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Analyzing the results of Sedona’s council elections:
Was it really a referendum on ADOT’s Hwy. 179 plan?

Highway was the main reason encumbents lost,
but not the only one

by  Paul  Chevalier

Editor’s Note: Chevalier is the Chairman of Sedona’s Art and Culture Commission. He is a retired Senior Executive of a major retailer where he was responsible for law and personnel. He holds a Degree in Government from Columbia College, a Law Degree from Columbia Law School and Business Degrees from both Columbia and Harvard Business Schools.

What do the Sedona election results mean?

Once every two years, the citizens of Sedona have the opportunity to vote for new City Council members. In the March 2002 election a number of surprising things happened.

First of all, Sedona had a record number of votes cast. In total, 69 percent of registered voters cast votes. This was a huge increase over the prior election. What happened?

One obvious reason for the increase in number of votes cast was the switch to a mail ballot system. This made it more convenient for people to vote. It was an important reason for the increase in voting. But it wasn’t the only reason for the significantly stronger voter turnout.

The Highway 179 controversy played an important role in this election. The winning candidates for the council seats all vigorously opposed ADOT’s 4/5 expansion plan for Highway 179. And each of the winners had significant support from a broad cross section of the community. Citizens made phone calls, sent letters and postcards, gave financial aid, and volunteered significant amounts of their personal time to help get the winners elected.

Each of the winning candidates spent time reaching out to residents who often do not vote and the winners listened to residents’ concerns. The winning candidates took clear positions on the major issues concerning the citizens of Sedona. They promised the citizens that they would take action to address many issues if elected, including protecting the quality of our environment, preserving open space and the overall “look” of Sedona, and supporting greater financial aid to community-based organizations such as the library and the humane society. They also promised to only take actions that are consistent with our community plan, to support the growth and development of arts and culture in our city, and to establish true dialogue between the City Council and the citizens of Sedona.

They gave us hope. Never had we been promised so much. And so the vast majority of us checked off their names on our ballots and we mailed them in.

We waited for the election results and we got them. The three-winning candidates, who all supported a two-lane expansion and opposed a 4/5 lane expansion of Highway 179, won by an almost 2-to-1 margin over the fourth place finisher. Clearly Highway 179 was the major issue.

It was not the only issue. The results of this election showed that the voters were dissatisfied with the City Council incumbents, who were running for reelection, for reasons that go beyond their support of a 4/5 lane Highway 179 expansion. Here is how I arrived at this conclusion.

The two incumbents who ran for reelection finished fifth and sixth in a seven-person race. Sharon Nagy, like the two incumbents running for reelection, supported a 4/5 lane expansion for Highway 179.  Yet, candidate Nagy finished fourth, beating both the incumbents by 119 and 198 votes, respectively. If Highway 179 was the only important issue, then Nagy should have finished behind the incumbents. After all, both of the incumbents had greater name recognition then any of the other candidates, including candidate Nagy. The incumbents’ names and faces were in the news in the past four years much more than any of the other candidates. That should have given the incumbents an edge.

Nevertheless, candidate Nagy beat both incumbents. This would not have happened if the Highway 179 expansion issue was the only important reason that citizens voted the way they did, since Nagy and the incumbents all supported the 4/5 lane expansion.

So for which reasons did our neighbors make their choices?  I was curious and after the election I talked with dozens of citizens and asked them to tell me, without revealing what candidates they voted for, what issues influenced them to vote the way they did.

The most frequently mentioned issues included Highway 179 (no surprise here), protecting our environment, establishing a true dialogue between citizens and the Council, following the Community Plan, and increased city financial aid for community organizations such as the often-mentioned Library and Humane Society.

Important as the Highway 179 expansion issue was, other issues also influenced voters in this election.

Electing city Council members was not the only subject that we voted on in March. This year, the registered voters of Sedona were asked to approve a  proposal to borrow $4.9 million to pay part of the cost of building an indoor recreation center. Seventy-five percent of voters rejected this proposal. That is a huge percentage to oppose a ballot measure supported by a city council.

I wanted to know what caused so many people to oppose this measure. I asked some of the same citizens that I had talked with about the City Council election some questions concerning the Sedona indoor recreation center vote - such as what influenced their vote on the proposed Sedona indoor recreation center? How did they feel about the city spending money in the near future on a less expensive, scaled down indoor recreation center in Sedona? If Sedona builds a smaller indoor recreation     center in the near future what should be the number one activity in it?

I didn’t ask how people voted on the indoor recreation center proposal, but almost everyone I discussed the  balloting with told me that they voted against it. When I asked them why, most people told me that they voted against the recreation center proposal because it would cost much more to operate then the city claimed it would. Many citizens also told me that they were upset that the City Council put the issue on the ballot without investigating the costs of building the center.

The people who told me that they voted for the recreation center stated that the city needs a place for children’s indoor physical activities. One said he believed we should have a place for adults to play basketball indoors.

When I asked my second question, people were pretty cautious. About half of the citizens I talked with thought it might be all right for the city to build a smaller recreation center in the near future provided that it be either financially self-supporting or supported with private donations (no city money), and that the city not borrow any or very much money to build it.

With regard to the third question, almost everyone I talked with said that if Sedona builds an indoor recreation center, as its first priority should be a community pool.

My conclusion from these conversations is that the citizens of Sedona might support a scaled down version of the defeated recreation center, but do not want the city to borrow much money to build it or spend city money to maintain it.

So what should be learned from this vote? There are three simple and obvious lessons: voting by mail does improve the percentage of votes that are cast; the City Council should never put a proposal on the ballot before it has been exhaustively studied; and the vast majority of voters in Sedona support a two-lane Highway 179 (with improvements).

No longer can anyone make a credible sounding argument that the city is split evenly on whether or not Highway 179 should be expanded to 4/5 lanes. No longer can anyone on the City Council, who seeks to represent the will of the majority of the community (which is what a council member is supposed to do) have any justification, as a council member, for supporting a 4/5 lane expansion for Highway 179.

The voters have plainly spoken and every member of the City Council has a responsibility to support the will of the people they were elected to represent. The lesson to be learned by those members of the City Council who have supported the 4/5-lane expansion is that they were out of step with the majority of the voters of Sedona. It is time for them to put aside their personal opinions on how Highway 179 should be expanded, to acknowledge the will of the majority of the citizens of Sedona on this issue, and get in step with it. Council members were elected to represent the majority opinion of the citizens of Sedona.

Democracy is ridiculed when elected officials refuse to support the will of the people they are supposed to represent.

I believe the entire current City Council should, with one voice, now tell ADOT that it accepts the will of the people of Sedona and it will only support a two-lane expansion of Highway 179 with improvements. Council, speak up now and show the people of Sedona that you understand they are your boss.

There is another important lesson to be learned from this election. Promises must be kept. Here I am speaking to the winners. The people who voted for you have great expectations. Many of the people I have talked with believe that you have promised a lot. We gave you our support. We do not want to be disappointed. In June, with like-minded support from two other seated council members, you will form the majority of the council.

We are expecting the new council to hit the ground running and focus on the most important issues.

Reversing ADOT’s direction on highway would be a costly mistake

by Ralph Granchelli

The voice of the people has spoken, resulting in the election of three new city council members and the defeat of the two incumbents, who had aligned themselves with the pro-ADOT 179 agenda.

In an election with numerous highly charged and complex issues on the table, one issue clearly dominated the outcome – the Highway 179 project, which rapidly became the focal point and lightening rod of the 2002 City Council Election.

The election also redefined Sedona city politics, as campaign spending raised to new heights, ushered in by a heavy marketing-based campaign by the Voice of Choice contenders. One may ask, has the voice of the people really spoken or has marketing and advertising spending dictated the outcome? Was the platform really multi-issue as many believed, or merely one issue? How will the newly elected council members address the rest of the complex city issues?

The pragmatic incumbents looked toward the future and supported the ADOT proposal - a visionary, long-term solution to the current and growing problem involving the safe and efficient navigation of Hwy 179.

The newly elected regime will attempt to reverse the decision of the prior city council majority and implement their own agenda of a limited two-lane improvement. If successful, the outcome over the long term will most likely evolve over two steps.

The first will be the limited improvements per the VoC proposal, an admittedly short-term solution. The second step will be the implementation of the original ADOT plan when the limited VoC option fails to meet the long-term requirements.

The net effect of all of this is that taxpayers’ money will pay for this activity and roadwork twice – a repeat of the sewage system debacle.

It now appears that many of those who voted for the new candidates recognized the failure of the VoC plan to meet the safety needs of Sedonans and visitors - but voted for the new regime because of other issues. If you feel this way, call the elected officials directly and reinforce your desire for a safe, effective, long-term solution as provided for us by ADOT engineers, and remind them that the voice of the people will get a chance to speak again.

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