Sedona Elections: The following is a Sedona.biz interview with Sedona City Council candidate Melissa Dunn. All candidates have been invited to share their platforms with Sedona.biz by answering election-specific questions. The following are the questions and responses.
What office are you running for?
I am running for a seat on the Sedona City Council.
Why are you running?
I am running because I love Sedona. I love the people, the red rocks, the art, the music, the quirky vibe, all of it. I am a problem-solver. Solving problems to help people accomplish their goals is what I have done for over 30 years in the technology realm. I would like to be able to do the same thing for our community. I believe we can achieve the vision for Sedona created in the last Community plan for a connected green and sustainable community. I have the skills, commitment and experience in problem solving to get us there.
How long have you lived in Sedona?
My husband George and I bought our home over 13 years ago. Since we both work in the tech industry, we didn’t have an opportunity to live here full time until the remote work phenomenon brought about by Covid. We have now lived here permanently for over a year.
When did you decide to get involved politically?
It wasn’t until March of this year that I decided to run for City Council.
When George and I came back from working in the UK, it had been two years due to Covid lockdowns. We were appalled at the transformation of the red rocks around us into a theme park, with little to no consideration not only for the rocks, but also for those of us who live here every day and call Sedona “home.”
The more I learn and the more feedback I receive from fellow residents, the more I understood how far we are from the vision of Sedona being a wonderful place to live, and a town that welcomes tourists who want to revel in the spaces of solitude and natural wonders.
The issues we have around adventure tourism, short term rentals v workforce housing, ATV destruction, and traffic, are complicated because they extend beyond the boundaries of Sedona to the State Legislature, USFS policies, ADOT and large well-funded industries. Solving these issues requires a long-term, well thought out vision supported by a roadmap of short-term measurable goals to get us to the desired result.
What do you believe are your qualifications for office?
I’m well-educated (two master’s degrees, one ABD) with focus on human behaviors.
I’m well-traveled having visited all 50 states and over 20 countries world-wide.
I have had an extensive career in technology (Microsoft, Amazon, Sears Digital, Sainsbury Argos in the UK) leading teams and building solutions to everyday problems for people and businesses (including 36 patents for Microsoft)
I have led large teams focusing on understanding and solving consumer (and therefore business) problems (see https://www.linkedin.com/in/melissa-d-5b106a5/ for full academic and career profile)
We need to know where we want to go, where we are now and what incremental steps we need to take to get to our destination – always checking and measuring our results against our goals and checking our goals as Sedona and the world around us change.
What have you accomplished in serving the community?
I haven’t lived here full-time long enough to have accomplished anything of note. I have joined Sedona Residents Unite and participated in their educational protests around ATV usage in the national forest. I have also participated in researching other Sedona issues as part of their projects.
I have joined the Keep Sedona Beautiful group and am still working to discover how I can best help with their projects.
I have asked to participate in any citizen engagement opportunities but due to workforce issues in that department, I am still waiting to be contacted.
I have been asked to sit on the newly formed Citizens Advisory group for the airport. I will accept of course as I hope to understand and represent the Sedona resident issues on the CAG.
What do you think is better? Electing people who have served for years in office, committees, etc.? Or electing a candidate that may be politically inexperienced but brings new ideas to the table?
I do not think either is “better.” The best candidates are those who ask challenging questions, solicit feedback from the community as a whole and not necessarily just the “loudest voices,” are willing to research the issues on their own and not simply accept what is handed to them and are willing to both stand their ground when they believe the answer presented is not necessarily the only or the best solution and to be open minded enough to admit when they might be wrong or have not understood all perspectives. Being well-informed and well-considered and knowing the difference is more important than length of time in service. Diversity of backgrounds and experiences brings about diversity in ideas and therefore innovation.
What are the main challenges you see Sedona facing and how would you address them? Please include the issue of homelessness and panhandling at shopping centers, etc.
Most of the issues facing our community result from an imbalance in the three vectors of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental. A vibrant community needs to have a strong diversified economy to support the programs required to maintain a healthy and growing community, as well as to protect the environment in which the community resides. I believe we have over focused on the economic ledger without diversification to the detriment of both the social and environmental aspects of sustainability.
Note that our community is not growing, it is contracting. Our community does not have what it needs to provide residents with a sense of community and well-being. This comes partly from the loss of single-family homes to short term rentals and partly to the focus the city has been taking on providing for tourism first without considering the impact on those of us who live here.
The environment around us suffers from not only the global issues of warming through greenhouse gases causing hotter temperatures, a drop in the aquafer and other water sources, but also pollution increases in PM2.5 and PM10 from enormous amounts of traffic, often stalled, and ATV “fugitive dust” and a wildfire season that no longer exists as a “season”. The high desert microbiome and even our riparian environment, which depends on the Verde River and Oak Creek, are in danger, not just from climate change but also over building and overuse. We must also remember that Sedona is surrounded by large rock formations that help hold the heat and pollution.
Within the social sustainability ledger, we have both pan handlers and the homeless. These are not necessarily synonymous. There are homeless within our community who are now living out of vehicles illegally parked overnight or out in the forest with no facilities, but they are not jobless. These are people who simply can no longer afford or cannot find places to live within Sedona but want to be closer to where they work due to the costs of commuting.
Panhandlers and buskers, as has been pointed out by other candidates, may make us feel uncomfortable, but there are no ordinances or laws prohibiting their behavior when non-aggressive or on private property as trespass. There are quite a few charities offering support for these individuals, but first they must choose to use them and second, there must be sufficient funding and availability to support the growing numbers of homeless and panhandlers.
Are Short Term Rentals (Airbnb type rentals) beneficial or detrimental to the community? Should they be licensed, limited or eliminated? As a member of the city council how would you address the issue?
Approximately 14% of housing in the Sedona area is now short-term or vacation rentals. These are typically lower priced homes in older areas or in the counties where there are no pre-existing deed restrictions of HOA limiting rentals to 30 days or more. Because of the types of houses going into short-term rentals, we are all aware there is a shortage or homes for purchase or long-term rent within the price range of both critical and essential workforce. For
critical workers, like police, healthcare, and teachers, this may lead to high turnover rates as those jobs are desirable across the country in communities that may not only pay better, but also allow for critical workers to live where they work. For essential workers, who staff businesses within the community, the commute costs in time and dollars may well lead to shortages of personnel causing reductions in the numbers of people served or hours open for many local businesses.
Since short-term rentals are treated as residences, like your home or mine, there is no ordinance or law limiting the number of people who can live there, adding community shortages in food, parking, and the ability to enjoy the local community to the imbalance on the social ledger. Increased traffic not only impacts the residents who simply want to live their daily lives, but also increases environmental pollution and decreases fire evacuation safety. And water usage increases, including installation of pools to charge higher rental fees, contributes to our issues around the availability of clean water.
As a member of council, I would continue to support the use of lobbyists at the state level to improve STR legislation, but I would also encourage the council to look at other means of applying social media pressure on both our legislature and the industry itself to make the use of STRs sustainable for the environment and positive for the community.
Finally, working on the resulting issues around critical and essential workforce housing and the impact of living further and further distances from their place or work, is important too and there are mitigations available if we are willing to be creative.
Do you support the city’s current SIM (Sedona in Motion) initiatives and plans for infrastructure improvements? Why or why not?
I certainly support the sentiment behind the overall project. However, shifting traffic with street extensions and round-abouts does not solve the problems caused by the volume of increased visitor traffic. To reduce traffic, you must remove vehicles from the roads. I am not convinced adding more parking lots in sensitive areas like uptown and the center of Sedona in posse ground help the community or the environment. I am concerned about the effectiveness of many of the projects, including the multi-use pathways, because I do not see the baseline numbers meant to be impacted nor the resulting numbers showing effectiveness. None of these projects appear to be associated with smart goals. At least not at any obvious level I can find. Improving transit and making it accessible to the entire community, reducing parking issues in favor of the community, providing alternative means of transportation by foot or pedal are all laudable goals. I just am not convinced we are achieving them nor that we are necessarily executing them in a way that benefits residents.
What should the city do to address the issue of affordable housing, especially for people working in businesses in Sedona?
I understand the focus of your audience is the business community, but there are two categories of workers impacted by the lack of affordable housing, whether for purchase or long-term rental: essential and critical workers. Critical workers are individuals who provide services promoting the health and safety of the community in which they serve. This group includes police, teachers, healthcare workers, etc.
Essential workers are individuals who provide services that support local businesses, such as individuals working in restaurants, groceries, hotels, etc.
We might consider different approaches based upon the differences in the services provided, even though both groups are important to the community. For instance, the city might provide transportation targeted to essential workers using one of the shuttles on a fixed route basis. This service might be subsidized by both business and the city to make the cost of traveling to Sedona more affordable though it does not reduce the travel time. Many people choose not to use public transportation for fear they might need to leave work early to tend to a family situation. This needs to be addressed in any transportation scheme, otherwise workers will eventually look for positions closer to where they live. In the case of critical workers with high demand for their skills and training, they will simply leave the area.
Workforce housing subsidies are already in play with Sunset Lofts. Prioritizing this small amount of housing by workforce category makes sense if we want to attract and retain critical workers.
As new businesses come into the community, they could include workforce housing as part of the architectural design even through something as simple as apartments above the business.
Finally, the business community and the city could pool funds to purchase land and build a joint housing community wherein tenants must work somewhere within the city limits to maintain rental requirements.
What is the role of the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau in the community?
The Chamber of Commerce typically functions as a fraternal order of businesses within a community. The Chamber works towards the promotion of economic growth for its members and the community in which those businesses are located. The Sedona Chamber performs this function well. The Chamber underlies the economic sustainability pillar of the city. However, tourism impacts all the sustainability pillars, not just the economy, and should be a critical part of the city sustainability program. I would, therefore, suggest moving the Tourism Bureau to be part of the city as is done in Prescott and Flagstaff and ask the Chamber to help us diversify our business community to provide a measure of resilience by not relying solely on tourism as our economic engine.
Sedona’s economy is primarily based on tourism. How should it be managed to benefit both residents and visitors?
Sedona’s tourism push focused on adventure tourism, which has little to no regard for either the natural or social environment in which it takes place. I would suggest we refocus our tourism to eco-tourism.
The overarching goal of eco-tourism is to create experiences benefiting everyone equally, not just the tourist and businesses; and its principals are to minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts on the environment and the people who live there. Eco-tourism is designed to build environmental and cultural awareness and respect, while providing positive experiences for both visitors and hosts and provide direct financial benefits for conservation. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it is in line with much of the thinking expressed in the last community plan.
Further, as mentioned earlier, we should look to diversify our economy beyond tourism. For example, we should investigate what it would take, beyond higher speed and more reliable internet, to attract technology companies which will not only support other local businesses through local employees who can afford to live here, but also bring in funds via conferences and attract satellite companies with whom they do business.
What approach can the city take in mitigating the impact of ATV’s and OHV’s on city streets and forest roads?
There are two aspects to the ATV issues: use on public roads and destruction of the eco-system and wildlife harassment on National Forest land. Changing state law requires us to make a lot of publicly heard noise, beyond letters to specific legislators. Social media pushed to interested news outlets for instance. Of course, we should continue the work with the League of Cities around this issue as well. Disallowing use of public roads, however, will not prevent the destruction of the environment around our community as the ATVs will simply be trailered in and deployed from trailheads or USFS owned parking lots.
Polaris, which provides the bulk of ATV inventory in the area, released its first line of electric Rangers this year and we should work with Polaris and local rental companies to replace the current stock with these electric vehicles quickly. This will not only reduce the noise pollution levels, but also reduce the emission pollutants. This will not resolve traffic safety issues of ATV drivers not using hand signals when turning or changing lanes unless Polaris also equips the vehicles with indicators.
Reducing the number of rentals from within Sedona or disallowing the use of public roads will not solve for the destruction of the high desert biome, wildlife habitat and wildlife harassment. If not allowed on paved roads, ATVs will be trailered in to launch sites on USFS land, where there will still be no one around to enforce tread lightly. If rentals are not allowed in Sedona, someone will set up a rental in the county. And many people will still bring their personal ATVs to the Red Rocks. Education and awareness are the two powerful tools we can bring to bear.
We educate when we hold protests or create videos as is being done by Sedona Residents Unite and the Save Bear Mountain group. We should also work with Polaris and the local ATV rental businesses to create a tread lightly video, a link to which is sent as part of a rental or purchase. Or suggest the USFS require a certificate or permit received after watching/reading Tread Lightly and proof the video or article was seen/read. We have also been seeing an increase in roll over and other accidents with ATVs, some fatal. Driving an ATV is not like driving a car. Perhaps some instruction should be mandatory for the health and safety of both the persons in the vehicle and those around them.
To work towards reduction or outright banning of non-guided ATV usage at the USFS level, we need to take the message of environmental destruction beyond Sedona. We need to be heard across the country and at the Federal level. We might consider working with other impacted communities, like Moab, to create a high production value documentary on how the USFS recreational focus on any type and amount of recreation and business greed are destroying sensitive eco-systems and once gone it will take hundreds of years, if ever, to come back. Then we show it everywhere – from the Sedona Film Festival to every other independent film festival, streaming channels, and news sources.
We might also work with large environmental organizations who have strong lobbyists in DC to take up our cause with both the USFS, Department of the Interior (national parks) and Congress.
We should also look to creating an additional city tax on rental vehicles designed to support the maintenance of the paved roads and use some of those funds to help maintain trailhead areas through Friends of The Forest and Stewards of Sedona. And the purchase of PM10/PM2.5 monitoring devices appropriately placed to gather the data needed to prove the use of ATVs either is, or is not, causing an unhealthy air quality issue for Sedona residents.
Do you support the city’s Sustainable Tourism Plan? Why or why not?
All the projects within the four pillars of the Sustainable Tourism Plan are laudable. Once again, we need to make sure each project has a known baseline and a measurable outcome as the goal. We should also continually re-evaluate to ensure we are working on the goals bringing the most value for our community and the environment, including attracting eco-tourists who will value our community in which we live and love, and respect the natural environment as much as we do.
Do you support the city’s Climate Action Plan? Why or why not?
Climate change is a real and we are seeing it in our warming winters and hotter summers, more frequent and intense windstorms, an endless fire season and in the reduction of available water through an increasing period of drought and loss of vegetation. I absolutely support the goals of the city to reduce energy consumption, look to alternative energy sources, reduce waste, and provide spaces for those who need a respite from heat or other weather conditions. I am also
supportive of working with businesses and residents to affect the same changes and behaviors. We should be doing more at a faster pace given rapid changes and issues we are experiencing across the board with decrease in available water, increase in fire potential, increase in all types of air pollution, decreasing fertility of our soil, loss of vegetation due to heat, dust from ATVs and trail overuse.
We should also be mindful of continuing to issue permits that impact our environmental resources such as water and land usages.
Do you oppose or support voter approval of the Alternative Limitation Expenditure (Home Rule) which is also on the ballot for renewal August 2nd. Why or why not?
I support Home Rule. Our community will benefit from the ability of the council to determine our budget and how those funds will be spent. There is no downside to Home Rule with a council that is both fiscally responsible and focused on the complete sustainability of our community. If we believe the budget is focused incorrectly, then we should elect a council whose members we believe are both responsive to concerns and wishes of the community and will manage the city resources responsibly.
There are a few parcels of land remaining in Sedona suited for a high-end resort and/or hotels. Do you believe the city should oppose any being built or permit them to be built with limitations on size, design, etc.?
First, looking at this question from the perspective of environmental and community sustainability and resilience, given the increasing concerns around forest fires, traffic if we need to “go” and the availability of water, I would be hesitant to build more lodging facilities as any design will increase the usage of clean water for guest rooms, laundry, and on property spas, pools, and restaurants. Furthermore, the very act of churning the soil to create the buildings, the buildings themselves and walkways, no matter how permeable, will help destroy the natural health of the land. Any landscaping will require significant additional water for at least a few years for even drought tolerate plants as they get established. Assuming the number of visitors increases to fill the space, another major consideration is the actual location of the resort and its impact on a critical part of the environment, such as potential destruction of our riparian areas around the Verde River and Oak Creek. Especially as Oak Creek is also of historical significance and an area the community plan has specifically called out as a place to be preserved for the community.
Second, looking at this question from the perspective of economic sustainability: To understand whether a new facility is required I would like to know to what capacity the current beds from all available lodging, including short-term rentals are filled throughout an entire year so seasonality is considered. If we have sufficient capacity allowing for a percentage of year-over-year growth in tourism, then I would be reluctant to agree to additional resorts being built.
At the end of the day, however, no amount of bed tax, sales tax or gas tax will replenish our sources of water, clean the air, reduce fire risk, or increase the ease of evacuation if that were necessary. In fact, more resorts work in opposition to all these concerns of and needs for our community.
Where do you see Sedona and the Verde Valley ten years from now?
Where we are ten years from now will depend on what we do today. Will we take action to sustain our resources (water, clean air, vegetation, soil conditions, etc.)? Will we take action to diversify our local economy, so we are not dependent on a single source of revenue? Will we build a diverse community with emphasis on the overall social health and safety of our residents? If the answer to these questions is YES, and we are willing to envision a future in which our community can survive potential ecological disasters, like fire, flood, and damaging wind, then I believe we will find Sedona and the surrounding areas healthy and thriving.
If, however, we are unwilling or too slow to take the actions required to sustain our economy, community, and environment, then we might well be on the path towards being a tourist town with few full-time residents. At least until the devastation to our natural environment and the risk of forest fires leads to this area no longer being of interest to adventure tourists, hikers, or mountain bikers.
Either future is in our hands. We get to make the choices through our votes and our personal actions.
Melissa I really appreciate your commitment to residents and to reducing impacts on the environment. We all love Sedona and don’t want the environment negatively impacted. Water is very important to our community and we have to carefully consider how new development may impact this scarce resource.
I can see your focus on digging in to the local data and finding a solution that works for Sedona. I hope that your campaign is successful!
Melissa – I applaud and agree with your thoughtful comments, in particular as they relate to the city changing its ways regarding traffic “solutions” such as a new parking garage, continuing approval of counter-productive lodging development and re-defining what constitutes sustainable tourism.
The decision of the city to extend, without a vote, a transportation tax that was supposed to be temporary was an egregious, enormous violation of trust.
One issue not introduced by the interviewer, but alluded to in your comment about “workforce issues” in the Citizen Engagement Program, is the ingrained and in-bred low level of performance among the city staff. There are certainly some competent people there, who do good work. However. The current city manager and some key staff members were simply installed in their jobs without benefit of any kind of recruitment or vetting process, with the pandemic used as an excuse. Lots of raises all-around, too. No one on the council questioned this because they were told by the former city manager that they shouldn’t interfere with him in matters of workforce. While it’s true that council members should not get into the weeds regarding personnel matters, and everyone deserves a fair wage, the city council can and very much should examine what is happening at the system level and have every right to demand reasonable, competent performance from city employees. The vetting, hiring and performance problems fostered by the last two city managers (and current manager), which were rubber-stamped by the city council, have resulted in below-average service delivery to residents and a cadre of people in the executive offices who are so steeped in the status quo that they are incapable of even envisioning new solutions to our problems.
This is not to disparage all city employees. But, clearly, there is and has been a problem in city administration for many years, which the city council needs to address.
That’s why Sedona needs change, and we need you! Thank you for running for city council, and, again, thank you for your thoughtful comments. You have my vote.