They actually seemed to like and respect each other.
Can this be a political debate?
The five candidates for Payson Town Council last week laughed while answering questions that ranged from the political to visionary during the bipartisan hosted debate at the Payson Church of the Nazarene on June 27.
More than 135 residents filled the church to find out more about chamber of commerce board member Tina McAllister-Smith, retired businessman Steve Otto, dentist Brett Flaherty and incumbents Suzy Tubbs-Avakian and Jim Ferris. On Aug. 2, Payson voters will choose three out of those five. If three don’t get at least 50% of the vote, the top tier will go into a runoff in the November general election.
The debate touched on a wide range of issues, with the candidates listening to one another — responding thoughtfully to the questions and avoiding personal attacks.
Nonetheless, the debate revealed some obvious differences in emphasis and approach.
Ferris, Tubbs-Avakian, and Otto remained sharply critical of current town policies, especially with the power of the town manager, economic development and the town’s future.
Tubbs-Avakian also often expressed criticism of the current town direction and policies, despite her years on the council. She stressed her deep local roots and her involvement with groups like Payson Community Kids.
McAllister-Smith offered fewer criticisms of past policies — but a strong emphasis on bolstering local businesses, shoring up town finances and tackling the shortage of workforce housing.
Flaherty stressed similar issues, with fewer specifics. He proved the genial connector among the candidates — lightening the mood and connecting with his fellow candidates and the audience.
All the candidates acknowledged Payson faces challenges in managing growth — and keeping its distinctive, small-town character.
Fortunately, Payson has one advantage in confronting growth in the form of the C.C. Cragin pipeline — which has essentially doubled the town’s sustainable, long-term water supply in a state increasingly plagued by water shortages.
Unlike areas like Prescott or Sierra Vista, Payson has more than enough water to support its planned build out population of 38,000.
Since the pandemic, urban dwellers have discovered the area and decided it’s the place to move with its mild climate, rodeo culture, and access to nature all just 100 miles from the nation’s fifth largest city.
As a result, the town’s grappling with a housing crisis — short on space for new homes as an influx of new residents drives existing home prices beyond the reach of working-class residents — even teachers and police officers.
Many of the questions focused on the town’s economic future, the housing crisis — and even the controversial idea for the town to grant a monopoly to a single trash company to reduce wear and tear on the streets.
None of the candidates liked that idea — and Flaherty turned it into a quip.
He joked his first vote on council would be to create a monopoly on dentists. That got a laugh, but when he added, “Nah, I couldn’t take care of you all,” he got more laughter.
Two candidates, Tubbs-Avakian and Ferris are seeking re-election after weathering a series of controversies over the last four years, including a big increase in capital spending, a lost lawsuit against the Rim Country Educational Alliance, the closure of Taylor Pool and negotiating the fraught relationship with the MHA Foundation, which is building a community park and wants to partner with the town to build a swimming pool and community center.
Both Tubbs-Avakian and Ferris stressed their love for the community and desire to continue serving.
“I love to serve,” said Ferris. Ferris asked his supporters in the crowd to “vote for the people who will vote for your priorities.”
Tubbs-Avakian said she hopes to serve on the council again because “I love Rim Country.”
She’s lived here since her parents brought her as a baby, then, “I raised my three children here that are all grown.”
She challenged her constituents to not only vote — but show up at town hall.
“We need to see your faces and see your emails, especially at budget time,” said Tubbs-Avakian.
Steve Otto, in Payson since 2011, wants to “get the goalpost set and not have it keep moving” with the town. He used the example of the town dis-inviting the new RIMWAT (Rim Wildfire Awareness Team) to Fourth of July festivities because they did not have the correct liability insurance or paid the fees to set up a table at Green Valley Park. Otto said neither of these things were communicated to RIMWAT until it was too late.
“When I’m councilor, I want to have one set of rules,” he said. “I want the rules on Monday to be the same on Tuesday — and to be the same on Monday as they were on Friday.”
Otto has joined with Ferris and mayoral candidate Doug Laird to campaign together as a block.
Flaherty knew he could pick where he wanted to live, then start a dental practice.
“As we looked at opportunities ... we made it to Payson,” he said.
He and his family love the area, riding their seven horses, hunting and team roping with his four children. He believes he can make the community feel as comfortable and cared for as his patients.
“I know we can make things happen in Payson. That’s why I’m here and running for town council,” he said.
McAllister-Smith started her Payson political career volunteering at the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center six years ago.
“Every Friday I would be there talking to people who were residents or visitors,” she said.
She fell deeper and deeper in love with Payson as she told people about all the places to go and things to do.
“Eventually I became a chamber of commerce member,” she said.
Then she joined the chamber board, and she’s finishing her final term as president.
“I have a servant’s heart,” she said of her drive to help Payson thrive.
“I see all the wonderful things Payson is and what it can be,” she said.
The Roundup will write additional stories about the candidates’ views on streets, workforce housing, economic development and whether to shift power and responsibilities from the town manager to the mayor in future editions.