The Payson council has “locked out” citizens, failed to tighten its financial belt and paid more attention to special interests than the public interest, former mayor Bob Edwards told 50 members of the Citizens Awareness Committee in a speech that sounded like a stump speech, but sidestepped questions about whether he’ll run again.
Edwards sounded mostly familiar themes in his indictment of the administration of Mayor Kenny Evans, with his ear-catching blend of expertise and innuendo.
“For many years, a small group controlled the governments of Payson and the county. Sadly, their view too often seems to be based on being served and not serving. While we have, at times, temporarily taken it out of their hands, they have always taken it back. That is why you, the citizens, the interlopers, are locked out, many times for reasons that don’t make sense to the normal mind. It only makes sense if the goal is control and not the betterment of Payson.”
Edwards called for a shift to district council elections, instead of the current system in which all the council members run townwide. Edwards said a district system coupled with citizens councils in each district would increase the influence of individual voters and make it harder for special interests with a lot of money to buy an election.
Edwards sidestepped a question from the audience about whether he would run again for mayor, saying he believes the town urgently needs a change, but would not run unless he were convinced a broad coalition of citizens would put in the volunteer effort needed to defeat the money raised by “special interests.”
Ironically, Mayor Kenny Evans sidestepped the same question two weeks previously in his comments to the same group.
Political observers predict Evans will run for a second term, although he had initially intended to serve only one term. Observers with ties to Edwards say he has been working to recruit candidates, but hasn’t decided whether to run himself.
With three council members in the audience, Edwards repeatedly suggested that special interests who provide campaign contributions and the personal friends of council members determine who has access and gets favors from the town.
However, he didn’t offer any specific council votes on policies to illustrate his contention.
He did criticize the council for adopting a budget that authorized borrowing up to $1 million from the town’s water department, which has millions accumulated from impact fees and water payments earmarked for use building the Blue Ridge pipeline. The council authorized the loan mostly to provide reserve money in case the recession deepens, since the budget also includes a $1.2-million reserve fund.
“Our town government, when faced with less income, chose the easy route: it borrowed from our future. They borrowed it from Blue Ridge. Once you give politicians the key to a money room, it will remain unlocked until the room is empty. This pot of money is for paying the cost of Blue Ridge ... if they drain it, the payment will need to come from increases in future water bills.”
The current town council cut the budget from the $36 million of the Edwards’ administration to about $23 million, including a handful of layoffs, a hiring and salary freeze, cancellation of most street and capital projects and deep cuts in the budget for parks and recreation.
Ironically, one of the current council’s attempts to balance the budget provoked a stir of outrage at the meeting in the question and answer session following Edwards’ prepared remarks.
The council revised the fee schedule for the use of park facilities in an effort to make recreation programs self-supporting.
Several members of the CAC have long supported Dog Day in the Park, a family-oriented event at the dog park in Rumsey Park. Town officials recently sent a letter saying the event this year would have to pay several hundred dollars in fees, including liability insurance and rental of fences.
One CAC member who helped build the dog park 10 years ago called the charges obscene.
The three council members in the audience — Richard Croy, Su Connell and Ed Blair — all said they hadn’t known about the specific fees, but urged organizers to talk to town officials.
Edwards never mentioned Evans by name, but clearly had the mayor in mind when making his most pointed criticisms.
“Payson’s government too often has been used for the benefit of friends and associates. This administration appears to be reverting back to that mode of operation.
“The public has a right to expect their elected officials to speak the truth and expect to be kept informed when questions arise. Sadly, to stretch the truth during an election has risen to the point where it is almost expected, but to do so when the mantle of public trust is laid on one’s shoulders is a serious violation of the office.”
Asked during the question and answer session to provide an example of a council decision made to benefit special interests or an instance in which a Payson official had lied, Edwards referred only to a furor about soaring propane prices during the election campaign.
At that time, Evans took the lead in challenging surcharges in bills imposed by SemStream, which had the effect of doubling or tripling winter heating bills at a period when oil and propane prices were hitting record levels.
“If you tell someone during an election you’re going to lower their gas bills, there ought to be some truth in it,” said Edwards.
The Arizona Corporation Commission did hold a rare public forum on propane bills in Payson. The company subsequently eliminated one of the surcharges, after recovering the excess payments for propane the surcharge was supposed to cover above the company’s regulated energy charge. The local propane company’s parent company subsequently declared bankruptcy, amidst claims it had illegally manipulated the market. Propane prices have since dropped sharply worldwide.
Edwards offered no examples of council actions that specifically favored special interests.
However, he did offer a wide ranging critique in his 90-minute appearance, suggesting the town must do a better job of providing tourist attractions, make better use of the Event Center, make the budget process more open, use banners and signs to direct visitors to Main Street and the Green Valley lakes, expend more effort on controlling illegal drug use, come up with a plan to provide an adequate network of fire hydrants and not borrow money from the Blue Ridge fund in the water department.
On the other hand, he offered strong support for one of the most ambitious proposals — an attempt to convince Arizona State University to build a four-year college campus in Payson.
“Any college town can tell you, it’s always a positive thing,” said Edwards.
“What I don’t want to see happen is the casino mentality, that all of a sudden it’s going to solve every problem and make all the babies pretty.”