This is What Bias Looks Like – Roundup Style!
By Jim Ferris – January 30, 2020
Michele Nelson must have attended a totally different Council meeting than I attended on January 15th of this year because her description of the January 15th Council meeting is something completely different from what I experienced. Let’s break down some of her inaccurate and biased statements. All italicized content are the complete statements taken directly out of the Payson Roundup article by Michelle Nelson dated January 21, 2020. The bold type are my comments on her article.
A divided Payson Town Council Wednesday removed all three of the town’s previous appointments to the board of the Rim Country Educational Alliance (SLE), the organization trying to bring a university to Payson.
The organization that has been trying to bring a university to Payson for nearly a decade is the MHA Foundation. The RCEA-SLE does not have the financial resources nor the authorized personnel to affect such an endeavor. Why do you think Kenny Evans and at least one other board member of the MHA or the RCEF are at all RCEA-SLE board meetings? Gary Cordell was being paid over $100K to be the University Coordinator. He’s not on the RCEA-SLE board.
The council majority stopped short of trying to dissolve the SLE after a backstage conference between Mayor Tom Morrissey and the town’s contract attorney.
The so called ‘backstage conference’ had nothing to do with the fact that the Council did not “try to dissolve the SLE”. It was another failed attempt by Michelle to portray the January 15th Council meeting as something that fits the Roundup agenda. Was Michelle part of that conference or privy to what was said? Well, she holds herself out there as knowing what was discussed.
However, Morrissey decided not to have a vote on dissolving the SLE, amidst dense legal arguments that the town couldn’t act without the cooperation of Star Valley. Even then, the state could wind up owning the land rather than Payson.
This is again such a misrepresentation of the events and facts. First, Morrissey expressed no such desire to dissolve the SLE at the Council meeting; and Michelle’s allusions to ‘dense legal arguments that the town couldn’t act without the cooperation of Star Valley’ is flat out false. The disillusionment may not legally take effect until both towns (members) vote for it; however, the Town of Payson can take action to vote on the dissolution of the SLE regardless of what Star Valley does. It’s interesting she used the word ‘dense’. And then her statement about the State possibly ending up owning the land is a statement that I would like to see backed up by and referenced by a credible source. As you may have noticed, the Payson News references and cites its sources to back up its content.
On a 4-3 vote, the council majority removed Jennifer Smith, Rich Richey and Larry Sugarman “for cause.”
The council majority said the SLE hasn’t done enough to benefit the town and keep the council informed on its progress in the past eight years.
“Nothing has been done,” said Vice Mayor Janell Sterner. “(They said) it will provide benefit to the town people, but I’m not seeing it. Besides, the town doesn’t need a university when “we have a community college.”
Michelle’s statement that we dismissed RCEA board members because they have not done enough is just a gross misrepresentation. I presented a statement outlining all the reasons for board members to be dismissed ‘for cause’. Where was she as I read the statement? Why is it so difficult for an ‘investigative reporter’ to retrieve my statement from the town clerk? This paper printed my statement.
However, members of the council minority staunchly defended the volunteer service of the SLE board members.
No one criticized the board’s volunteerism. Volunteerism has nothing to do with the issue at hand, but it does fit their shallow narrative.
Councilor Steve Smith said, “I think that Jennifer Smith, Rich Richy and Larry Sugarman are worthy representatives of Payson and to represent Payson in its best interest.”
They may be worthy, but they and other past board members failed to perform according to the Intergovernmental agreements. I also had issue with the process of their appointments. I had also expressed concern regarding another major issue. Namely, a major conflict of interest in the establishment and operations of the SLE. No mention in the Roundup – not surprised.
The 4-3 vote came after a series of executive sessions, lawsuit threats and confrontations involving the council, SLE and the MHA Foundation.
The MHA Foundation has a $40 million endowment that yearly funds thousands of dollars in programs to benefit the schools, health programs and broadband. To bring an education entity to town, the MHA Foundation has spent more than $12 million on the university property fronting Highway 260 and Mud Springs Road. It’s also trying to attract an elite sports academy prep school, and build playing fields and a community center on a portion of the site.
The issue the Council was engaged in had nothing to do with MHA’s current level of giving; consequently, we may have had a positive effect of preserving and protecting the assets which allows the MHA to be able to give to these causes and organizations. The $40 million mentioned in the Roundup article happens to be there because of the generosity of the citizens of Payson. Those assets wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the selfless giving of money and time of the citizens of Payson. Apparently, the MHA is admitting that they have already spent $12 million of your money; and for what? How have you benefited? The MHA spent this money via the RCEA and the RCEF. And don’t let them tell you that the programs they help fund have anything to do with their chasing after a four-year university. A university would only serve a small percent of the citizens of Payson. I thought we were concerned about quality of life issues for our citizens. Think about what $12 million plus would have been able to do for a great majority of our citizens – a huge boost in our quality of life by having a community/aquatic center and covered Event Center.
Payson and Star Valley formed the SLE almost 10 years ago to buy a 252-acre parcel from the Forest Service and bring a university to town. However, virtually all the money for the project has come from the MHA Foundation and the Rim Country Educational Foundation, which MHA created. The creation of the SLE gave backers tax advantages and insulated the two towns from any financial liability.
I have yet to have someone coherently describe just how the SLE protects Payson from financial liability when I see what’s taking place. The tax advantages are that the SLE pays no Real Estate taxes on the property. Well, who does that benefit? Ultimately, the MHA as revenue from lease payments come back to them through the Rim Country Educational Foundation (RCEF) – their member organization. The Town of Payson does not receive benefit from current or future growth of RE taxes on this property. We just incur the expenses of mitigating negative effects of the MHA/RCEA/RCEF’s developments on the university property.
Each town appoints three representatives to the board from a list provided by the MHA Foundation.
Mayor Tom Morrissey and council member Jim Ferris have both objected to the restrictions on the council’s ability to choose candidates for appointment.
Yes, we object to a process that was set up when Kenny Evans was Mayor and President of the MHA. The cabal orchestrated the whole process knowing the MHA would be controlling the people who were appointed to the SLE. The SLE being the entity that provides the conduit for the MHA vision of developing and leasing all this property. And who benefits from leasing property that is forever free of real estate taxes? It’s not the Town or its citizens. We just provided $40M in risk free money for the MHA to invest for their financial benefit. You will have no say in how the millions of expected future revenue will be used or distributed. They just can’t deal with someone questioning their vision, method, or motives.
Jennifer Smith, whose term was up in December, had already removed herself from consideration as an SLE board candidate during the Dec. 12 council meeting after having been involved in a recall effort against four council members.
So, now they claim Jennifer Smith withdrew herself from consideration as a candidate for the SLE board because she was actively involved in a recall effort against the majority, I assume the ‘majority to be Tom Morrissey, Janell Sterner, Suzy Tubbs-Avakian and Jim Ferris.
The SLE bylaws specify that she will remain on the board until the council approves a new appointment, which it can only do off a list from the MHA Foundation that has at least two names for each vacancy. Now, Richey and Sugarman are in the same position.
The Roundup assumes that being replaced by a new appointee is the same as the Town of Payson voting to dismiss a board member for cause. Who gave Michelle the notion that being dismissed ‘for cause’ does not mean ‘dismissed’ – you are off the board – no longer serving? Why would the Town be required to allow the MHA or the RCEF dictate who is appointed to the SLE board without proper documentation and justification?
the root cause
The Jan. 15 vote was the culmination of weeks of document requests, questions and conferences with lawyers. By Dec. 31, the council had more than 1,600 pages of historical and financial records.
The request for documents by the end of December was not the first and only request. I’m sure you know of government agencies or offices that have turned over (dumped) tens of thousands of requested documents on investigators only for the investigators to discover later that those documents are worthless and irrelevant – Nothing but confetti. An investigative reporter would naturally ask what value and relevancy those documents possess. But we were told that there were 1600 documents – that must surely be sufficient to satisfy anyone’s need. Certainly, all relevant material must be there. I mean, my source said so. Right Michelle? Like the song says, looking for love (facts) in all the wrong places.
Ferris said those documents gave him the “causes” specified in the bylaws of the SLE for removing the three board members.
NOT TRUE. We already had reason ‘for cause’; the lack of any pertinent records only emphasized the reasons given in my statement.
According to the legal definition of “for cause,” an official would have had to do something illegal or against the regulations to justify removal.
On Jan. 15, Ferris’ read a long, legalistic statement justifying the removals, saying, “If the SLE can do whatever it wishes on its property, it can cause adverse effects on the adjacent properties.”
What a gross misrepresentation – enough said. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
The statement also accused the SLE board of functioning without any legal foundation, not reporting to the town council regularly or providing audits.
However, Councilor Smith said he couldn’t follow Ferris’ argument without a copy of the statement so he could read along.
The Roundup is actually looking up the legal definition of ‘for cause’. However, this appears to be the extent of their investigative reporting. When running for the Council, I said I would do my due diligence – not serve the interest of a few.
Smith said he couldn’t figure out from the statement what Ferris felt the SLE board members had done wrong.
I’m so pleased that most all the readers of the Payson News get it. You figured it out. Thank you. And by the way Steve, I didn’t ‘feel’ the SLE board members had done wrong – I documented how the board members did wrong. The truth doesn’t give a hoot what I feel. I try not to feel my way to the truth; I try to truth my way to the proper feel; which is different than ‘feeling’ so strong about something that you must be right.
“You said members were illegitimately placed. I would like to understand the depth of the illegitimacy,” he said.
He asked if Ferris’ use of the term negligent “has specific (meanings) in legal terms.”
Smith said Ferris’ accusations that board members had violated sections of the Arizona Revised Statutes was just an opinion until discussed in a court of law. “(You’re) throwing out these large comments that seem to encompass everything seems to be a mistake,” said Smith.
What if the Roundup gave as much effort and attention to accurately reporting and legitimizing everything that I say in Council meeting, like they do Steve Smith?
Some people have a problem sorting fact and opinion. A little research could help their understanding.
Smith pointed out the town attorney, town council and town manager had all reviewed and approved the meetings in which “this entity was created and operated in the town hall up until 2016,” he said.
Smith argued the volunteer board members had no financial interest in the project and the claim was false and damaging.
To use Steve’s own words: Throwing out these large comments that seem to encompass everything seems to be a mistake; and only your opinion. I have a hard time believing that the Town Attorney and Town Manager were unbiased in all these past transactions. I may be wrong, but I can’t quiet figure out the extreme hysteria when they left the employment of the Town.
At that point, the council voted to go into executive session.
Once they returned, Ferris moved to remove the three board members “for cause.”
Sterner supported the motion. “They are supposed to report back,” but they didn’t, she said.
The SLE has public meetings and until recently, included a Payson council member on its board. Payson Councilor Su Connell served on the SLE board until her death. The MHA Foundation nominated either Councilor Steve Smith or Jennifer Smith to fill that slot and the council chose Jennifer Smith.
Sterner said she remembered former mayor and MHA Foundation President Kenny Evans making a presentation that estimated it would take “18 to 20 years” to recruit a university and build a campus. Payson at one point had an exclusive agreement to negotiate with Arizona State University to build a campus, but the SLE has all but abandoned hope of striking a deal with ASU.
“Many residents say, ‘I’ll be dead before I see a college,’” Sterner said. “Why don’t you open (the SLE board nominations) up to the 15,000 people here?”
In response, Councilors Chris Higgins and Smith praised the volunteers for their time and dedication.
“That was a lot of time and energy and effort that has been put into that board to improve the town and make it better,” said Higgins.
Is Mr. Higgins’ underlined statement fact or opinion?
Councilor Smith said the town should build upon what the SLE already has done. The council could work out any problems, like a lack of audits.
Build on what? What has the SLE accomplished? We have tried to work this out. It has to be a two-way street, and the ball has been in their court for some time. Instead of extending a cooperative hand they have undertaken actions to obscure, obstruct, deny and delay any cooperation with either town.
He (Smith)then made a motion to replace Jennifer off of the list of names MHA Foundation had provided while leaving the other two board members.
His motion went down on a 6-1 vote.
Ferris’ motion to remove all three Payson-appointed board members then passed on a 4-3 vote. Smith, Higgins and Councilor Barbara Underwood voted against the removal.
Morrissey then paused the meeting and left the room to confer with the town’s contract attorney.
When he returned, he said the council would not vote on whether Payson should seek to dissolve the SLE.
The consequences of dissolving the SLE are unclear. Documents provided to the town by the MHA Foundation suggested that Payson could not dissolve the SLE unless Star Valley agreed. In that case, the land could end up in state ownership.
However, even if that happened, the Rim Country Educational Foundation would still have an exclusive, 99-year lease to develop the land.
Why are the consequences of dissolving the SLE a little unclear? Maybe it is because the SLE will not supply the Town with relevant and meaningful documents (financial Statement) as requested. Payson can vote to dissolve the SLE whether or not Star Valley has yet taken that vote itself. If and when both towns vote to dissolve the SLE, it appears that according to the language of the Intergovernmental Agreement, the SLE would then be dissolved. But what about the alleged protection that the SLE gives the Town? As you know, the RCEA-SLE has reacted to the possible dissolution by creating the exclusive 99-year lease to the RCEF. A great move to demonstrate your desire to work with the Town. Remember Steve Smith saying, “The council could work out any problems, like a lack of audits.” How shallow that sounds in the face of what has transpired. I (we) are simply taking steps to protect the Town of Payson from real risks and threats and to preserve community assets for the benefit of all of Payson’s citizens.
The Roundup had continually denied articles and editorials that express a different point of view. Even when I gave a statement in the past, it was misstated and mischaracterized. In this editorial, I have included the entire article from the Roundup. If they want to dissect one of my editorials in their paper, I encourage them to do so. I would welcome a debate on the facts, merits and accuracy of my statements any day. Several times I have publicly put this challenge out there only to hear silence in response.
It has been truly disappointing to see the local print media and other institutions working so feverishly against any effort to discover, expose and honestly report what has and is taking place. It is downright disgusting; and there’s no way to sugarcoat it or wrap some silver lining around it.
I am a little concerned about being a little too sarcastic and cynical, however the level of bias and misrepresentation in the reporting of the Payson Roundup has reached such an incredulous state that it is hard to take them seriously. Because they dismiss reality and truth in their representation of what I say; I will not compromise my integrity in response, but neither will I hold back from boldly expressing what I believe to be the truth.
Oxymoron:Michelle Nelson, Investigative Reporter.