Rodeo Dispute Moves To Court Wednesday

Legal battle turns on ‘last, best offer’

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Chuck Jackman

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Bill Armstrong

Gila County Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill will hold a hearing on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. to start sorting out who owns the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo.

The case turns mostly on whether the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce violated its contract with the Payson Rodeo Preservation Alliance when it sold the rights to the event to the Payson Pro-Rodeo Committee.

“One of these parties is going to be successful and whoever it is, I hope the town will be behind them,” said Neal Bookstan, a Phoenix attorney representing the Alliance.

Judge Cahill denied a request by the Committee to immediately issue a restraining order to stop the Alliance from making preparations to stage the August rodeo. However, he scheduled a quick hearing to gather evidence from both sides. He has yet to schedule a hearing on the Alliance’s legal action.

Attorneys for both sides said they hope Cahill will act quickly enough to avoid derailing planning of the rodeo — held every summer in Payson for the past 125 years.

New details of the basis of the dispute have emerged from court filings and accounts offered by key participants.

The record shows a sequence of meetings, letters and offers last fall involving the Chamber, the Alliance and the Committee.

The Alliance’s contract with the Chamber gave it the “first right right of refusal” should the Chamber move to sell the rights of the rodeo.

Chamber officials have said they made a proposal to the Alliance that was flatly rejected.

Some time later, the Alliance submitted its own offer to the Chamber. That offer was rejected and the Chamber requested bids from any interested party.

A bid was submitted by the Pro-Rodeo Committee and, at the 11th hour, Honeycutt Rodeo Inc., offered to purchase the rights to the rodeo — possibly in partnership with the board of the Alliance, including rodeo boss Chuck Jackman. The Chamber rejected that offer, as it insisted the rodeo be owned and operated by a local entity to guarantee the rodeo would remain in Payson.

However, Bookstan said the Chamber didn’t fulfill the terms of its contract essentially giving the Alliance the right to beat any other offer.

“The sale violated the contract the Alliance had,” said Bookstan. “The chamber of commerce didn’t have the right to sell it without coming back to the Alliance and saying; ‘here’s the best and highest offer we have, are you willing to offer it or not?’”

The Chamber then sold the rodeo to the Pro-Rodeo Committee.

The legal dispute will likely turn on that sequence of events and whether the Chamber complied with the contract giving the Alliance first right of refusal.

The current legal tangle caps a convoluted sequence that has roiled the staging of the world’s longest-running continuous rodeo, long a mainstay of the summer tourist season in Rim Country.

The Chamber owned the rights to the “Annual World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo” and paid the Committee to run the performance operation of rodeo relying on a core of about 120 volunteers.

The Chamber board of directors said they didn’t feel they did not have the expertise and manpower to put on the rodeo and, understanding the importance of the 125th anniversary rodeo to the community, and with the intent to sell the event following the 2009 show, entered into a “one year only” contract with the Alliance to stage the 125th annual rodeo. The Alliance put together the event and the rodeo cleared about $17,000, most of it from a fund-raiser held at the Mazatzal Casino, said Chamber officials.

Representatives of both the Committee and the Alliance say they have spent time and money getting ready for the August rodeo.

The Committee decided to drop its contract with stock contractor Honeycutt and contracted instead with a company in Phoenix to provide stock. The Alliance has reportedly contracted with Honeycutt.

In January 2010, the Alliance filed for rights to the name “World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo, “ dropping the word “Annual” from the official name of the existing event.

The Alliance initially lined up the approval of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), essential to getting sponsors and top cowboys. However, when the Pro-Rodeo Committee protested, the PRCA withdrew its certification and sent letters to both sides that said it wouldn’t sanction either rodeo group until the legal dispute over the ownership was resolved.

Both sides want Judge Cahill to immediately order the rival outfit to stop promoting their rodeo until Cahill can review the contracts and determine who actually owns the August rodeo.

“Both parties are seeking relief that will enable the court to move in expedited fashion,” said Bookstan.

“The court is either going to find that the Alliance didn’t have the rights it believed it had. Or they’ll find that the Chamber did not have the right to conduct the sale in the way it did and therefore to sell the right to continually produce the rodeo.”

Bookstan said that if the judge agrees with the Alliance’s interpretation of its contract, the Alliance could presumably match the Committee’s highest offer and take over ownership of the rodeo.

Attorneys for the Committee, on the other hand, maintain that in the course of repeated communications and meetings, the Alliance had a chance to make its “best and final offer,” which left the Chamber free to accept the Committee’s higher offer.

The issue is complicated by a letter offering $30,000 for rights to the rodeo, signed by Honeycutt and Alliance directors.

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