On Aug. 12, a Payson resident filed paperwork to launch a recall of Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey, Vice Mayor Janell Sterner and councilors Jim Ferris and Suzy Tubbs-Avakian.
Stan Garner, the widower of Payson Councilor Su Connell, filed the petition paperwork. Garner says he is working with a group of concerned citizens and filed the paperwork on behalf of the group.
To force a special election, the group must gather 770 signatures to recall the mayor and 1,653 for each of the three council members in the next 120 days.
The petition forms detailed grounds for the recall of each council member. The Aug. 8 firing of Town Manager LaRon Garrett figured in all the complaints.
At press time, only the mayor had replied to a request for comment on the recall effort.
Morrissey reiterated what Ferris said when he moved to remove Garrett — the town manager serves at the pleasure of the council and the council no longer was pleased with Garret’s performance — especially after Morrissey heard, “many instances where citizens expressed their unhappiness with Mr. Garrett and their treatment by other staffers.”
Morrissey said he understood that when “LaRon chose to move this issue to a public setting when it was scheduled to be done in private” it “seems to be what triggered the emotional response more than anything.
“I don’t live in a bubble,” said Morrissey. “It is not a secret that some folks have been upset with this last election. However, trying to change the outcome of the election is quite a slap in the face of Payson residents. Who out there thinks they have the right to try and usurp the voters’ will? Apparently, these folks do.”
On each of the recall applications, the committee detailed grounds for the recall.
Regarding Morrissey, the petition stated, “His conduct and decision making have been divisive and have damaged the morale of town staff, town committees and volunteers. Choosing to remove a 25-year employee without cause, or give a reasonable notice, is costing the Town taxpayers many tens of thousands of dollars and potential liability.”
For Tubbs-Avakian, the petition stated, “disregard for ethical decision making hurts economic development, staff retention, and Town morale.”
In Sterner’s case the petition said, “Her actions regarding the former town manager have cost the taxpayers of Payson thousands of dollars and have hurt the morale of our wonderful town staff. The taxpayers deserve a council that works to unite the many different factions of Payson to ensure a better future for us all.”
The recall committee got more specific with Ferris, who moved to remove Garrett. The petition said, “Failing to follow ethical best management practices in removing a 25-year employee without cause and with only a few hours notice has placed an unnecessary financial burden on Town taxpayers. In disregard of the public’s request to know, when pressed for an answer, Councilman Ferris refused to give the reasons for his abrupt actions or even to enumerate a single reason.”
The group has 120 days to gather signatures from registered Payson voters. If the signatures qualify, the town will then hold a special election for Payson voters only, which would probably take place in the spring.
It will take 770 signatures to recall the mayor, but 1,653 for each councilor. That’s because the town’s statute sets the number of signatures according to the last time a council or mayoral race coincided with a general election.
Payson Town Clerk Sylvia Smith said both the Gila County Recorder’s Office and the Town verify the signatures. If enough signatures qualify, only then would the council schedule an election.
In response to the financial concerns of the recall committee, Morrissey said, “Their action to implement a recall effort is what will cost the town thousands of dollars if they are successful in holding a special election.”
Garner has agreed to serve as chair for the recall committee. He did not indicate who was on the committee.
He said this is the first time he has seen a recall effort like this in Payson.
“This is probably the single most diverse group I have been associated with,” he said. “You’ve never seen anything like this, they are very upset.”
The council last week on a 4-3 vote ousted Garrett, giving him until noon the next day to clean out his desk.
Shelly Alderman couldn’t believe her eyes — the wind picked up a bright blue Volkswagen Beetle or “Bug” in the Walgreens parking lot, turned it around and slammed it on its side.
“I was driving (on Highway 87) and going to make a left turn — it was like a sandstorm,” she said.
Her son thought it looked more like a tornado.
Roundup salesperson John Stanton sat right behind Alderman in his car.
“I saw it whipping up, so I closed my window right before it hit,” he said.
Rocks and debris pelted his car as Stanton watched the Bug roll.
Tony Merriman, a warning coordination meteorologist from the Flagstaff office of the National Weather Service, said the event was either a dust devil “minus the dust” or a whirlwind.
Either term means “a small, rapidly rotating wind that is made visible by the dust, dirt or debris it picks up” according to the NWS website.
“These often occur on warm, sunny days when the low-levels of the atmosphere are unstable (meaning air rises) and there’s enough spin in the low-levels to organize a whirlwind,” said Merriman.
The thermometer passed 90 degrees on Monday, Aug. 12.
The owner of the fully restored 1963 Bug, Brian Goble, was not in the car at the time.
Instead, he heard an announcement over the intercom inside Walgreens.
“I was in the store getting photos done when I heard, ‘There’s a blue VW in the parking lot that has flipped.’ Instead of flipped, I heard slipped and thought, ‘How could it? I put on the parking brake and left it in gear,” said Goble.
When he got to the parking lot, neither he nor the police could believe wind had flipped the car.
“The first officer on scene told me, ‘No, that couldn’t happen, this is what must have happened,’” said Goble.
Alderman reported what she saw, and both men had to agree the accident was “an act of God,” said Goble.
As police and firefighters worked to right the vehicle — Goble says it weighs 1,630 pounds — he explained how much time and money he had put into the car.
“When I was 17, I built a hotrod Bug and wanted to do it again,” he said. “I put $22,000 and three years into this car.”
The car originally came to Payson in 1966 with its second owner. Goble bought the car in 2014 and like most remodels found problem after problem after he opened up the car.
“I learned it had rolled in a crash,” he said. “When my buddy heard about the wind flipping it, he said, ‘That car likes to stay on its side.’”
Goble said only a tow company could get the car out of the parking lot, as he was unable to open the front door because a piece of the handle was broken.
Other damages included a blown out back window, bent tail pipes, damaged fender, cracked side window and lots of scratches.
Goble said he will refurbish the car.
First, the good news.
Payson schools picked up an extra 141 students this year — the first increase in years of steady decline. School officials say the roughly 5 percent increase could bring an additional $700,000 in state funding if enrollment doesn’t fall in the next 90 days.
And now the bad news.
The district’s suddenly bulging at the seams in some grade levels and doesn’t have enough teachers — which means class sizes will swell beyond more than 30 per classroom in many grades.
The Payson School Board received the news with a mixture of joy and anxiety at the Monday night meeting.
The board quickly authorized the district to hire three more teachers and a teacher’s aide to cope with the influx of students, although most teachers weeks ago accepted contracts throughout the state. If the district can find those teachers and aides, it would use about $241,000 of the projected $700,000 windfall from the rise in enrollment.
“It’s going to be a challenge to find quality teachers at this time of year,” especially in the light of a worsening, statewide teacher shortage, said Superintendent Stan Rentz. “We don’t want to just hire warm bodies — but I would like to see what’s out there.”
Even with those new teachers, class sizes in many cases will swell above the targeted ranges — in a state that already has on average the largest class sizes in the nation.
“I’m happy to see the big numbers,” said board president Barbara Underwood, “but I also want to make sure that we have everything we need.”
Administrators said they weren’t sure how to account for the increase, after years of decline. Some of the increase might reflect the closure of the small Shelby charter school in Christopher Creek. Some might stem from the return of some home-schooled students. But the rise most likely stems largely from the improving Rim Country economy.
The enrollment increase will affect every campus in the district. Payson Elementary School gained 46; Julia Randall Elementary gained 21; the middle school gained 24; and the high school gained 50.
Rentz proposed hiring one new teacher at each at JRE, RCMS and the high school. However, he recommended hiring a paraprofessional to help in all the classrooms at Payson Elementary School — partly because the campus doesn’t have room to add another classroom.
The surge in enrollment represents a sharp turnaround from the past several years, during which enrollment has fallen by 20 to 50 students almost every fall. The district now for the first time will benefit from the state’s shift to current-year funding, which means state payments to districts fluctuates with the enrollment. This benefits growing districts and charters, but has inflicted financial pain on districts with shrinking enrollment — like Payson has been for most of the past decade.
During the recession, the district locked itself into a system that requires students to move from one campus to another every couple of years when it sold Frontier Elementary School to the Payson Christian School. As a result, K-2 students are concentrated at PES, which has barely enough room for all three grade levels. This has forced the district to increase elementary class sizes, despite research showing students do much better in smaller classes at the elementary school level.
Second-grade class sizes will likely grow to about 30, compared to 27 last year and a goal of about 24. Kindergarten class sizes will likely grow to about 22.
“We’re busting at the seams at PES,” said Principal Linda Scoville. “There’s hardly any room for any movement — but the teachers are doing a great job.”
The school is also dealing with the impact of an unusually large number of children with disabilities, many of whom must function in the now-larger class sizes. Administrators hope hiring a paraprofessional to help the teachers will cushion the impact.
Rim Country Middle School Principal Jennifer White commented, “We’d like to try to get a sixth-grade teacher to make classes smaller. We’ve got 35 and 36 per class.”
Middle school is a challenging transition for many students, especially for sixth-graders used to an elementary school setting when they have a single teacher all day long. Many studies show students can develop problems in middle school if they can’t make the shift to having four to six different teachers and so many new faces in class.
Underwood commented, “I just want to make sure if we need another aide or whatever to help, that we are asking for what we need here. I heard there are issues because we have so many kids.”
A plan to improve the American Gulch could finally come to fruition with the proposed donation of key parcels of land off Main Street.
Olive Henry Matus, 92, a resident of Rim Country since 1954, and her family, have agreed to explore donating land for the purpose of creating a “water theme” on Main Street.
The family would like the town to create a water feature in the mostly dry gulch, which now handles seasonal flooding. They hope that creating a linear park along the gulch would become a major tourist draw.
Various officials and developers have suggested letting water flow down the gulch, either with a recirculating system that could also handle floodwater or with a system to release C.C. Cragin water into the water table through a recharge feature.
The family is working to convince other landowners to join in their dream.
Matus’ daughter Lynnie Raichert and developer Bob DeBella have agreed to spearhead the project for the family.
“Our roots run deep here, we aren’t arriving to change the town and leave. We’d like it to grow and thrive abundantly,” said Raichert.
Years ago, developer Hallie Overman-Jackman proposed something similar further down the waterway, but that project got pulled under by the riptide of the recession.
Matus and Raichert joined with DeBella to pitch the development of multi-storied housing on land they would keep along the gulch to the Payson Town Council during its Aug. 8 meeting.
If the town can find money to develop a water feature, it would both provide a tourist draw and solve flood control problems for land owners along Main Street. Such a project could ultimately connect to the Green Valley Lakes, which resulted from another visionary project Payson undertook years ago.
“It was a long time coming,” said Raichert. “Mom is 92 now and lives on the (Green Valley) lake in Woodland Meadows ... water is such a big deal ... we need to perfect Main Street with a water theme because it took a long time to get the water (from C.C. Cragin).”
The family’s property runs roughly between Main Street and West Aero Drive. It backs up to McLane Road. A third piece, owned by the Messinger family, sits behind the old Mogollon Moose Bakery on Main Street.
During significant rainstorms, these properties turn into lakes, making building virtually impossible — unless the flood plain could be engineered to manage the water.
“That land at this moment is considered a flood plain,” said Councilor Steve Smith. “By re-channeling the gulch, we could reduce the flood plain.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did something similar on a much larger scale when it turned a flood plain into the Indian Bend wash project in Scottsdale, now a chain of parks and golf courses and one of the booming tourist town’s main amenities.
DeBella laid out the vision for the property after getting the flood plain under control.
“We would like to retain some of that land for multi-family use — to make that area more lively,” he said. “If someone looks at it and is impressed with beautiful landscaping and ... have a corridor with walking trails ... I think the project would be a benefit for everyone.”
The vision captured Councilor Jim Ferris’ attention.
“I would be really excited about this,” he said. “If there’s some dredging out, there could be property that could be taken out of the flood plain and more. If we could have a water feature, it would be a big benefit to develop Main Street.”
Mayor Tom Morrissey said, “You can build something that is reasonably priced.”
Raichert said everything is very preliminary on the gulch project.
Her family recently transferred ownership of the Doll Baby Ranch to the Tonto National Forest and land in Christopher Creek to a local church.
“We are hoping to do whatever the town supports us doing,” said Raichert. “So we’re hoping to get a proposal from the town.”
Councilor Barbara Underwood expressed gratitude to the group.
“Thank you Lynnie and Bob and the family. This is that missing piece of the puzzle to make that gulch beautiful.”
The Matuses opened the Creekside Restaurant in the 1970s in Christopher Creek and Matus’ brother, Rich Henry, managed the Payson Airport for many years and founded the Crosswinds Restaurant.
Environmentalists, politicians, bureaucrats and foresters alike maintain that a properly reinvented timber industry can save us before we all burn down.
But it’s complicated.
Just ask Allen Reidhead — whose family has operated sawmills in Arizona for six generations, one of the key speakers at a recent forest health conference in Payson.
“It’s not just you — or me — that’s going to make the difference, but the community coming together so we can protect ourselves and protect towns like Payson or Show Low. We’re just one match, one lightning strike away from being lost. What do the powers-that-be really want? Do you want to save that watershed? But what are you willing to do?”
And maybe also talk to Brad Worsley, trying to save the only biomass-burning power plant in Arizona — which holds the economic key to forest thinning efforts across a vast swath of unhealthy, overcrowded, wildfire-prone land in northern Arizona.
“We’ve burned to the ground one-quarter of our national forest in just 20 years. That’s not sustainable. I can’t imagine any business that could see this kind of catastrophic failure in its execution and not recognize we’re in a dramatic state of emergency,” said the Novo Power chief executive.
He spoke in the shadow of the Arizona Corporation Commission’s recent decision to not require Arizona Public Service to generate some 60 megawatts of power annually from biomass. The decision could force the shutdown of the Novo Power biomass power plant in three years, unless Salt River Project or some other power company pays more for biomass power to save the watershed and reduce the risk of mega-fires.
“On every given acre, half of the biomass has little to no value,” said Worsley. “That kind of mass will bury any business in the forest industry. There’s just not sufficient margin, when you can be out of work for five months (in the winter) and housing drops and wood values plummet. If you want a model that works, you can’t have the albatross of low-value biomass around the neck of an industry that’s struggling to survive.”
The day-long conference mostly focused on what it would take to revive the timber industry and meet the ambitious, 50,000-acre-a-year target set by the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). After eight years and four changes of contractors, 4FRI has thinned only about 15,000 acres. Repeatedly, the small-scale and limited experience of the contractors has been compounded by the lack of a market for the biomass they must remove to restore the forest.
In the same time, the sawmill and the Novo Power biomass power plant they operate have sustained thinning efforts that have cleared more than 70,000 acres. Earlier efforts by the White Mountain Stewardship Project likely saved both Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire.
Reidhead and Worsley both spoke at the Payson forest health conference organized by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension at Gila Community College. They provided a dose of reality when talking about what it will take to reduce tree densities on 4 million acres from 1,000 per acre to 100 per acre.
The two businessmen said those thinning efforts will determine whether Payson, Show Low, Pinetop and Pine go the way of Paradise, Calif. Last year 85 people died when a wildfire burned Paradise to the ground — a catastrophe all the experts predicted would play out some day in the West.
Worsley and Reidhead both rejected the polarizing narrative that blames either the lawsuits of environmentalists or the greed of industry for the plight of the forests today.
Reidhead put the evolution of the forest products industry in Arizona into perspective.
“I’m a sixth-generation forester. Sawmills are kind of in my blood. My first memories are being out in the forest with my dad and the stories he would tell me” about hauling logs with draft horses.
His family started in the business when loggers were cutting down huge, centuries-old ponderosa pines “with a value of $5,000 a load. It was a different dynamic — a lot of little contractors. Like when my grandpa started out, it was just him and his boys — but that operation grew to 30 or 40 employees.”
He remembers the “timber wars” with environmentalists trying to restrict logging and the forest industry still focused on the dwindling number of old-growth trees.
“It started to become one or the other — close the forest, don’t touch it, or we have to make as much money as possible and to do that we have to get the wood out that we can make money on.”
But ultimately, the changes in the forest changed the economics of the forest industry. “We were at the end of the 300- or 400-year life cycle of the big, high-value trees. You’d go back to an area you’d worked and there were just three big trees left — 80 feet tall — 30-inch diameter. One was dead on the ground and the next one was dying, dropping needles. They were getting to where we just didn’t have enough water to support some larger trees — there weren’t any harvestable trees left, so the timber industry had to change.
“After the timber wars and the Endangered Species Act, they saw there was no future in putting millions and millions back into the industry — so every thing closed. We went from hundreds of loads and 350 million board feet to almost zero coming off,” he recalled.
His family moved to the Valley and took up clearing desert land for big subdivisions.
Now, loggers, environmentalists, local officials and the Forest Service all agree on the need for a forest industry that can make a profit on the millions of tons of small trees choking almost every acre of forest — trees from 8 to 18 inches in diameter. Along with those trees comes the brush, branches and debris that make up the biomass — roughly half of the material that needs to be removed.
His family came back to the White Mountains and opened a sawmill, thanks largely to the White Mountain Stewardship Project, which ended up thinning some 50,000 acres in 10 years. In that case, the Forest Service paid about $800 per acre to deal with the biomass and the retooled sawmill turned the small trees into profitable products.
“People started to look at each other and say, ‘I don’t want the forest to burn and you don’t want the forest to burn — so why don’t we come together and do something?’ But one of the hardest challenges is that it’s all government land. Who’s going to risk millions of dollars in a government-operated forest? I’ve talked to people nationwide and they say, you’re crazy. But here’s what makes it happen: We’ve all come together.”
Worsley came to a similar conclusion, seeing the effect that operating a biomass power plant had on thinning efforts in the White Mountains. The group of small companies nurtured by the White Mountain Stewardship Project.
“We need to build an industry that can clear 50,000 acres a year sustainably,” he said.
For now, that means creating a market for biomass power plants — even if the energy costs more than power generated by natural gas.
“If someone had some way to magically turn the biomass into jet fuel or biochar, they would have a wonderful business and be very wealthy — but that’s not how it’s working,” he said.
The first Forest Service phase in 4FRI cleared more than 100,000 acres for thinning, with all the environmental work done in a single, massive effort.
“The expectation was they’d clear 200,000 acres. So far, they’ve cleared 13,000. There isn’t a disposal mechanism for biomass, there just isn’t. So the work has stopped.”
In the same timeframe, the non-4FRI groups in the White Mountains have cleared 150,000 acres, half of it on federal land. “And that’s because there’s a biomass plant here in between Heber and Snowflake.”
The inexorable economics of generating power from biomass means someone must provide a subsidy for biomass to compete with natural gas or solar energy. That subsidy can come in the form of power companies paying more and passing the cost along to customers or federal and state grants.
“This will only happen if there’s the political will to do so. If we don’t, we’ll burn. If we had happen here what happened in Paradise — Arizona could have the solutions in place in 30 days. We know what’s sustainable, what is executable. We need to burn a million green tons of biomass every year.”
Next: Politics and blame-placing play out on a panel of experts
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