“Sixteen years ago Ron Christensen said, “Until you start getting along, you’re not going to solve the problem,” said John Bittner, longtime resident of the Pine-Strawberry area.
The problem he referred to is the management of the Pine-Strawberry water system.
Bittner has a point.
On Thursday evening, Jan. 16, more than 150 residents from the two hamlets gathered in the Pine Community Center Cultural Hall to lodge comments with the Gila County Board of Supervisors.
The supervisors took over management of the water district when five of the seven board members resigned before the holidays under the shadow of a recall threat.
On Friday afternoon, the supervisors voted 2 to 1 to call for an early May special election to seat a new board.
Supervisor Tommie Martin said the Jan. 16 meeting changed her mind.
“My preference is for the community to wait until November because decisions made in the heat of battle are not the best,” she said by phone at the 4 p.m. Friday special meeting, “But the furor I found last night with what to do and who was right and who wrong ... My fear is that those folks are not together or interested in letting the furor settle down and it will continue to simmer over the months ... I am recommending calling for a May election to end the furor.”
Those who attended the meeting fell into different camps.
Some view this situation in terms of personality. They side either with former board chairman Ray Pugel (he resigned) or with board member Sam Schwalm (the resignations ended his term).
“We are here because of a small group,” said Bruce Branton a Strawberry resident. “I don’t think we should give into this small group that has disrupted the community.”
“The idea we have a community of more than 3,100 people — based upon the articles in the paper and comments — this is turning into a personality vendetta,” said another community member.
Others would like everyone to get along and see a return to clean, clear, cheap water running from taps.
Still others do not trust the current management company, CH2M Hill or its district manager Brad Hill.
One resident said after 20 years of controversy, the system is still a mess.
Second homeowners from the Valley are simply attempting to figure out what’s going on.
Still, most agree that the community’s in better shape than when Brooke Utilities owned the system without making any investment in upgrades and wells, resulting in a long building freeze and costly water hauling charges.
But Bittner reminded the crowd that even that was not as bad as it had been in the past. “We used to look like residents in a third world country rushing out to get water in our pots and pans,” he said.
Bittner told the story of water trucks arriving at the empty field that now houses the Sidewinder Saloon and Ponderosa Market. He said if anyone wanted to wash dishes or cook, they would have to collect water from the truck during the hot dry summer months.
“If we wanted a shower, we had to take a number and stand in line at the school,” he said.
Bittner said most residents now have water running out of their taps.
During the Thursday Town Hall meeting, the supervisors could only listen to the comments. However, after the scheduled meeting Tommie Martin took a straw poll. The room was nearly divided in half, but with a majority supporting a May election.
On Friday, Jan. 17, the supervisors approved a May special election for the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District (PSWID), with Supervisor Michael Pastor in opposition.
“I got comments that it was pretty much 50-50 in that community. There is obviously something going on up there, so I would prefer to wait until November,” he said.
Martin and John Marcanti voted for the early election. “We (the supervisors) really don’t have a stake in this issue,” said Marcanti, “the people in the Pine-Strawberry water district do.”
However, state statute will apparently require a second election in November for at least three of the board members elected in May, since no board member may serve more than four years. Voters will elect seven board members in May. The board members must then decide which will serve two-year terms and which will go through it all over again in November, said Eric Meriscal, Gila County elections director.