The Payson Town Council on Thursday listened to an impassioned plea from members of the Rim Country Educational Alliance (SLE) board to call off the increasingly bitter fight between the town, the SLE and its backers.
However, the council majority appeared unmoved and at the end of the meeting voted to postpone until Wednesday its scheduled executive session on whether to dismiss the SLE board members and move to dissolve the SLE, which owns the 252-acre university site.
Three members of the SLE board appealed to the council to halt the battle and link arms with the SLE for the good of the community.
“If you take the actions today that you are thinking about taking, you will serve only to discourage good people from ever wanting to do anything good for this town in the future … (and) you will be losing an ally on that board of directors,” said Pastor Rich Richey of the Church of the Nazarene, a member of the SLE board.
SLE chair Jon Cline said, “There is a monetary gain to the town of Payson,” in the success of the SLE. “Instead of working with us, to consider the attempted removal of members from that board is ludicrous.”
At the end of December, the town had received a 46-page document from the Rim Country Educational Foundation, presumably laying out the legal consequences if the town withdraws from the SLE. Sources indicated that the state of Arizona could wind up owning the parcel if Star Valley and Payson dissolve the SLE.
The towns of Payson and Star Valley established the SLE to build a university on a 252-acre Forest Service parcel. The RCEF was in turn established by the MHA Foundation, which has so far invested millions in developing the site. The RCEF provides a list of potential board members to each town. The councils from each town then pick SLE board members off that list.
The council split on a 4-3 vote about whether to give the town staff an extra week to research the legal issues.
“I think we have plenty of time by next Wednesday to take a look at it,” said Councilor Jim Ferris in response to questions by councilors Steve Smith and Chris Higgins about whether the town’s staff would have time to consider the complicated legal issues.
Acting Town Manager Sheila DeSchaaf agreed more time would help, but said the staff works at the direction of the council.
Morrissey, Vice Mayor Janell Sterner, and Councilors Suzy Tubbs-Avakain and Ferris voted for the Wednesday meeting. Councilors Higgins, Steve Smith and Barbara Underwood wanted an extra week.
The deepening dispute between the council majority and the SLE broke out into the open at the Thursday council meeting.
Since last summer, the council has had run-ins with the SLE, the RCEF and the MHA Foundation about everything from board appointments to a raw water pipeline and the source of the money spent to buy the university site.
The conflict grew so heated that members of the organizations have taken part in a council recall effort and the MHA Foundation has filed a potential legal claim against Morrissey and Ferris for statements allegedly damaging to the MHA Foundation and its ability to raise money.
So far, the council has offered no grounds for seeking the removal of the three town-appointed SLE board members.
Those board members Thursday sought some explanation.
“Today I think more of an explanation needs to be presented, other than just cause,” said Larry Sugarman, vice chair of the SLE. “To what end and what agenda?”
Richey told the council, “Somehow I think you may have developed some misguided impressions of the Rim Country Educational Alliance.”
He then appealed for the council to consider the good works of the volunteers who serve on the board. He said the board members would not join an “evil or corrupt” organization.
“Reconsider the path you are on right now,” Richey said. “Bring reconciliation and hope and blessings to all the people of Payson” rather than “tearing down the past.”
He ended by saying he would continue to pray publicly and privately for blessings and wisdom “as you serve the Town of Payson.”
Cline said the SLE has only sought to benefit the community, at no cost to the town.
A member of a pioneering ranch family, he ended by quoting his mother. She often said, “Honey, I seen ’em come, and I’ve seen them go. We’re dealing with people that come here and they want to stir the pot while they’re here ... All we have to do is sit tight, and they’ll go too.”
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