A thunderstruck Larry Stephenson found himself unanimously elected president of the Gila Community College board on Friday, signaling a potentially dramatic shift in the politics of that contentious board.
Outgoing President Bob Ashford took Stephenson completely by surprise when he suggested the Payson board member take the gavel at the beginning of the long-delayed January meeting.
Northern Gila County board members Stephenson and Tom Loeffler both said they expected Ashford’s election to a sixth term with the predictable support of the two other members with districts dominated by voters from southern Gila County.
Ashford offered no explanation for his decision to support Stephenson, although he has reportedly struggled with serious health problems in recent months.
“I was thrown for a loop,” confessed Stephenson, who has clashed often, but politely, with Ashford in the past two years. Stephenson and Loeffler have both persistently criticized GCC’s contract with Eastern Arizona College, which provides academic credentials for the provisional community college district and imposes a 25 percent surcharge on everything GCC spends.
Flummoxed, Stephenson objected saying the board should go through a formal nominating process before voting on new officers.
Stephenson then nominated Loeffler, but that motion died for lack of a second.
Ashford then nominated Stephenson, which got a prompt second from Loeffler.
Board member Bernadette Kniffin then nominated Ashford, which board member Armida Bittner seconded.
However, the board then voted unanimously to make Stephenson the president. Stephenson expressed his gratitude for the confidence of his fellow board members, who have split 3-2 on many major issues in the past several years.
The board then unanimously elected Kniffin as the vice chairman.
The still surprised Stephenson suggested Ashford chair the rest of the meeting.
“In all due respect,” said Ashford, who was in Globe as the meeting proceeded through a video link, “I’d rather turn it over to you.”
The vote will give Stephenson control of the board’s agenda, which Ashford had dominated — sometimes refusing to put items requested by board members on the agenda at all. However, the make up of the board itself remains unchanged, with Ashford continuing throughout the meeting to dominate discussions with the support of Kniffin and Bittner, who have long supported him.
Ashford’s relinquishing of the chairmanship marks the end of an era for Gila Community College, one of only two provisional community colleges in the state.
Although recently redrawn district lines would have likely in two years shifted political power on the often-feuding board decisively to the north, Ashford’s unexpected move could change the dynamics of the board immediately.
The district gets much less state support than the rest of the state’s community college districts and must pay the overhead charge on its contract with EAC, which provides the credentialing, hires almost all the staff and controls the budget.
Loeffler and Stephenson have persistently complained that EAC doesn’t provide enough budget information, even when the GCC board members ask for figures. They have both pushed for a revision of the EAC contract and a rapid move toward independence, after last year’s vote of the Legislature opened the door to that shift.
However, Ashford and the board majority have just as persistently defended the EAC contract as a good deal for Gila County taxpayers and warned that the district doesn’t have the resources to aggressively pursue independence.
The clash between the two factions has often grown heated, especially between Loeffler and Ashford.
Loeffler has complained that Ashford refused to put key issues on the agenda, arbitrarily canceled meetings, refused to seek accountability from EAC and even pushed to repeal all the board’s policies last year, which allowed him to seek another term that was barred by then-existing policies.
The board never did adopt new policies and procedures and hasn’t had a meeting in two months. However, state law required a meeting in January for the board to elect officers and set a calendar of meeting times for the year.