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Michele Nelson / By Michele Nelson ​roundup staff reporter 

Some of the pristine views of the East Verde River - downstream from the waterfalls and far down Crackerjack Road.


Local
featured
Man catches 6-pound trout at Green Valley Park

Anglers were delighted to hook several large trout at Green Valley Park after the Arizona Game and Fish Department stocked the lakes last week.

On Monday, two men pulled in two rather large trout, the largest topping out at six pounds.

DJ Craig, who lives near the park and frequently fishes there, documented the catches. He said it is the largest trout he has seen caught at the lake. The men were reportedly using PowerBait and fishing near the boat ramp at the largest lake.

Nick Walter, a spokesperson with the AZGFD, said the three lakes at Green Valley Park were stocked March 5 and 11. While he didn’t know for sure when the larger fish were added, he believes it was on the March 11 stocking.

“They have been seeing some pretty big hogs coming off,” Walter said of the stockings.

On March 11, 533 fish (weighing a total of 400 pounds) were added to the three lakes. That means the average fish weighed around three-quarters of a pound.

The fish came from a hatchery in La Jara, Colo.

AZGFD also stocked the Green Valley lakes in February. Stockers had to chop through the ice to then add the fish.

The largest rainbow trout caught in Arizona inland waters on hook and line weighed 15 pounds 9.12 ounces and was caught at Willow Springs Lake in September 2006, according to online AZGFD records.

The next trout stocking of GVP takes place the week of April 1-5.

Read more about the stocking of area streams in Jim Strogen’s fishing column on page 15.


Local
featured
Council dinged for agenda structure

The Office of the Arizona Attorney General says it is unable to show that the Payson Town Council violated the open meeting law when it voted in Councilor Steve Smith in October.

The Roundup filed a complaint after the meeting after it appeared the council had decided that it would appoint Smith outside of the public meeting.

“After reviewing the information provided, the office is unable to substantiate a violation of the open meeting law in connection with the council’s Oct. 25, 2018 meeting,” wrote Evan Daniels, chief of government accountability and special litigation unit for the attorney general’s office.

Daniels did note there were other items on the agenda that did concern him and made several recommendations to correct these issues.

Open meeting law

At the Oct. 28 meeting, there was minimal discussion on the councilors’ choice to appoint Smith, even though 19 people had applied for Councilor Rick Croy’s seat, who had resigned for health reasons. The council discussed no other candidate’s qualifications before then Mayor Craig Swartwood nominated Smith and the vote was taken.

After, the Roundup questioned Swartwood and several council members. Both Councilors Barbara Underwood and Chris Higgins said they had spoken to Swartwood before the meeting about their top candidates. Higgins, Underwood and Swartwood all said they had narrowed the 19 candidates down to a short list based on who they thought was most qualified. Smith was on all of their short lists.

Swartwood denied violating the open meeting law, which is intended to keep discussions and deliberations open to the public.

Underwood also denied violating the law, saying she was very aware at the time that they could violate the open meeting law if three councilors discussed the appointment and moved toward agreeing on a nominee.

Daniels wrote after being unable to substantiate any violation of the law, he had closed the matter.

Agenda structure

Aside from that determination, Daniels wrote the office had two concerns regarding the Oct. 28 agenda.

Specifically, how the town had worded the notice of executive session.

The town places a boilerplate paragraph on every agenda that allows it to enter executive session if the council needs to obtain legal advice from the town attorney “concerning any matter.”

The phrase “concerning any (legal) matter” is a potential problem because the open meeting law only permits a council to enter executive session for seven proscribed reasons, Daniels wrote.

“Further, Arizona courts have strictly construed the authorized executive session topics because their legislative charge is to ‘promote openness in government, not to expand exceptions which could be used to obviate the rule.’”

The attorney general’s office recommends it instead say the council can enter executive session “on any matter listed on the agenda ...”

Second, Daniels noted the council had also listed on the agenda a notice to enter executive session for the purpose of “including but not limited to” the annual evaluation of Town Manager LaRon Garrett.

The law only permits a council to discuss a specific employee in executive session if that employee has been given notice.

“The use of “including but not limited to” is not specific and leaves open the possibility that the council may discuss other employees without providing them notice,” Daniels wrote. “While in this instance the council only discusses the town manager’s employment evaluation in the Oct. 25, 2018 executive session, see response at 4, the office recommends that the council review how it relies on the language in agenda item J(3).”

“While at this time the office is unable to substantiate a violation on these agenda items, the office recommends that the council review its uses of the phrases ‘concerning any matter’ and ‘including but not limited to’ in its future agenda items.”

The Roundup contacted Garrett and Town Attorney Hector Figueroa for comment, but had not heard back as of press time.

Contact the editor at

abechman@payson.com


Alexis Bechman / Alexis Bechman/Roundup  

Judge Tim Wright swears in Steve Smith to the Payson Town Council in October. The Office of the Arizona Attorney General recently found the council did not violate the open meeting law with Smith’s appointment.


Local
Chiefs from around state attend open council meeting

Fire chiefs who have been through the process offered Payson advice this week on merging three fire departments into one.

Four fire chiefs who have been through the kind of merger Payson is considering attended a town council open mic study session Tuesday night. The chiefs gave insights into the possible future of a joint powers agreement (JPA) that would combine Payson, Hellsgate and Houston-Mesa fire districts.

“We’ve outperformed the financial projections,” said Timber Mesa Fire and Medical Authority Chief Brian Savage. “With those savings, we’ve been able to do a lot.”

Sun City’s Arizona Fire and Medical Authority Chief Mary Dalton said, “We found additional savings (and) public safety improved.”

The visiting chiefs represented the state’s largest fire district as well as the state’s oldest.

All said the mergers worked out better than expected — once the governing boards got over their turf issues.

The chiefs offered a glimpse into the costs of merging as well as how it would impact service, control and firefighter morale.

The Payson Town Council has asked Payson Fire Chief David Staub and Hellsgate Fire Chief John Wisner to come up with convincing evidence that supports a merger.

The Hellsgate and Houston-Mesa fire district boards have already voted in favor of the merger, with a 30-day escape clause starting in January 2020.

But the Payson council stills has doubts.

They have asked questions about the organizational chart, administrative costs, budgets and department morale.

The question at the core of the debate: “Would the public be better served with a JPA?”

The JPA chiefs offered detailed and encouraging answers, starting with saving money while improving service. They said the mergers led to a reduction in property tax rates while beefing up service and cutting costs.

For instance, Timber Mesa in Show Low saved millions. “Where did we save that $2 million? A couple of good examples are our property and causality insurance rates ... (and) our overtime expenses diminished,” said Savage.

Staff retention and morale improved.

“Culturally the two agencies came together very well,” said Prescott’s Chief Scott Freitag. “We have seen a lot more opportunity and morale improve.”

When the districts were small and separate, top spots did not open up often. Ambitious firefighters either had to leave the district to move up or wait for years until a spot opened.

However, the mergers also presented challenges, said the chiefs — especially when it came to working with the governing boards.

Dipping a toe into the merger pool, Camp Verde’s Copper Canyon Fire & Medical Authority first entered into an intergovernmental agreement to share administration between the original two fire districts, which eventually developed into a full JPA.

“We kind of stitched it together one stitch at a time,” said Chief Terry Keller.

Ultimately, the public saw the benefit and supported the full-fledged merger.

Payson Councilor Barbara Underwood liked that idea.

“Is this something we even considered? To me it sounds like a first step to see if things work,” she said.

The proposed JPA would merge all three departments under a single chief. The chief would report to a fire authority board composed of three members of the Payson Town Council, two members of the Hellsgate Fire District and one member from the Houston-Mesa Fire District.

Contact mnelson@payson.com


Schools
Superintendent
Payson school board strikes a deal with new superintendent

Personality.

And experience.

That’s what won Stan Rentz the job as Payson Unified School District superintendent starting on June 30.

The school board on Monday approved a two-year, $115,000 annual contract for the former Georgia schools superintendent.

Rentz, who recently retired from a long career in Georgia, ran a 3,300-student, working class, K-12 district, with 65 percent of the families qualifying as low income.

In Payson, about 50 percent of families qualify as low income, which remains the single biggest factor in determining school achievement.

Rentz will take over from Superintendent Greg Wyman on June 30. Wyman is moving back to the Valley to lead another district for family reasons.

During appearances during the hiring process, Rentz stressed building morale. “I want everyone to know ‘you matter.’ But I have zero tolerance for negativity.”

He said he had a gift for making people feel like they mattered.

“Our students need to feel that too — it all comes down to relationships.”

Rentz didn’t attend the board meeting Monday, but is expected to return to Payson Friday.

Wyman’s tenure was marked by rising morale, a quiet, almost placid school board, a gradual end to years of deep budget cuts and increasingly harmonious relationships with staff and the community. However, the district continued to suffer from low funding, deferred investments and declining test scores and graduation rates at the high school.

Board members this week said they picked Rentz for his demonstrated experience, personality and ability to build morale and mentor teachers. They noted he brought Jefferson Davis County Schools from ranking as a C district to a B district. Payson already ranks as a B district on state assessments, even though the high school has slipped to a C.

Rentz spent 25 years in the Jefferson Davis district, serving as a teacher, principal and administrator. However, after raising his children and weathering a divorce, he resolved to fulfill a lifelong dream to live in the Southwest. He grew up on a farm in rural Georgia and said he wanted to continue living in a small, rural town like Payson.

“The main thing is his ability to lead, his strong personality and his experience,” said school board member Shane Keith. “He’s been able to increase student achievement and create a strong culture. Those are the two things he brings from his past experience.”

Board member Jolyn Schinstock said, “He’s a people person. He’s very good at building relationships. He’s hands-on and plans to be in the schools, visiting students, teachers and administrators.”

Board member Joanne Conlin agreed. “He’s very well rounded. He’s got the big picture and understands the great variety of things a superintendent does.”

Board President Barbara Underwood said, “I think that coming from a school district of that size — with his leadership — I think he’ll transition nicely to a small community with the same needs. He understands relationships with the community, how it’s important to be involved with groups like Rotary.

Board member Michell Marinelli said, “I did really like his personality. We need someone to be out there in the community. We are a small community — we’re like a family here.”

Schinstock said Rentz spent every Wednesday in his district going to classrooms and visiting with students, administrators and teachers. He recounted one incident in which a community member posted a sharply negative comment about the district on Facebook. Rentz called the person and said, “Let me tell you the full story. And the guy realized he was wrong and took the post off.”

The contract approved by the board on Monday includes a $115,000 salary for running the biggest business in Payson. The district has nearly 300 employees and a budget of nearly $14 million. The contract provides 30 days of vacation annually, plus two weeks worth of personal time and sick time. The contract also provides for full benefits, a $5,000 car allowance, and $5,000 in moving expenses.

The contract also makes Rentz responsible for all public relations functions of the district — which will represent one of his first challenges. The district will have to go to the voters to seek approval of a budget override before the end of this year. If voters reject the override, the district will have to cut it’s already beleaguered budget by about $400,000 annually.

Rentz will also have to cope with the impending meltdown of the state’s school assessment system. The Legislature has made the AzMerit testing and assessment system optional, which will likely force major changes in the way schools are rated on the state assessment.

Other big problems include the high school’s low scores, dwindling enrollment, declining graduation rates, deteriorating facilities due to a lack of money for upgrades and maintenance, a lack of students willing to take advanced placement or dual-enrollment college classes, struggles maintaining arts and vocational classes and continued reliance on donations for many key extracurricular programs — including arts and sports programs. The district also faces problems maintaining its fleet of aging buses and the class size and student impacts of splitting up the 12 grades into four campuses — forcing students to change schools four times during their careers in the district.

Underwood said the district also faces challenges in the effort to boost student achievement by making sure the curriculum matches the state and national standards.

“We’ve talked about getting our curriculum in line. We’ve been so far behind in adopting the math and English curriculum, and so I think going forward his challenge is going to be how do you balance the budget to meet the needs of our students within our limited resources,” she said.