Two Payson Town Council candidates offered an impassioned defense of a college campus and the Home Rule exemption from spending limits — but didn’t disagree with one another once during a lively, two-hour candidate’s forum before the Citizen’s Awareness Committee Thursday.
Vice Mayor Mike Vogel and challenger Fred Carpenter, a former Payson town manager, displayed a free-wheeling, nitty-gritty grasp of policy details, but you couldn’t slip a one page summary of the open meeting law between any of their positions.
Nor did either take a single position that conflicted with incumbents Ed Blair and Su Connell, also vying for council seats in a mail-in ballot that should hit voters mailboxes this week. Connell and Blair appeared before the same group two weeks ago to address the same list of questions.
The four candidates are vying for three council seats, so each voter can vote for up to three candidates.
To win a seat outright, a candidate must receive 50 percent plus one vote. Any seat not filled by the 50 percent plus one rule, will be determined in the May 18 general election.
The same ballot will ask voters to approve a higher spending limit for the town. If voters reject Home Rule, it won’t cut taxes but will force drastic cuts in the town’s budget.
About 35 people attended the forum, including a slew of statewide candidates who straggled over from a speech by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, including state treasurer Dean Martin. The other candidates included Steve Slaton and Hugh Kealer, running in the Republican primary for governor and Jim Deakin, running against U.S. Senator John McCain, who will hold a town hall in Payson on Saturday.
The forum included one discussion about the state’s open meeting law, which Vogel vigorously criticized as ridiculous nitpicking that kept council members from talking about much of anything outside of public meetings.
As it happens, the Payson council is currently on what amounts to open meeting law probation because of a private luncheon meeting at a League of Arizona Cities and Towns event in Scottsdale more than two years ago at which the council discussed reorganizing top town management. That meeting led to an offer to Carpenter to buy out his contract to get him to retire early. All three incumbents running for re-election attended that meeting, which the Arizona attorney general’s office later determined was illegal.
Despite that potentially contentious history and Vogel’s outspoken criticism of the state’s open meeting law, the two candidates didn’t disagree on a single topic that came up in the two-hour discussion.
Some of the most vigorous exchanges with the audience focused on the ongoing talks between Payson and Arizona State University about building a four-year college campus in town on 320 acres of Forest Service land across the highway from Gila Community College.
All four council candidates strongly support that plan, which involves setting up a community facilities district to buy the land and contract with developers to build the campus, dorms and related businesses — perhaps a research park, offices, a convention hotel and other businesses. The district would then lease those facilities to ASU and to private developers. Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has said the campus would start with about 1,500 students, but could grow to perhaps 6,000.
Candidates who have gone door to door talking to voters have said the overwhelming majority of people they’ve talked to have strongly favored a college campus here as a way to diversify the economy and increase cultural events in the town.
However, several members of the Citizen’s Awareness Committee strongly criticized plans to bring ASU to Payson.
Bringing ASU to “a town like Payson is a mistake, with all the problems we already have,” said Jack Jasper, a former member of the town’s Traffic Advisory Board. “Several thousand students will be driving around on streets that aren’t even safe.”
But Vogel shot back that the campus would have a maximum of 2,500 students and would bring to town a minimum of 300 well-paid jobs for faculty and staff. “I’m 100 percent in favor of it,” he said.
“It needs to be put to a vote of the people,” said another audience member. “People are not being asked.”
Vogel replied that ASU “didn’t have to ask our permission. They’ve agreed to work with us.”
“That sounds like a scare tactic,” said Jasper.
“I don’t scare anybody and I don’t bull anybody,” said the famously blunt-spoken Vogel, a former top union representative for firefighters in Michigan.
“Where is the $70 million coming from,” asked another audience member, in reference to Mayor Evans’ claims to have secured up to $70 million in promised donations to pay the bulk of the costs of building the college.
“Donald Trump was here three weeks ago, with his staff,” said Vogel, raising the veil on the mostly closely held list of major firms and developers that have expressed an interest in building the college and related businesses.
Vogel said ASU has reached the limit of its ability to issue bonds and has been having trouble raising money since the Legislature has been gobbling up even private donations to the universities and state parks and other state agencies to balance its budget.
“People won’t give money to ASU because of how fast the state has been sweeping funds. So these are private funds — the ones I know of are about $57 million.”
State Treasurer Dean Martin then very nearly hijacked the meeting, rising to take the microphone to launch a blistering attack on the Legislature, which has diverted millions for assorted funds.
“The state shouldn’t be able to just take the money because they can,” said Martin. “But, yes, they are stealing those funds. They ignore the law at their leisure.”
A fierce swirl of state politics then shuddered through the meeting with Martin criticizing State Attorney General Terry Goddard for refusing to represent the state treasurer’s office if Martin decides to sue the Legislature to block some of the fund transfers. Martin has expressed interest in running for governor on the Republican ticket while Goddard is expected to seek the Democratic nod.
Some in the audience also worried about the impact of a college campus on the police department. “We’d better think it through again,” said one woman, referring to news stories about incidents on ASU’s main Tempe campus, with nearly 50,000 students. “Kids are dropping eggs on (police),” she said. “And they don’t just have alcohol — they have other drugs too.”
But Carpenter predicted that “hooliganism” would pose no serious problem. Carpenter, who spent a long career managing small cities, said every town he knows of with a college campus “has concluded that the positives outweigh the negatives. Just the cultural impact is unimaginable.”
Joel Mona, a planning commission member, chimed in, “If we miss this opportunity, we’re doing a disservice to future generations. I don’t know of a single community with a four-year college that wishes they could get rid of it.”
When Jasper brought the topic up again near the end of the session with a stubborn criticism of the whole plan, the audience audibly groaned. Shirley Dye, who serves on the town’s Traffic Advisory Committee, said “I’m looking for my grandkids to come take care of me and go to college while they’re taking care of me.” The audience applauded that idea.