggling with what their real task is.”
The redevelopment commission makes policy and recruits businesses for the area around Main Street, where the town hopes to develop a major tourist and commercial zone. However, the town never actually set up the originally planned historical district and never apparently applied for tax increment financing, which would have raised money for improvements from any growth in sales tax in the zone.
“Then maybe we should define that task,” said James Scheidt, a planning commissioner who headed up the report team.
The new system would draw a sharp distinction between standing boards and commissions that meet regularly and report to the town council and committees, which would be assigned specific tasks. The committees would either disband when they’d finished their task, or become active only when the department head to which they reported had a specific task to accomplish.
The council also discussed the sometimes controversial issue by which members of the boards and commissions are appointed.
Previously, the mayor screened and recruited applicants and the council approved those appointments, usually without discussion on the consent agenda.
The practice generated some controversy during the term of former Mayor Bob Edwards, particularly when he recommended the appointment of several members to STAC who had already been embroiled in the debate about whether to extend Mud Springs Road.
Mayor Kenny Evans then suggested the vice mayor become responsible for making the recommendations, with the vice mayor position rotating every year.
The new proposal would establish appointment periods for all boards and commissions and require the council to review all applications as a group in a closed, personnel session.
“So never again would we have to embarrass a wonderful candidate” by rejecting an application in public, said Councilor Su Connell.
“What we want is a more democratic process,” said Wilson, in support of the review of the applications by the entire council.
However, Hughes said the shift could also mean the council would make some of its most important decisions out of the public view.
“By making that decision in executive session, you’re making it in a closed door session,” said Hughes.
Payson is currently on what amounts to open meeting law probation, after the Attorney General’s office ruled that the previous council illegally discussed personnel changes during a non-public luncheon during an Arizona League of Cities and Towns convention.
But Evans said although the discussion of the candidates would be held behind closed doors, the appointments would be made by public vote.
The recommendation also suggests that the boards and commissions have sole authority to appoint their own chairs and vice chairs.
The current council spurred debate recently when it adopted a motion that made it clear that although the commissions and boards could recommend their own chairs, the council had the legal responsibility for confirming that recommendation.
The town attorney said the current language of the ordinance makes it clear that the council had to confirm those choices.
The council only briefly discussed a brewing controversy about what conflict of interest rules to apply to boards and commissions.
Leaders of the Citizens Awareness Committee have sent a letter to the town questioning whether people who have strong connections with developers should serve on committees like Planning and Zoning.
The letter referred indirectly to Ray Jones’ application for a spot on the planning commission. Jones has assembled and pushed through several major land exchanges with the Forest Service, including the recent 220-acre land swap near the airport. He has also served as head of the Gila County Planning Commission.
However, the letter by CAC vice chair Jim Hippel, who also serves on STAC, questioned whether candidates with extensive ties to development interests could serve on boards and commissions without a conflict of interest.
The council touched only briefly on the conflict of interest issue in its discussion. State law and town ordinances require any member of the council or any of the boards and commissions to not vote or participate in any issue on which they have a direct financial stake.
However, the law does not consider certain occupations to present a conflict of interest, absent a direct financial benefit to the public official.