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Sedona Dark Skies, Part 2: Three Elected Officials Lose Their Jobs

Andante and SR89A Intersection in Sedona Arizona.

From August 2008 until October 2009, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) conducted a study of alternatives for continuous roadway lighting along Highway 89A in West Sedona. Before all was said and done, ADOT identified sixty-eight different alternatives for the City of Sedona to consider. The alternatives included variations such as pole heights, arm lengths, fixture types, lamp wattage, pole spacing, total number of poles, construction costs and annual maintenance costs. All of the alternatives studied by ADOT included dark sky compliant, fully shielded fixtures that supposedly would assure that the lighting would be directed downward and not escape into the night sky.

While the study was in progress, the controversy and debate continued to grow as the opposing sides faced off against each other. The controversy had become very emotionally charged, and as often happens in such situations, the facts were frequently replaced by inaccurate and inflammatory rhetoric to counteract and discredit each side’s position.

During the summer of 2009, with the municipal elections less than a year away, candidates began to emerge to run against the incumbents. Most were opposed to the installation of roadway lighting and instead believed there was a better safety solution. In the fall of 2009, with election rhetoric growing, a new organization showed up on the scene. The organization: “Responsive Sedona Leadership 2010” (RSL) was formed and began looking for candidates to challenge the incumbents who supported roadway lighting and subsequently had fallen out of grace with many citizens who believed that they were out of touch with the wishes of the community.

RSL interviewed potential candidates, and, for candidates to garner its support, they were required to sign a document called “The Principles of Public Service.” If they agreed to sign the document, they were promised campaign support including: media advertisements, campaign “coaching,” fundraising support, and articles for the media that advanced the core philosophies of the organization. Five candidates signed on to the organization, including the incumbent mayor who was running for re-election. The mayor had been only one of two elected officials who had voted against the installation of roadway lighting. The other incumbent elected official who was opposed to roadway lighting was not up for re-election. The other four candidates who signed on to RSL were all opposed to the installation of roadway lighting. So now, there was a slate of candidates with financial support, and other campaign support, running against three incumbents who all had voted in favor of the installation of the roadway lighting.

To make matters worse for City Council members supporting roadway lighting and running for re-election, they had succeeded in getting a measure added to the ballot of the upcoming March 2010 election to change the way the mayor is selected. The mayor is selected by an at-large vote of the people. That is, whichever mayoral candidate gets the most votes, that person becomes mayor. The ballot measure, pushed by the majority of the seated City Council members, would have changed the system whereby the seated City Council members would select the mayor from amongst its existing members. The ballot measure was proposed primarily due to the animosity that existed between the mayor and five of the seated council members over a number of issues, one being the roadway lighting issue. The proposed ballot measure was very unpopular with many members of the community and it re-enforced the belief that the City Council was out of touch with the community.

About this time, in October of 2009, ADOT presented the 68 alternatives to the City Council. Following the presentation by ADOT, the City of Sedona solicited feedback from the community regarding the alternatives, and that feedback was used to narrow the list of 68 alternatives down to three. The three alternatives reflected the public’s interest in lower pole heights, shorter mast arms and decorative dark sky compliant fixtures.

On February 24, 2010, the City Council selected one of the three alternatives and, over the objections of many angry citizens, voted 5-2 to direct ADOT to move forward with the design and construction of the lighting. The mayor and one other council member who had been in opposition to the roadway lighting voted against the decision. This decision sealed the fate of the three members of the City Council who were running for re-election.

In March 2010, less than a month after the City Council’s decision on the lights, the voters went to the polls and elected the entire RSL slate of candidates by a landslide margin of 2 to 1. The proposition to change the way the mayor was selected was defeated by a margin of 80%. The voters had spoken, and had clearly sent a message that it was time for a change. The voters were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the majority of the City Council members, and sent them packing. In addition to the City Council’s decision approving the installation of roadway lighting and its attempt to change the way the mayor was elected, there were other issues that also played a part in outcome of the election. The issues included the community’s concern about the amount of debt that the City incurred, the perception of mismanagement of the city budget, and the City Council’s position on some other key community issues.

The defeated outgoing City Council members’ final act of animosity towards the incoming City Council was to vote to cut the already meager City Council salaries in half. This was done at the last City Council meeting prior to the new council members being sworn in to office.

Shortly after the new City Council was sworn in to office, one of its first acts was to pass a resolution in part stating that it: “strongly opposes the installation of continuous roadway lighting,” and “its firm commitment to utilize all legal, financial, and political means available to prevent such installation.” This resolution initiated an eighteen-month battle between the new City Council and the community that ended in another vote by the citizens that changed the future of Sedona.

To be continued, July 30, 2015. Part 3: The City Council battles with the community to take ownership of the road.

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