SAFFORD – Scandal is hardly unusual in small towns.
Secrets are hard to keep. Folks get intertwined in business relations, schools and politics.
In Safford, when a former mayor got ticked off at a city official, he knocked on the man’s door and registered his complaint man to man. When the city manager wanted to make a joke during negotiations at the local college, he plopped a pistol on the table and declared, “Where I come from, this is how we negotiate.”
When a feud erupted, it got personal. Such is the melodrama at Safford City Hall.
A blue-collar community of about 9,000 residents next to Mount Graham in the pastoral Gila River Valley. Folks here depend on farming, mining and businesses along Arizona 70.
Rival groups become locked in a power struggle, trading allegations of corruption, campaign violations, intimidation and slander.
An outside businessman arrives with plans for a huge commercial project. The former mayor goes to work for the developer. The current mayor goes to war against the project. And the city ends up facing $14 million in lawsuits and civil claims.
• Van Talley, the ex-mayor, owns a dry-cleaning store. He spent 16 years at city hall before losing in the 2004 election to archrival Ron Green. After leaving office, Talley launched a new career as a real-estate speculator and adviser.
• Green, the mayor, is a mining consultant and owner of a downtown building. In court papers, he is accused of using slander and bully tactics to stop a development that threatened to lure tenants away from his development.
Both men have denied wrongdoing. The supporting cast includes business leaders, a news editor, a city manager who has told others he is a shirttail cousin of legendary politician Huey Long, and a city attorney who claims a distant relation to folk songwriter Woody Guthrie.
Act I: Bad blood
It’s hard to say how this feud got started.
Green looks back nearly two decades to when the city condemned part of his yard for a road-widening project. He fought it, lost and still blames Talley, who was on the city council then.
Green eventually formed an alliance with Ed Zappia, owner of a communications business, who also had a political grievance against Talley. The two set out to replace what they perceived as a good-old-boy crowd running city hall, targeting a city council decision to put Safford’s municipal utilities under control of a private, nonprofit entity known as Gila Resources.
Talley, who declined comment for this article, has argued that the move was legal and in the public interest.
But Green contends the city gave away $80 million in taxpayer assets. He ran against Talley for mayor in 2002, barely losing.
Two years later, Green and Zappia campaigned as part of a reform team. In a record vote, Green defeated Talley; Zappia won a seat. But the newcomers were outnumbered on a seven-member council, and hostilities escalated.
Green and Zappia resorted to publicity.
Act II: Warning letters
All of this evolved at the start of a copper boom. Miners flooded into Safford, filling apartments and trailer parks. Developers bought land for new projects.
Talley was among those looking to capitalize. In 2006, he purchased an old church with then-Vice Mayor J.T. Cotter, who also served as the city’s economic-development liaison. They formed Express Land and Capital LLC, planning to sell the land to a hotel chain. The project needed parking space out front, so they asked the city to give up a section of road in return for property at the rear of the parcel.
In January 2007, Green suggested that the vice mayor and ex-mayor were using political influence to ramrod a deal. “That, to me, is why we politicians get bad reputations,” Green said recently. “I just thought it should have been done more openly.”
Talley’s lawyer answered the initial suggestion with a letter warning the mayor not to defame his client or abuse his power by thwarting private business.
Express Land and Capital eventually obtained city land for parking spaces and sold the church property at a profit of more than $200,000.
Meanwhile, Talley also became involved in a much larger enterprise, headed by John Wilmont, president of Exeter Development Inc. Wilmont wanted to build Safford Commerce Park, a $100 million office and retail complex on 27 acres, the biggest commercial project ever in Safford. Talley signed up as Wilmont’s local consultant for $347,000 in prospective fees, plus a share of profits of up to $2 million.
Act III: Conflicts
Talley alleges that Green tried to sabotage the project because he feared Exeter would woo a key tenant away from his own office complex.
Talley’s lawsuit in Graham County Superior Court says Green violated conflict-of-interest laws, threatened city employees with termination, abused his office and slandered Talley.
The bullying became so intense, according to the suit, that City Manager Long and other city employees sought whistle-blower protection and signed affidavits.
According to legal papers, the economic-development director at one point offered to wear a wire to record Green pressuring him to obstruct Exeter’s project.
Talley’s attorney wrote a second warning letter, demanding that Green cease his “pattern of slander and government by threat and intimidation.” Green read it aloud during a City Council meeting, denying the accusations.
The newly appointed city attorney, Johnny Guthrie, announced that he did not see any conflict of interest for Green. A week later, Guthrie decided Green did have a conflict and should not take part in deliberations about Exeter.
Two weeks after that, Guthrie published a letter in the local newspaper announcing that he reversed again: Green did not have a conflict after all.
Green wrote a separate newspaper article claiming declarations from Long and others contained “outright lies” that were part of an “organized effort to make me look bad and promote someone’s agenda.”
Green insists he had a mayoral duty to challenge “secret meetings” that were designed to benefit Exeter’s project. He claims the developer was seeking special traffic accommodations and wanted the project to include a new police station that would be leased to the city. “I’ve never said there was anything illegal in what they’ve done,” Green said. “But there has been an overriding influence.”
Wilmont, who did not respond to interview requests, terminated Talley’s consulting contract in February and apparently gave up on the project. Then he filed a $12 million claim against Safford.
Talley filed a similar claim against the city for $2.3 million, followed by a suit against Green and Safford seeking damages for defamation and contract interference. Talley says Green falsely accused him of facilitating kickback payments to Cotter for the advancement of Exeter’s project.
All of this played out in Eastern Arizona Courier articles written by Aimee Staten, the managing editor, who worked at Talley’s laundromat years ago. Green acknowledges trying to get Staten fired.
Amid the turmoil, Cotter resigned from the City Council to run for mayor against Green. Zappia did not seek re-election. But he helped develop a cartoon, sent out in a mailer, that depicted Talley as a puppeteer using piles of cash to manipulate city officials at the behest of Wilmont.
Green was re-elected. Talley’s allies no longer had a council majority.
Guthrie suffered a stroke and quit as city attorney. “I felt like I had parachuted blindfolded into a complete mound of political madness,” he said recently. “I’d like to forget that portion of my life. . . . It was the most stress I’ve ever had in any job or anything I’ve ever done.”
Long resigned as city manager. His only comment: “It’s been a beautiful experience. Onward and upward.”
Safford Commerce Park was not built, and Green says the 27 acres is now tangled in a legal dispute.