Incumbent mayor of tiny Arizona town faces longtime rival

By FELICIA FONSECA
Posted 7/30/20

TUSAYAN (AP) — Along a stretch of highway leading to the Grand Canyon, there’s a hint of an upcoming election: hand-painted signs encourage voters to choose the candidate who says she’ll represent everyone.

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Incumbent mayor of tiny Arizona town faces longtime rival

Posted

TUSAYAN (AP) — Along a stretch of highway leading to the Grand Canyon, there’s a hint of an upcoming election: hand-painted signs encourage voters to choose the candidate who says she’ll represent everyone.

Clarinda Vail is challenging the incumbent Mayor Craig Sanderson to oversee Tusayan — Arizona’s tiniest town near the state’s biggest tourist attraction. About 240 people are registered to vote in Tuesday’s primary that will decide the winner of the nonpartisan race.

Ms. Vail and Mr. Sanderson have sparred for years over plans for a massive development that seeks to capitalize on the millions of people who drive through Tusayan on their way to the Grand Canyon’s more popular South Rim. The timelines for more small-town matters such as housing, internet and a sports complex also have been points of contention.

Hanging over the election is a state attorney general’s investigation of voter registration in Tusayan. A spokeswoman for the office wouldn’t elaborate on the scope or timeline.

Ms. Vail said she asked for the investigation after seeing that an employer in town emailed workers to say they could use the business address as their own. Mr. Sanderson said that doesn’t necessarily indicate fraud but doesn’t endorse illegal activity.

Mr. Sanderson has done much of his campaigning online, counting the town’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, internet service for residents and the start of a housing development as accomplishments.

Mr. Sanderson, the chief pilot for Grand Canyon Scenic Airlines, is the second person to be elected mayor of Tusayan. Ms. Vail’s family settled in the region nearly a century ago and manages some of her family’s holdings in town. Whoever wins will serve a two-year term.

Ms. Vail caught the attention of residents when she proposed returning surplus town revenue to residents in the form of an initial $6,000 per-capita payment as an economic boost, then $3,000 annually. Mr. Sanderson called it a bribe, illegal and immoral while also proposing monthly coronavirus-relief payments of $1,000 for those in need. The town’s attorney and a memo Ms. Vail sought from a former state attorney general disagree on whether Ms. Vail’s plan is possible.

Mr. Sanderson moved to Tusayan several years before it became a town in 2010 under a state law that gave communities of at least 500 people who are within 10 miles of a national park or monument the chance to incorporate. Tusayan was the only community eligible.

Incorporation was seen as a way for residents in town to buy or rent homes not owned by their employers. The 144-acre town where hotels, gifts shops and restaurants line the highway has few parcels of private property. Most people lose their housing when they lose their jobs.

Doria Kootswatewa lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her 9-month old son, and her boyfriend and his sister, who both work at a fast-food restaurant. They said they’d like to have more dining options in town, a large laundromat so they don’t have to travel more than an hour to Flagstaff to wash clothes and buy groceries that are more affordable in a bigger city.

“If we decide to stay longer, a bigger house would be better,” Ms. Kootswatewa said.

The housing development in town was made possible by an Italian real estate developer that has eyed growth in Tusayan since the 1980s. Stilo Development Group USA, gave the town two plots of land in exchange for rezoning and annexing Stilo’s properties.

One of the 20-acre plots can’t be developed until Stilo gets approval for an easement from the U.S. Forest Service to access its own property.

An off-grid housing project on the other piece of town-owned has been stalled for more than 18 months because the town didn’t have approval to build in a flood plain. Mr. Sanderson blames Ms. Vail for challenging a town ordinance that made Tusayan its own flood administrator. She contends the town couldn’t be trusted in that position.

Ms. Vail often is seen as the face of opposition in Tusayan although her concerns about Stilo’s development plans are shared widely across the region, including by Grand Canyon National Park, environmentalists and other residents.

Mr. Sanderson accuses Ms. Vail of looking out only for her family’s economic well-being as one of the few landowners in town and being afraid of the competition more development would bring. He said Ms. Vail has stymied progress.

“I don’t look at the short view, I look at how to change things over the course of history,” he said.

Ms. Vail said her outspoken nature isn’t about competition — it’s about making sure the town’s actions reflect the residents’ needs and revenue is spent wisely. She said Mr. Sanderson and the town appease corporate interests.

“If we’re going to argue or disagree all the time, you still have to have important conversations,” she said.

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