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Recall gains steam

A recall effort against Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey and three other council members involves a former mayor, councilors and business and education leaders. The recall group faces a self-imposed deadline of Aug. 30 to collect signatures to get the measure on the November ballot.

“We hope to have an early election,” said Stan Garner, the chair of the recall effort.

If Garner and his group can’t collect the 770 signatures needed to recall the mayor’s position and 1,653 signatures for each council seat from registered Payson voters, they’ll shoot for the March 2020 ballot.

The group has an office in the Swiss Village Shopping Center for drop-in petition signers between a frozen yogurt shop and dry cleaners. On Friday, a steady stream of signers visited the small space. Asked how many signatures they had gathered so far, Garner said they didn’t have an official count, but would tally things up Saturday, Aug. 24.

“We have several sheets filled with 15 signatures per sheet,” said Garner.

Recall nuts and boltsIf they’re to make the November ballot, they have only until the end of the month to gather thousands of signatures to recall Morrissey and council members Suzy Tubbs-Avakian, Janell Sterner and Jim Ferris.

Kenny Evans, former Payson mayor, has agreed to serve as the unofficial adviser to the recall group, which also involves former councilor and town manager Fred Carpenter.

Evans, head of the MHA Foundation, said, “I did agree to share whatever institutional information or political background information I might have. I shared that from my experience; a recall would be difficult ... I affirmed that a vote of the people was the only sure way to know what the taxpayers really wanted. A recall does not overturn the will of the voters. It reaffirms that they, the taxpayers, are the ultimate bosses — not the temporarily elected officials.”

State statute grants recall organizers 120 days from the date they file petitions to collect signatures, but recall organizers say they will try to qualify for the November ballot — which gives them an Aug. 30 deadline.

State statute gives the group up to four months to get the needed signatures, which if they are successful would mean a March election, according to Gila County and Town of Payson staff. Both the city and county play a role in a town recall election.

The recall battle played out last week in back-to-back appearances on the KMOG radio station. First Morrissey, then recall supporters, each spent half an hour on the air talking about the recall.

Morrissey expressed frustration that, “I’m trying to give them (the people) a voice, but they (recall organizers) are not happy with it.”

Morrissey said he has a transparent administration open to the public. He said he hosts a bi-monthly Coffee with the Mayor and has upcoming open mic nights at Messinger’s Mortuary.

“If you want to talk to me, come out and talk,” he said. “Come on and meet with me at the office.”

Morrissey told host Randy Roberson the recall effort is about “power. They want the power back,” he said. However, he said regular elections — not recall elections — should determine who has the power.

The recall groupFormer Payson councilor Fred Carpenter and longtime local business owner Jennifer Smith represented the recall effort on the air. Carpenter also served as Payson town manager before the town council fired him after a luncheon meeting at a conference. The Arizona Attorney general’s office later determined that luncheon meeting violated the state’s open meeting law. The town had a period of open meeting law probation as a result.

Carpenter was “set off” by the termination of LaRon Garrett, the former town manager.

“I think it was settling scores,” said Carpenter. “If you are at one place for 25 years, if people don’t get permits, they blame you. They blame the employee, not the code.”

Roberson made a point of introducing Smith through her family’s history.

“Your company is Precision Intricast,” he said. “I know your family was courted by Payson years ago (and) you’ve been around Payson a long time.”

Smith confirmed that her family came to Rim Country in 1992. She’s a Payson High School graduate and also went to college locally.

She started tuning in to town politics during the budget hearings in May.

“Something that was disconcerting is the lack of ability of the public to weigh in at public meetings,” she said.

Carpenter agreed with Smith.

“Many of the people, who ran under ‘transparent Payson,’ are up there,” he said. “When you have a public meeting as to the firing of a longtime employee ... and you allow three or four people to comment and you come up with very few reasons — pretty lame reasons — to let someone go ... I have been the victim of such chicanery.”

He also said that the newly formed council subcommittee to review contracts and capital projects would cause problems.

“It is a very dangerous road to go down,” he said about council members telling staff “what backhoe to buy.”

Smith finds the council’s “lack of civility” very “concerning.”

“I see a lot of power plays up there,” she said. “There is almost always a 4-3 split ... my personal concerns are that I believe it is an overreach of the power that is given to the council.”

The winner-take-all attitude alarms Smith, who predicts long-term consequences. She spoke of the $271,000 splash pad approved for Rumsey Park as a “pet-project” of the mayor that jumped ahead of other projects waiting in line for years.

“More important to me is the long-range planning,” she said. “A great deal of resources and high-level expertise went into these plans — like the Economic Development Plan. It was developed by an economic development specialist.”

Demographics of the recall

Smith and Carpenter said they represent just a portion of the people who have “come together for a unified objective,” said Smith.

“In our first meeting, I actually ... just acknowledged the elephant in the room — there were dozens of those who had sat on one side of the fence or the other in the past in that room — not on the fence,” she said.

Smith then listed retirees, parents, educators, business owners, Democrats, Republicans, independents, Libertarians and “others who don’t want to be identified politically.”

“We have old guard and we have newcomers,” said Smith. “If you could cut a cross section of town, this would be it. It is growing exponentially every day.”

Monsoon fizzles

Arizona may wind up this year with the driest monsoon on record, as wildfires continue to flare and smolder across the state.

Most of the state typically gets half of its annual rainfall during the three-month monsoon, which officially runs from June 15 to Sept. 30. But this year most of the state had gotten less than half a normal monsoon’s worth of rainfall.

After the first wet winter in years, the monsoon fizzle hasn’t yielded disaster. However, climate researchers from the University of Arizona and elsewhere warn that the monsoon will become increasingly erratic in coming years — rampaging and sputtering depending on the fitful gyrations of the jet stream as the planet warms.

This year, Flagstaff has received 2 inches when it normally gets more than 4 inches. Phoenix has gotten about a third of an inch while it normally gets 1.6 inches, Tucson has received 2.2 inches compared to the normal 3.6 inches. according to the National Weather Service.

As of Aug. 13, the monsoon has delivered less rain than any year since the start of recordkeeping in 1899.

Moreover, the forecast for the next week or two predicts more record temperatures than rainfall.

As a result, wildfires have sputtered and flared, including a fast-moving brushfire this week that shut down Interstate 17 near Sunset Point, between Phoenix and Flagstaff. InciWeb lists at least 14 active wildfires in Arizona. Fortunately, only a few of them like the Museum Fire near Flagstaff and the Woodbury Fire in the Superstitions forced evacuations and briefly threatened structures. The first damp dash of the monsoon helped firefighters get these fires under control.

Other fires near the Grand Canyon and in the White Mountains have been muffled by the lingering effects of a wet winter. Crews established perimeters and let the low-intensity fires contribute to desperately needed forest thinning and restoration efforts.

But in the past several weeks, the monsoon has dried up, replaced by record temperatures across the state. Phoenix hit 114 degrees twice last week, setting all-time records for the dates.

The monsoon connects Arizona to planetary climate cycles. The shifts in the high-altitude river of air dubbed the jet stream normally bring storms loaded with tropical moisture boiling out of the Gulf of California and the Gulf of Mexico and across Arizona and New Mexico. Those storms deliver half of the annual rainfall in the desert regions and 30 or 40 percent of the rainfall to the White Mountains and Rim Country.

Normally, Payson gets about 22 inches of rain annually — about 2 inches in August, 2 inches in July, 4 inches in December and another 4 inches in January. Show Low in the White Mountains normally gets about 18 inches annually, with two inches in August and an inch each month from September through February.

Normally, when the surface water in the eastern Pacific warms up — an El Niño — Arizona has a wet year. Mostly, that means more snow in the White Mountains, but sometimes a more active monsoon as well. This year, El Niño conditions produced the first “normal” winter snowpack in years, but then sea surface temperatures cooled, perhaps contributing to the disappointing monsoon. The ebbing of El Niño conditions could produce a dry winter to follow our non-existent monsoon.

Normally, the seasonal warming over the tropics drives increased evaporation from the ocean and the buildup of a high-pressure ridge over Mexico in June. Arizona’s fire season peaks at this point, with an almost rainless May and June combined with the highest temperatures of the year.

This high pressure ridge in July shifts to the southern Plains and southern Rocky Mountains. This opens the door to inrushing tropical storms, producing monsoon storms not only in the American Southwest but in India as well. Normally, this produces fitful storms, including localized deluges and wet weeks followed by dry weeks.

The monsoon varies dramatically from one year to the next. For instance, in 2013 Flagstaff received 17 inches of rain during the monsoon months and Prescott received 6 inches. But in 2014, Flagstaff got 12 inches and Prescott 18, according to the National Weather Service on the Arizona monsoon patterns.

Despite those variations, the monsoon remains critical to fill reservoirs and sustain agriculture across much of the state. The monsoon also plays a key role in the length and intensity of the fire season. Finally, the summer rains largely account for the dramatic differences in vegetation between the saguaro-graced Sonoran Desert and the creosote-dominated deserts of the Mojave in California.

But when it comes to the monsoon pattern in Arizona, abnormal may prove to be the new normal, according to an array of climate studies and projections.

The average temperatures in Arizona have warmed by 2 degrees in the past 50 years, about double the global average, according to a climate assessment issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The warming trend could reflect natural variations, but is likely influenced by the 40 percent increase in heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because of human activities since the 1700s. The surface waters of the ocean have warmed by about 1 degree in the past 80 years, affecting weather all over the globe.

The acreage burned by wildfires in the Southwest each year has roughly tripled in the past 50 years, which reflects both the effect of the average warming and the overgrown condition of the forest. The average snowpack in the state has also decreased by an average of 40 percent, according to the climate assessment — although snowfall still varies tremendously from one year to the next.

The shift has proved especially painful for the vast stretch of northern Arizona centered on the Navajo Reservation, which has remained locked in drought even in years when the rest of the state gets relief. Some 40 percent of the people on the Navajo Reservation live in areas threatened by “extreme heat” issues and 30 percent of the population have neither public sewer or public water systems.

However, intensely localized systems like the monsoon remain notoriously difficult to predict. Some researchers running projected temperature increases through multiple climate models predict the Arizona monsoon could melt away in coming decades. Other projections suggest the pattern may become more violent and unreliable — with monsoon fizzles alternating with epic rainfall and destructive flooding.

So the forecast for 2019 calls for a historically dry monsoon, with more hot and dry to come in the next several weeks.

And long range?

Buckle your seat belt.

Arizona wildfires still burning:Sheridan Fire: 8,600 acres near Prescott

Pemberton Fire: 1,200 acres near Prescott

Saber Fire: 2,000 acres near Flagstaff

Black Mesa Fire: 349 acres at Sunset Point near I-17

Museum Fire: 2,000 acres near Flagstaff

Boulin Fire: 4,300 acres near Flagstaff

Ikes Fire: 5,700 acres near the Grand Canyon

Castle Fire: 20,000 acres near the Grand Canyon

Trumbell Fire: 2,500 acres north of Grand Canyon

Hurricane Cliffs Fire: 282 acres north of Grand Canyon

Forest health part II
Blame placing or solution seeking?

Alas, the political debate about how to save the forest and the people in it reflects all the anger, blame placing and bafflement of our times.

The recent forest health conference in Payson underscored that sad truth.

The conference called together lawmakers, local officials, loggers, state officials, Forest Service officials and a host of experts.

While they agreed on the urgency of the problem, often it seems like they talked past one another when it came down to the nuts and bolts of finding a solution.

The conference even played out the deep differences revealed by the presence on the panel of two of the candidates for the District 6 senate and house seats representing the most endangered areas in Arizona — stretching from Flagstaff to Alpine.

Longtime Sen. Sylvia Allen laid the blame for the unhealthy state of the forest and the mounting danger from megafires like the one that consumed Paradise, Calif. last year at the feet of the environmental movement.

“I absolutely love our forests. I grew up here in Arizona and I’ve seen our forest change from when I was running around in it as a little kid.”

She recalled a 1995 injunction when a federal judge essentially shut down the forest industry, saying the Forest Service had failed to comply with a host of environmental laws in awarding timber harvest bids. Allen said people from the timber industry and rural areas besieged lawmakers and the offices of Gov. Fife Symington.

“I witnessed the human suffering,” she said. “The forest is growing 700 million board feet a year and in 1990 we were cutting 350 million board feet. So you’re seeing these fire incidents because we’re not in the forest any more cutting those trees. We’ve been talking about this for 25 years. There’s a logjam and we can’t get past it.”

Also on the panel was Art Babbott, a Coconino County supervisor running as an independent for the District 6 house seat vacated by Rep. Bob Thorpe on account of term limits. Babbott has been a leader in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) stakeholders group, seeking to deploy a revitalized timber industry to thin a million acres of forest. So far, that effort has floundered — thinning about 13,000 acres in nearly a decade, largely for lack of a market for millions of tons of biomass.

As the conference unfolded, a lightning-caused fire continued to burn on the steep slopes overlooking Flagstaff. A previous study had suggested heavy rains on that slope right after a high-intensity wildfire seared the soil could cause a billion dollars in damage.

He maintained that it will take a much broader effort to restore and then maintain healthy forest conditions by reducing tree densities by 80 or more per acre.

“We have an opportunity to move forward from one of the most exciting, exhilarating, frustrating challenges facing rural Arizona. It is important that we as communities understand that we are going to pay. Do we want to pay based on investment and proactive activity — or do we want to pay in cleanup and flood mitigation. All the costs that come with a landscape can’t be covered by the natural fiber that’s in it. We need to allow fire to play the role it is supposed to play,” said Babbott.

He said that after the Schultz Fire political leaders in Flagstaff finally fully grasped the connection between forest thinning and the health of the watershed that sustains the community. One study demonstrated that a high-intensity crown fire on the Bill Williams Mountain watershed could open the door to $650 million in damages from flooding and loss of water.

“We cannot separate forest health from watersheds. We have to be very clear — without successful, vibrant, productive industry — forest restoration efforts will fail. If we want industry to pay the way for restoration, we need to be very cognizant that carving out profit from a low-value timber landscape is very hard. It’s going to happen when the Forest Service in partnership with local government says the rules and regulations in this landscape are very different from those in the Northwest.”

As an example, he cited the so-far failing effort to convince the Arizona Corporation Commission to require utilities it regulates to generate 60 megawatts of electricity annually from biomass, with another 30 megawatts hopefully coming from non-regulated utilities like the Salt River Project.

“That is one of the most disheartening pieces of this problem I’ve seen — that inability to take the privileges granted to a monopoly utility and then talk about who takes the risk,” said Babbott.

However, at this point Allen disagreed.

“I don’t think the corporation commission should be designing the business model of a business. I believe that if APS thinks biomass is a good idea, they should be able to go ahead and do that. I think it’s not a matter of money to subsidize that. It can be wrapped into the whole energy package of the company and spread out to all of its ratepayers. If that is the model, they can wrap into all of their energy.”

Except without the ACC policy, the utilities can’t include the investment in biomass plants in their rate base — which means they couldn’t pass the charge along the customers and would have to pay for the excess costs out of stockholder profits.

State Forester David Tenney intervened. Tenney has been a Navajo County supervisor and the state consumer advocate on utility issues and now serves as state forester. “The ratepayer is the taxpayer. I pay my taxes. I pay my electric bill. I’m an Arizona citizen. We can pay now or we can pay later. But it costs 10 times as much per acre to put out a fire as it takes to treat it ahead of time — so why in the world would we say it’s better to do it later? It’s not an APS issue, it’s an Arizona issue. If APS buys 60 megawatts of power, it’s less than one-half of 1 percent of their energy portfolio. It’s not going to cause the energy bills to skyrocket. So I’m going to keep banging away at the corporation commission until they ban me from their meetings.”

Babbott said the key lies in making sure Valley residents, whose representatives control the Legislature understand what’s at stake in the forest restoration efforts.

“We have to get Maricopa County water uses to understand the watershed. From a county perspective, we are still prevented from passing an ordinance on how the counties set the rules as to sufficient water supply. There’s a major disconnect on water supply between rural Arizona and urban Arizona.”

But Allen said the key to managing the watershed lies in getting rid of the trees soaking up the water. “If a mature ponderosa pine takes 200 gallons a day, how as a state are we going to manage that? And I’ll tell you another thing that’s missing — 50 percent of the cattle have been removed, which was another tool that was used to keep the grasslands down and keep the brush down.”

However, forest researchers like Northern Arizona University researcher Wally Covington say cattle probably played more of a role in eliminating natural, low-intensity wildfires than either logging or Forest Service policies. Eliminating grass prevented the regular, low-intensity fires from moving through the forest every five to seven years. This allowed thickets of pine saplings and other trees to move into the clearings created when loggers removed most of the big trees.

Babbott noted, “One of the most important things we can do is to provide support for local district rangers to base management around ignitions” of controlled burns. “The Forest Service needs community support to do that. It’s not a question of whether we are going to have fire on our landscape — it’s do we have it where we have long-term benefits or is it suppress, suppress, suppress — and then it’s disaster.”

Allen also suggested the solution may lie in waiving any environmental laws that slow down thinning and timber projects — and perhaps letting the state manage federal lands.

However, some participants pointed out that the Forest Service has already cleared more than 100,000 acres for thinning projects, but found no timber companies willing to bid on the sale — largely due to the biomass problem and the relatively low value of the thickets of remaining small trees.

State law has a lot more restrictions on management of state lands — for instance requiring that any use of state lands turn a profit to go into the state lands trust. By contrast, the federal government is legally required to manage its lands for multiple uses. Besides, the state already owns nearly 10 million acres and does far less thinning on its land than the Forest Service does now.

In the end, everyone agreed on the goal – even if they sometimes clashed on the methods – and how we got here into such a fix.

“Maybe if we get the federal government to work for us, we can get past the logjam of the numerous regulations — and keep our forest healthy,” said Sen. Allen, “and. restore the experience I had as a child. Bring back all these little streams that don’t run anymore. There are places in Alpine that are so thick you can’t walk through there. We want a healthy forest. We want to restore our water. We can have jobs, we can have product. The real issue is saving our beautiful forests and stopping these fires we’re spending billions of dollars fighting. Why don’t we spend those billions of dollars getting those timber sales out there so they can go out and build the plants and everybody wins?” said Allen.

Babbott concluded, “you have to make an investment. Clearly there’s been this notion that anything that impacts electric ratepayers kills the deal with biomass. We are going to keep banging on the piano and playing trombones – there comes a point at which you have to say, this is a legislative deal. It’s going to take that continuing pressure.”

“I feel your frustration, I really do,” said Sen. Allen. “We’ve been talking about what needs to be done for 25 years and we’re still nowhere. I thought 4FRI was going to be the answer and look what’s happened for the last seven years with that. You think the governor can make it happen – I’ll call him. Or are we just waiting for Paradise to happen here? People died. The whole town burned up. Is that what’s going to happen in Arizona that we’ll finally get something done? I’m scrambling. I don’t have an answer other than to say I’m willing to speak up, carry a bill.”


County, town beef up security

What do locked doors and uniformed guards have in common in Payson?

“The sometimes violent conditions around us,” said James Menlove, Gila County manager.

With mass shootings on school campuses, places of worship and other open public venues in the news, both Gila County and the Town of Payson have beefed up security.

The county has locked the doors at its complex off of Highway 260 after a local resident reportedly made “threats” of violence, according to a county employee.

Now, visitors must ring a bell for someone to come and open the door, either at Supervisor Tommie Martin’s office or the community development office next door.

At the courthouse off of Highway 87, crews covered the glass entrance doors in a reflective coating. Now the security guards inside can see who walks up to the doors, while those coming to the court cannot see the guards inside.

“It is the responsibility of county administration to help ensure the safety and security of Gila County employees while they are working in their assigned capacities,” said Menlove. “We also have a responsibility to safeguard the public that come to do business in a county facility.”

At Payson Town Council meetings, “the mayor requested additional security at council meetings,” said Police Chief Ron Tischer.

“When there are contentious or potentially contentious topics being discussed and/or voted on we will have additional security,” said Tischer. “It’s a matter of keeping the council and the public safe.”

During recent council meetings, where top town staff have been fired or retired and other hot topics have come up, there have been more Payson police. Officers removed one audience member who displayed a sign. Tischer believes, “there will be uniformed officers at the meetings until which point they are not needed.”

The chief attends every town council meeting and could provide security, but the design of the room poses challenges.

“Because of the layout of the council chambers it is nearly impossible for one person to observe everything that is going on, so that is another one of the reasons for additional officers at the meetings,” said Tischer.

Bringing in reinforcements isn’t new to Tischer. At his previous job in Wisconsin, “it wasn’t the norm,” except when “the bigger the issue the more people attended the meetings, requiring more officers to attend.”

Like the county, it’s all in the name of safety.

“Security of the employees and public is something we take very seriously and will always be a concern,” said Tischer. “We are working on improving our security measures and plans at Town Hall and other town buildings.”

The county will also continue to improve security.

“We are working towards a long-term solution at the southern door of the (Highway 260) facility that will further increase security and accessibility in the future,” said Menlove.

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Transportation board approves $5 million for design of Lion Springs section

After years of lobbying, officials may finally be ready to go forward with widening State Route 260 outside of Star Valley.

The three-mile Lion Springs section has for years plagued local emergency responders who not only respond to fatal and serious crashes in the narrow two-lane corridor every year, but any time an accident occurs, it creates a bottleneck cutting one side of the district off from the other.

While the project has been placed on the Arizona Department of Transportation’s five-year plan before, the board has always pulled it so it could fund other projects around the state.

Project has broad support

Steven Stratton, a member of the Arizona State Transportation Board, said he pushed the board to approve $5 million in funding at its Aug. 16 meeting, which will go toward the design of widening the roadway to four lanes.

The board unanimously approved funding the design portion of the project.

The governor appointed Stratton to the transportation board four years ago. He is the former public works director for Gila County.

After the board recently completed the 2020-2024 facilities construction program and the Lion Springs section was notably absent, Stratton went to work lobbying the board members to consider an amendment to the plan.

“I had requested an amendment to the five-year plan,” he said. “Originally I was trying to get it designed and constructed at the same time, but we settled on getting (the design) into the five-year plan.”

Stratton believes the design portion should take one to two years to complete. After that, the board has not yet allocated the $50 million needed to construct the new roadway.

Stratton believes ADOT will use a combination of state and federal funds for construction.

Stratton said multiple officials spoke out to support funding the Lion Springs section, including members of the Gila County Board of Supervisors and the Payson Town Council.

“It was a very good cooperative effort,” he said.

Neil Bosworth, forest supervisor with the Tonto National Forest, wrote in a June 19 letter to the Arizona’s Programming Decisions Committee that the Forest Service “strongly supports” the widening project.

He said it would improve traveler safety and address increased traffic flows.

“We understand that this project would reach ADOT’s goal of completing a four-lane divided highway along the entire SR 260 corridor and as a result would have a broad positive impact both locally and regionally,” Bosworth wrote.

He noted the project would provide several benefits:

• Improvements would reduce the proliferation of unauthorized roads and trails on the forest by limiting opportunities for errant egress off the highway.

• Improvements would incorporate modern erosion control features.

• The area has a high density of elk and this has resulted in dangerous elk/vehicle collisions. The planned wildlife crossings would be a significant enhancement to public safety and reduce loss of wildlife because of vehicle collisions.

• The project would improve ability for timely access for Forest Service resource protection, including access needs for fire protection and/or suppression.

Besides the improved resource protection, the Forest Service supports this project as SR 260 is a gateway to many high-use recreation sites and activities on both the Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests, he said.

“This project would improve the public’s experience in visiting and/or traveling through federal lands by eliminating traffic delays that occur as SR 260 changes from a four-lane divided highway to a two-lane highway within the Lion Springs project area.

“Additionally, the Lion Springs section of SR 260 would connect two sections of the highway that are currently suitable for bicycle traffic,” he wrote.

Andrea Robles, the executive director of Central Arizona Governments (CAG), wrote a letter to the board supporting the project, saying it would improve traveler safety and allow better response times for first responders.

“CAG strongly supports the completion of the SR 260 Lion Springs four-lane divided highway project and respectfully requests the Arizona State Transportation Board to consider preserving the project within the current five-year construction program,” she wrote.

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