Former Payson mayor Bob Edwards blasted the current council for catering to special interests and ignoring citizen input in what sounded like the opening salvo of a re-election campaign.
Edwards urged the 40 people who crowded into the Citizens Awareness Committee meeting last week to back a candidate for next year’s election “with a built-in moral code that the pressures of office can’t corrode ... with the strength to swim upstream towards proper government against the rushing of waters of special interest government.”
Although he didn’t declare his own candidacy in a speech he titled “Bob Unleashed,” he said “I would be involved if I saw involvement. If that commitment is not there, I would advise candidates to go fishing and let Payson become another Prescott Valley.”
The former mayor got friendly questions and strong support from the long-standing group of citizen activists, some of whom supported him staunchly as mayor.
Three of the present council members, Richard Croy, Su Connell and Ed Blair, listened sometimes uncomfortably in the audience, as Edwards blasted his erstwhile opponent Mayor Kenny Evans and the council majority for acting against the interests of the citizens and in favor of special interests, including Realtors and developers.
Afterward, Croy noted, “I didn’t hear him give any examples” of decisions favoring special interests.
Overall, Edwards sounded the same themes he’d stressed during his unsuccessful bid for re-election.
Mayor Evans said when he was elected he would serve only one term. Councilor Mike Vogel has been exploring the possibility of running for mayor, on the assumption that Evans would not run again.
Edwards predicted Realtors, developers and perhaps the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would line up behind an establishment candidate, with lots of money to spend.
He also predicted the Payson Roundup would favor the candidate of the special interests and that the “other side” would be able to plant any story they wanted in the paper. Therefore, he said candidates running against those special interest groups would need an organized letter-writing campaign to make sure the “truth” was reflected in the newspaper.
Edwards criticized a sequence of council decisions and priorities.
He criticized the council for not establishing a rainy day fund to provide a reserve in case tax revenues fell. The previous council spent more than $2 million in reserves on road projects and studies right before the economic downturn. The incoming council then had to make deep cuts to balance the budget as tax revenues fell with the recession.
Edwards also criticized the layoff of six full-time staff and more than 120 part-time and seasonal workers as part of those budget cuts. He said he would have worked with the staff to implement across-the-board pay cuts and work reductions.
Edwards lambasted the council for dismissing citizen input as “not important.” He predicted establishment candidates would not be restrained by “honesty or morals.”
However, Edwards also decried “divisiveness.”
“This is a time to come together, a time to call on all citizens to put aside their differences, but it appears that is not happening. In fact, it is going the opposite direction,” said Edwards.
Edwards also criticized the federal stimulus package, saying that government was “bloated” and should cut taxes and spending to cope with the recession.
“All levels of government are totally bloated ... there is never a time when government can’t make cuts.”
Mayor Evans and the town staff have spent much of the past month shuttling back and forth to Phoenix trying to get various town projects moved up the priority list for stimulus spending, including preliminary work on the Blue Ridge pipeline and a new fire station. The Tonto National Forest also recently won a $3.1-million stimulus grant to thin dangerously overgrown forests surrounding 13 Rim communities. Payson has lobbied hard to restore funding to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open.
Edwards criticized the rush of government spending nationally. “The bloat in Washington is so heavy that they can hardly waddle, yet they are spending more,” he said.
He also decried Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s suggestion that a “temporary” 1 percent sales tax might avert deep cuts in the face of next year’s projected $3.6-billion state budget.
“That’s the definition of a oxymoron ... a temporary tax,” Edwards said.
The former mayor had high praise for Recreation and Tourism Director Cameron Davis, for work done in attracting visitors. Edwards said tourism remains vital to the region’s economy.
He also praised the town council and town staff for continued work on the Blue Ridge Reservoir pipeline, which will double the town’s water supply and provide enough water for a build-out population of 38,000.
Edwards offered one concrete example of favoring “special interests,” this one connected to a dispute about whether to shift effective control over the annual rodeo from the Payson ProRodeo Committee to a new group established by the chamber of commerce and the town. Edwards said Chuck Jackman heads up the new rodeo group and that his wife is Hallie Overman Jackman, the developer of a luxury condominium project just off Main Street. Evans has pushed for that project, including an application for a federal grant to underwrite a waterfall that would cool and filter water from the lakes in Green Valley Park.
“Hallie Overman was a big Kenny supporter and the developer of the Chilson Ranch property ... you know, where the waterfall is. Chuck (Jackman) has wanted to be the rodeo head for a long time, so it appears a campaign promise is being fulfilled,” Edwards said.
He suggested that Evans was making a political payoff when the town council voted to give the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce $37,000 to fund its operations, a return to a longtime practice the previous council had eliminated.
“The chamber board was an active part of Kenny’s campaign, so it’s a bit hard to separate fact from campaign promises ... more special interest connections,” Edwards said.
Edwards offered a wide-ranging list of other criticisms, including:
• Changing the town’s brand new “mountain town with a western heritage” slogan to “a cool mountain town.”
• Disbanding a network of task forces Edwards had established which reported directly to him on various issues. The groups had no official standing, but were a way for Edwards to gather citizen input. The town continues to have 10 citizen boards, committees and commissions with 70 total members, all citizen volunteers.
• Putting on hold a consultant’s master plan for the Payson Event Center.
• Giving too much control back to town staff.
Criticizing government actions at all levels in the face of economic crisis, Edwards observed, “All levels of government are totally out of touch. Surely, Nero is fiddling while Rome is burning.”