By Henry Twombly, Sedona Resident
(March 28, 2017)
A basic tenet of our democracy is the freedom of speech, where each of us can express our beliefs no matter how varied they may be. And here in Sedona these opinions span the gamut of the spectrum when it comes to city politics. So here’s my take on what’s going on…
There are five major players: the City Council; the Sedona Oak Creek School District (SOCSD); the Sedona Fire District (SFD); the Chamber of Commerce; and the Sedona Red Rock News (SRRN). Behind the curtain as in The Wizard of Oz, the power brokers pulling the strings are these Big Three business groups: tourism; real estate and development; and building/road construction. The agenda of the Five Players and the Big Three is to fully develop and densify Sedona within its confines of being surrounded by a national forest. Their vision is to transform this small-town community into a ritzy tourist paradise that will attract the rich and famous, emulating Palm Springs, CA. Their goal is to make a lot of money and have Sedona serve as a mecca for the arts and arts education, like Sante Fe, NM. The trouble with this agenda and vision is that their greed has short-circuited common sense in what’s logistically possible and has overlooked the wishes and concerns of most residents who are not affiliated with any of these vested interests. Besides a common goal, the Big Three and the Five Players have a common foible: fiscal irresponsibility at the expense of resident taxpayers.
Here are some examples of how the Big Three impact and influence the Five Players. In terms of the City Council, the Chamber has become an arm of city government, where the Council funnels $2 million (including 55% of the bed taxes) through the Chamber, who spends it on destination marketing and questionable “product development.” As evidence that it receives too much money, the Chamber doesn’t know how to spend it all; so it gives $56,000 to the Forest Service for trail maintenance and nearly a million dollars to realtors and contractors for the purchase of a Jordan Road property to be used as a parking lot and staging ground for tours. The legality of such expenditures on product development is being questioned and analyzed as a possible violation of the state’s Gift Clause.
Moreover in the history of the Council there seem to be obvious conflicts of interests. A couple of Councils ago three member of the Council were also members of the Chamber, who didn’t recuse themselves when voting on funds for the Chamber. More recently a former councilor, whose spouse is a realtor, pushed through the Council the purchase of a hard-to-sell, adjacent property for $850,000 when it was only assessed for $780,000. Contractors have also been spouses of councilors. And for whatever reasons the City Council likes to buy up land from realtors and then have contractors build parks and/or new structures. Some examples are: the under-used, million-dollar walkabout/bird sanctuary near the wastewater plant; the skateboard park; the mountain bike park; the Brewer Road historical restoration and park; the yet unused Barbara Abramson (sp?) park; and the nearly-million-dollar elevator next to the uptown Wayside Chapel, etc. All these and other numerous parks for us 10,000 plus residents, whose average age is 58.
In terms of the SOCSD, the construction industry has been the main beneficiary of the 2007 $70-80 million capital projects bond. The 502 high school and junior high students got an extra 750-seat auditorium (SPAC), a STEM lab, and an astro-turf football field. Administrators got a new office building. The old one on Brewer Road was demolished, and the new and improved one was erected on the same site. I can’t remember how the rest of the money was spent, but I do know that the teachers got nothing. I also know that the West Sedona School complex of buildings is the most lavish one I’ve ever seen for a K-6 school; but that was built years ago. The Budget Overrides that have passed – supposedly for maintenance and operations – have gone for some increases in administrators’ salaries and other expenses not stipulated in the Overrides. Moreover SOCSD was not aware of or ignored the declining student population (just over 1,000 now), which resulted in the big brouhaha of whether or not to close the Big Park School. Strictly from a financial solvency perspective, the Board should have closed it, but it lacked the political will to do so. Now they want to increase teachers’ salaries, which I applaud because teachers never get paid enough. These two factors will surely cause SOCSD to raise their mil rate and over time they max it out. Then like the SFD, SOCSD will have to issue their own GO bond to right their financial woes.
In terms of the SFD, realtors and contractors will be the beneficiaries of its probable $15-million GO bond (if it passes in November). As with the SOCSD, the priorities of the SFD seemed to have been skewed, as money was misspent on two $600,000, 10-story fire engines instead of being used to repair the deteriorating stations. Besides refurbishing some, the SFD want to buy land, move and reconstruct another station as well as a temporary office structure. For further details see these earlier articles (please insert links to my previous article and other ones about the SFD.)
In terms of the Chamber of Commerce, this non-profit has become a shadow government that discriminates against non-member businesses and subsidizes members who are not located within the city limits. Their discrimination is reflected in their refusal to have Visitor Center employees/volunteers refer tourists to non-member businesses. It is also reflected in their vision and agenda to target and woo wealthy tourists who will stay in Sedona for at least 2-3 nights. This is a form of socioeconomic discrimination that is arrogant and greedy. For further details see these earlier articles (please insert links to my previous article and other ones about the Chamber.)
In terms of the SRRN, it serves as the mouthpiece for the Big Three and the other Players, always supporting and exhorting their pro-growth agenda and ritzy, elitist vision for Sedona. The paper is one of many in the Verde Valley owned by members of the Sedona 30. Another questionable coincidence is that the spouse of the CEO of the Chamber allegedly is one of those part owners. Because it is understaffed, the SRRN does very little investigative journalism and depends on the Five Players to feed the paper the information that gets used in articles about the Five Players. Thus the Five Players essentially get to shape/spin the context and facts of these articles, as politicians would do with Fake News/propaganda.
As far as I can tell in the interplay of our city politics, there is no organization that advocates for the non-vested residents, who moved to Sedona to enjoy its natural beauty and its small-town character and quality of living that is now deteriorating due to the pro-growth over-development and greed of the vested interests.