KAFF holds mayoral debate as primaries draw near

From left to right: Paul Deasy, Dave Zorn, Jamie Whelan and Charlie Odegaard practice social-distancing while posing for a picture shortly after the debate.

With Coral Evans running for the Arizona House of Representatives, Flagstaff’s three mayoral candidates gathered for a debate at KAFF Country Radio. Jamie Whelan and Charlie Odegaard, who are both local business owners and current councilmembers, joined NAU research analyst Paul Deasy in the event Wednesday evening.

Radio host Dave Zorn formatted the debate, giving each participant three minutes to answer questions, one minute to provide refutations and three minutes for opening and closing statements. The discussions were broadcast live on KAFF News and audio recordings were posted online shortly after the event's conclusion.

While summarizing his goals as a mayoral candidate, Odegaard said he never makes decisions based on political expediency; instead, he acts on good intentions. In terms of making choices and moving Flagstaff forward, Odegaard added that he wants to provide direction for the city’s residents.

“When you ask that person on the street, ‘what do you think of Charlie Odegaard?” [I want the response to be], 'he cares about everybody,'” Odegaard said. “That’s the legacy I would like to leave behind me as a councilmember and going forward as the next mayor of Flagstaff.”

Along with Odegaard, councilmember Whelan accepted her current position in Nov. 2016, and she was selected as vice mayor from 2016 to 2018. While providing her closing remarks, Whelan referenced her leadership experience as president of the board for Mountain Line, a member of the Flagstaff Leadership Alliance and a liaison for the Flagstaff Water Commission, among other engagements.

“Strong communities navigate things together,” Whelan said. “I listen to experts, I bring people together and we solve problems.”

Alternatively, Deasy centered his campaign promise on changing the political landscape and redefining the status quo, asking the debate’s listeners if they are satisfied with the city's ongoing decisions.

Although he acknowledged Whelan and Odegaard’s experience on government committees, Deasy said good leadership is based on results. Flagstaff’s next mayor should set and achieve goals, create positive changes and serve the community, he added, while mentioning his qualifications for the position.

“With family and friends on the frontline of the pandemic seeing what’s really happening, I will bring the courage, communication skills, energy and innovative ideas to face our community’s issues head on and lead us in a new direction,” Deasy said.

A number of specific items were also discussed throughout the evening, particularly housing. The Standard, The Jack and other student-living facilities have generated controversy over recent years, especially over their building height, traffic congestion and land usage.

In order to comply with local regulations and proceed with site plans, some of these housing projects required approval for rezoning by city council. However, before these decisions could be finalized, projects required recommendation from the Planning and Zoning Commission, which serves as an advisory board to navigate this process. By providing more permitting through these commissions, Whelan said housing proposals can be further controlled.

“City council has taken some steps on limiting the type of building and where the building is placed,” Whelan said. “As you can see with the more current amendments, we are looking at a process that will increase permitting.”

One student-oriented apartment complex that led to disputes was Mill Town, which city council approved for rezoning via a 5-2 vote in 2018. Whelan explained how this project created additional funding for the West University Avenue and South Milton Road connective tunnel, which she said made its planned construction more reasonable. Furthermore, Whelan explained that these types of high-occupancy housing developments can protect and preserve other neighborhoods around the city.

In opposition, Deasy said high-rise residential projects obstruct the unique view sheds found throughout Flagstaff, along with changing the perceptions of tourists as they enter city limits.

Regardless of the controversies associated with Mill Town's rezoning, Odegaard said he would still vote in favor of its development — and so did Whelan — while mentioning that Deasy also supported this project a few years ago. To respond, Deasy said he learned more about the situation and discovered that it was not in the best interests of the Flagstaff area.

“When we learn more information, we’re allowed to reconsider what our position was,” Deasy said.

The three candidates also addressed a three-acre parcel located on Schultz Pass, which could serve as another housing development area. Each candidate had a different perspective, with Deasy wanting to leave any decision up to the public, Whelan supporting the site’s settlement and Odegaard advocating for protecting mountain views.

Another reason student-housing complexes are topics of debate is their use of land and resources that could otherwise be directed toward affordable housing units. Considering the high cost-of-living around the Flagstaff area, Whelan said she is devoted to making the city reasonable for everyone.

"We will turn the tide on affordable housing," Whelan said. "We will commit together to increase housing and rental inventory and make all of our value-payment programs sustainable. Everyone has the right to live in Flagstaff."

Despite these disagreements regarding student-housing and rezoning, the whole group supported further development of Flagstaff’s parks and recreational facilities. Whelan specifically said she is looking forward to becoming more of a “tournament town,” which relies on the construction of more courts, pools and other athletic areas.

Similarly, Deasy mentioned that parks and recreation offer a positive return on investment, particularly as these facilities could draw athletes and competitors from around the state. He also said individual sports can experience inequalities — such as softball — and new recreational areas could address unfairness.

Deasy, Odegaard and Whelan also agreed that the minimum wage should increase to $15 per hour, which is already scheduled for Jan. 1, 2021. Although Odegaard originally opposed this plan in 2016, he said now is the time to move forward.

“The people of Flagstaff have spoken on this issue, and now we’re in the midst of COVID,” Odegaard said. “Essential workers here in Flagstaff are the ones who are still working … [and] providing a community benefit.”

Another relevant topic the mayoral candidates approached was the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which sparked protests throughout Flagstaff and around the country. Whelan discussed the importance of the Black-lived experience, along with the opportunity to address and adjust institutions, policies and thinking.

Deasy also advocated for BLM, although he used a more quantitative approach. He explained that 50% of our incarcerated population is Native American, despite only comprising 8.6% of the general population. Black people account for 5% of the jailed population, he added, but only 2.3% of all people in Flagstaff.

While noting that these statistics are helpful, Deasy suggested additional numbers that could be useful, such as who is paying fees, how average length-of-stays vary and why other systems operate more fairly. One example is the police officers in Camden, N.J., who never respond to calls about homeless people, public intoxication or overdoses; they only address criminal cases.

In this regard, social work experts can deal with social issues, while law enforcement officers can handle criminal behaviors. Deasy added that in Flagstaff specifically, the Indigenous population faces unparalleled discrimination.

“I just want to point out that the most disenfranchised people in our community are the Indigenous,” Deasy said. “All I have to say with this is Indigenous Lives Matter.”

Odegaard, who also expressed his support for the BLM movement, said he is hopeful that the community will respond and contribute to these conversations. One topic discussed was the Flagstaff Police Department, which he said receives far less funding than people generally realize.

As for the economy itself, all three candidates emphasized the importance of bringing new companies to the Flagstaff area. Odegaard said he is closely involved with a 30-acre parcel near the airport, and the city recently partnered with a master developer to examine the possibilities for this land.

“I’m looking for engineering firms, medical-related fields and manufacturing,” Odegaard said regarding the parcel. “The City of Flagstaff has to be a player and a forward thinker in driving that.”

Deasy also said diversification of businesses could strengthen the local economy, especially because Flagstaff relies on tourism and education. If city staff can evaluate the economic sectors that are still growing — despite the COVID-19 pandemic — and collaborate both nationally and internationally, then businesses should grow.

While communicating on a global scale is important, Whelan mentioned the Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona (ECoNA), which is a “connector, facilitator and partner” for small businesses and big corporations around northern Arizona. Additionally, she said funding for economic expansion has decreased over the last few decades — and that needs to change.

The two final contenders for Flagstaff’s mayor will be determined during the candidate primary on Aug. 4. After this special election, general voting will conclude in November.