Jon “JT ” thompson, sedona City council

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Throughout the campaign, I will be writing brief commentaries on matters of current concern once or twice a week. They will appear on this page, with the most recent on top. To have them sent directly to you as soon as they are published, use this SUBSCRIBE button or contact me through regular e-mail or phone.

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  • 8 Jun 2022 11:19 AM | Jon Thompson (Administrator)

    You might have heard that when the update to our Community Plan is drafted a couple years from now, it will be approved or rejected only by City Council, not by a public vote as it has been for decades. And if you found that news upsetting, you might be surprised to learn that your City Council was just as unhappy about it.

    But there's good news on this front. It now appears hopeful that efforts by your City Council, City Attorney, and the League of Arizona Cities and Towns can change state law to allow a public vote after all. The story, even to this point, is not a quick and simple one. But I'm going to tell it for two reasons. First, it's important in this local election season to counter the claim that your current city leadership does not care about the residents. And second, it's an example of how behind-the-scenes work on behalf of residents goes on all the time, even though it can be complicated, time consuming, and resource intensive. So here goes.

    The Problem

    Sometime in the previous millennium, our state government decreed that every city and town larger than 2500 residents must have a General Plan, which it must update every 10 years. They further decreed that cities that had at least 10,000 residents or were growing rapidly had to get approval of their Plan through a public vote. All of that was fine, but the Legislature apparently assumed that cities and towns would always grow, so the decree said nothing about what a city should do if was once larger than 10,000 but lost enough population to fall under that limit.

    Sedona's General Plan (we usually refer to it as our Community Plan) and its updates have always been approved by the residents in a public vote. But the 2020 census revealed that our population had dipped under that 10,000 resident threshold. So, even as our Community Plan Work Group was being formed and began meeting to plan the next update, word began to spread that according to state law, City Council no longer had to submit the plan to the voters, they would just be approving or rejecting the plan themselves.

    The Push Back

    If Sedona were a city where the elected leaders were disrespectful of the public and interested only in securing more power for themselves, this development would have come as very welcome news. No more hassle with an election or educating the voters or even the need for involving the public extensively in developing the Plan. No more worry that what Council approved in draft form might be shot down by the public. In fact, Council could downplay the importance of the Plan, then shape it into whatever form and content they wanted, and finally approve it without regard to any public input at all.

    But the opposite happened. Councilors quickly consulted with the City Attorney, Kurt Christianson (I'm paraphrasing here):
    Q: We can still voluntarily refer approval to a public vote, can't we?
    A: No, the statute does not specifically allow that, so Council must decide.
    Q: But can't we even have an advisory vote of the public, and then Council could approve or reject the Plan according to that vote?
    A: Nope, can't do that either.
    Q: So you're saying that we'd have to change state law? Can we do that?
    A: Well, that's always possible, but because this provision is in the State Constitution, it would likely take a constitutional amendment to change it, and that's a big ask of the Legislature for a procedural matter that affects just Sedona.

    This would have been a convenient place to give up. After all, it wasn't the first time that a state statute had interfered with how Sedona wanted to govern itself (can you say "short-term rentals?"). So Council could have easily thrown up their collective hands, blamed the state for once again causing our grief, and just moved on. After all, the public was only losing a once per decade opportunity to voice their preference, and hey, Council now basically had the power to set the city's long-term direction however they wanted.

    The Long Shot

    The League of Arizona Cities and Towns (LACT) was organized and is funded by the 91 incorporated municipalities, to act essentially as a lobbyist at the State Legislature for their collective interests. Each spring they begin a process of collecting the cities' wants and needs for changes at the Capitol, which then becomes their priority list for advocacy at the following year's legislative session. The Sedona City Council meets in advance of this process to discuss what issues, if any, should be pitched to the LACT for inclusion in their priority list.

    When Council met to consider this in April of this year, we agreed on two new issues to add to the ones already on the LACT's list from prior years. But as the discussion was about to close, Vice Mayor Jablow suggested that maybe we should add an additional request: to ask the Legislature to allow cities and towns under 10,000 to voluntarily refer adoption or rejection of a draft General Plan update to a public vote. Even though every member of Council was already aware that this was going to be a long shot, especially since a constitutional amendment would likely be necessary, there was unanimous consensus that we should try it. That is, we were all in agreement that our Community Plan ought to be up to the residents to decide, and that even a slim chance of restoring that resident authority was better than none. I volunteered to draft the proposal, with Kurt's legal help, because I was the liaison to the LACT policy committee that would be reviewing proposals having to do with elections.

    When that policy committee met in early May, I drove to the LACT office in Phoenix to present the proposal. The committee, which comprised mayors and councilors from several Arizona cities and towns, was sympathetic to our request, but the attorney for the LACT had a different reading than Kurt did of state statutes pertaining to this issue. So the committee deferred approval, asking that the attorneys try to resolve those differences before the next meeting.

    The Twist

    After discussing their legal points of view and exchanging a couple draft wordings, the two attorneys came up with a recommended addition to the relevant statute that covered the request as thoroughly and unambiguously as possible. But their collaboration produced another very interesting angle on the issue as well.

    What they realized was that another state statute had something to say about voter vs. elected official approvals, which had a direct bearing on the situation Sedona was in. This statute says that a vote of the people can be reversed only by another vote of the people, not by a vote of their elected officials. And since a vote by a City Council to adopt or reject a new General Plan update would have the effect of nullifying the existing General Plan, the City Council could not do that if the existing Plan had been approved by the voters.

    I know, that's a mind bender. But simply put, current state statutes have Sedona in a catch-22 (in 2022, no less!). One statute says that we have to update our General Plan every ten years and that, based on our current population, only the City Council can approve or reject a new update. But because our last update was approved by the voters, another statute forbids the City Council from approving or rejecting a new update: only another vote of the public can do that.

    Crazy, right?

    Of course, the irony of this new realization is that Sedona's proposal now is not just a request for some additional authority, which the State Legislature could easily ignore. Instead, the proposal is a way out of a box that current statutes have us in, because the Legislature itself failed to anticipate a potential consequence of their actions. So the urgency of a cure by the Legislature has now been jacked up several notches.

    So Now What?

    At their second and final meeting yesterday, the LACT policy committee heard the solution the lawyers had drafted, and they voted unanimously to recommend approval of our proposed change. This means it will be forwarded to a committee of mayors at the annual LACT convention in September. This committee of mayors reviews all the recommended proposals from the various LACT policy committees and is the final say on what actions the LACT will advocate for on our behalf. Mayor Sandy will be there to summarize the need for approval of our proposal and answer any questions. Acceptance is likely.

    Then the work begins of translating the proposal into a formal Bill, working out any issues the Legislature's attorney might have with its wording, finding state senators and representatives to sponsor it, educating the members of both houses on the necessity of it's passage, and following it through the legislative process to ensure that it doesn't get stuck in committee or lost in the shuffle. That work falls to the LACT, as well as to our City Attorney Kurt Christianson and our Deputy City Manager Joanne Keene, who carefully monitor and report to Council regularly on all bills of interest to us during each legislative session.

    Is There a Moral to This Story?

    If there is a moral, we might have to wait for it until the story ends. Because even though it looks like the chances of a positive outcome are good, "there's many a slip from the cup to the lip."

    But morals aside, I hope the story has illustrated well the two objectives that I set at the beginning. First, to demonstrate that your current City Council and city staff, contrary to what you may hear from some candidates during this campaign season, are deeply resident-focused. If we won't give up on trying to win back your ability to vote on the Community Plan update, even though it means more work and the loss of our own authority, how can anyone possibly believe that we aren't working even harder to solve the immediate and long-term issues that are front-of-mind for residents? And second, even relatively "minor" work like this is often complex, time consuming, and resource intensive. So much of it goes on out of public view, daily and unappreciated, but rarely if ever followed by complaint.

    When we have the chance to pick our leaders every two years, I hope we all will evaluate the choices based on how well they can emulate the positive and determined work ethic that has helped make our city the envy of so many others and can lead us through our current challenges to even greater success in the future.

    Photo by Manny Becerra on Unsplash.

  • 1 Jun 2022 3:34 PM | Jon Thompson (Administrator)

    If you subscribe to the weekly summary of Sedona.biz news and articles that gets emailed on Mondays, you'll probably see this notice of my interview eventually anyway. But it's up on the site now, along with those of most of the other Council candidates, so I thought I'd give you a heads up. There are links to at least four of them on the home page at the moment (you'll have to use the search to read Pete Furman's interview, which he submitted well before the deadline). Just a couple quick points . . .

    First, there are Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest buttons at the top of the articles, so you can easily share my interview with your social media contacts. Boy, I would love if you did that!

    Second, the Sedona.biz format allows readers to comment on articles, which obviously has a lot of positive and negative potential. I will do my best to respond with polite and positive responses to any opposing remarks that may appear, but I don't have the budget to hire bots to post unsolicited compliments. (Just kidding about that last part.) So if you read one of my answers that you especially like or want to expand on, it would be awesome if you could join in with a comment posting to extend my interview page with as much positive dialogue as possible.

    I had fun answering Tommy Acosta's questions. There were a lot of them, and with no length limit to the answers, these interviews can take some time to plow through. So don't hesitate to skip around to what you care about most. But do please take a look, and comment and/or post to your social media sites if the spirit moves. Oh, and if it all gets too heavy at any point, I highly recommend a great diversion: John O'Brien's recent article is a hoot of a satire on how to solve our city's problems. That guy is deep (ly wacky)!

  • 28 May 2022 3:27 PM | Jon Thompson (Administrator)

    When I tell people that I am not accepting financial contributions to my campaign, I get a variety of questions, which I'd like to share with you, along with my answers:

    "Don't you want to win?"
    Depends. Are you asking about the Council race or the spending race?

    "Then what am I supposed to do with all this money?"
    Let me make you a list.

    "That's [crazy/stupid/insane]!"
    Uh, that's not a question.

    "How will voters know about you?"
    Yeah, I do think about that. But they won't learn much about me from a yard sign, will they? Look, I've been here 16 years, over 5 of them on Council, and I've done lots of nonprofit volunteer work, too. So if I haven't made a positive impression by now, that's on me. Plus, I made my website SedonaJT.com to reflect who I really am, I'll participate in the candidate forums, and I'll knock on a lot of doors looking for new people to introduce myself to. I'm hoping that covers most of what really matters in a Council campaign.

    "Won't voters think you're overconfident or not serious?"
    I'm confident they won't find anyone more serious than me.

    "If you won't accept donations, what can I do to support you?"
    Sooo glad you asked!

    • Most importantly, make sure you're registered (you can check here), and vote for me either by mail-in ballot or at the polls on August 2nd.
    • Use your social media accounts or email to share this article and my website with another Sedona voter. Or more.
    • If you're reading this on my website, subscribe to get more articles from me during the campaign (one or two a week, max).
    • Email me to say if something you believe about me or my positions particularly resonates with you, and let me know if I can quote you and/or list you as officially endorsing my candidacy.
    Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash.


  • 20 May 2022 10:14 AM | Jon Thompson (Administrator)

    Yesterday City Council and Staff finished the annual two-day work session on the budget for the 2023 Fiscal Year, which begins on July 1st. It involved presentations and budget requests by each of the city's department heads and a detailed analysis by our Director of Finance on revenue predictions, fund balances and reserve requirements, debt management strategies, and timeline projections for all capital improvement projects over the next several years. The interplay of all these factors—and many more—need to be absorbed and translated into priority decisions for managing tens of millions of dollars for the benefit of Sedona's residents well into the future.

    And there's very good news! Sedona's financial situation is extremely strong. Despite significant expenditures on multiple Sedona In Motion projects, the launching of an aggressive transit program, strategic real estate acquisition, facilities expansion and renovation, and many new and expanded programs to benefit residents, our fund balances continue to grow. The attached chart illustrates this and also tracks the steady increase in budgets and actual expenditures through FY21 (final figures for FY22 and projections for FY23 will show significant increases).

    Some figures and decisions of note from the work session:

    • By the end of our current Fiscal Year (June 30) we expect to have excess fund balances totaling $15.6M. That is in addition to $12.2M excess from our previous year, and after setting aside substantial reserves for each fund. As a result, Council is able to allocate most of this $27.8M in ways that will ensure funding for our future capital improvement and transit projects, pay down debt, and bolster our police pension fund.
    • The scheduled construction of the park at the old Ranger Station on Brewer Road has been accelerated substantially. Interior work on the existing buildings will be done this coming year along with finalizing the exterior design, so that construction of the park can be done next year.
    • The budget for small grants to nonprofits for this coming year has been increased from $166,500 to $200,000.
    • Staff positions will be added to the Police Department, Transit Administration, Public Works, Wastewater, Information Technology, and Financial Services, to help our outstanding city staff keep up with the ever increasing demands of our thriving community.
    • The total FY23 budget limit is likely to be about $112M. That is a substantial increase over FY22 but includes significant contingency funds and a $20M authorization for real estate purchases. We will spend much less than that amount, as is the case every year. But this is the right budget limit to provide us with essential flexibility, so we will be prepared to seize opportunities that help us reach our community goals and vision.

    I would love to hear from you if you have specific questions or concerns about any part of the budget or our financial condition.

  • 12 May 2022 2:08 PM | Jon Thompson (Administrator)

    I've been thinking lately about two different ways of presumably saying the same thing. The British tend to say "stand for election" while we Americans are far more likely to say "run for [office]". Now, I don't know that British politics and campaigning is really all that different from what we do here, but those phrases certainly are.

    If we picture a bunch of candidates "running for Council" (or Mayor, Senator, or whatever), we likely get a rough image of a footrace with a prize (the office) at the end. The implied focus is on the prize, and it will be won by the fastest candidate. But conjure up an image of some candidates "standing for election", and the feeling is more about the process (the election), with the candidates just offering themselves to be chosen, rather than performing against each other. "Standing for election" doesn't even imply a campaign at all, whereas "running for [office]" is entirely about the campaign and competition.

    We all know that there will be a lot of "running for [office]" over the next several months. But the end of the "race" will not be a trophy for the candidates who "beat out" their competitors; instead, there will be an election where we, as voters, get to choose who we want to represent us. And when that time comes, what should matter most to us is not how they ran, but how they stand. Do they stand for what's important? Do they have a positive record of service to stand on? And will they stand by us as our peers, stand behind us as our supporters, and stand up for us as our leaders?

    Photo by Phil Scroggs on Unsplash
      

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