Almost 40 years ago to the day, a seemingly small case between two small Arizona communities left a big mark on Arizona law. The attorney, Dudley S. Welker, was largely responsible for the case. He officially announced his retirement this month after more than half a century of practicing law.
“I began representing Thatcher in September 1959, when I got admitted to the bar,” Welker said.
In the spring of 1972, the Arizona Court of Appeals decided a case known as City of Safford vs. Town of Thatcher. Though considered small by most standards, the case filled about four pages in the books. After four decades, however, it’s become one of the most cited cases on annexation law in Arizona, according to Welker.
A graduate fresh out of law school from the University of Arizona, Welker joined longtime Gila Valley lawyer Guy Anderson in Anderson’s law firm. Anderson was already representing Thatcher at that time and passed the Thatcher helm on to Welker.
For the next five decades, Welker continuously represented the town of Thatcher except for the period from 1989 to 1998, when he served as Graham County Superior Court judge. He continued to practice law at the firm of Anderson and Welker, while he and his late wife, Marilyn, owned and operated Consolidated Title Company in Safford from 1972 to 2003. He and Marilyn settled in Thatcher in 1960 and lived there until 2006, when they moved to Tucson.
Prior to attending U of A, Welker became an Eastern Arizona College alumni member shortly after his graduation in 1952. Though he is officially retired this year, he will continue to serve as the president of the EAC Foundation.
“The Valley has totally changed with all the development,” Welker said, referring to the past 50 years. “Thatcher has gone from a sleepy little town to a very vibrant one.”
The likelihood of that future growth prompted Thatcher to take the action that led to the litigation with Safford. In 1971, Thatcher annexed a long, narrow strip of land to the south and east of the town (running along Reay Lane to Daley Estates and then back to Highway 70). The strip, which was about five miles long and 50 feet wide in most places, essentially drew a big loop around 2,180 acres of farmland that weren’t being annexed, according to Welker.
The city of Safford then sued the town of Thatcher, arguing that the annexation was invalid. Safford claimed that the annexation didn’t meet state law requirements and that the land being annexed was “contiguous” to the town. Relying on a 1952 case involving a similar action by the city of Phoenix, the Arizona appellate court quickly rejected Safford’s argument and upheld the annexation.
“We didn’t do that blindly,” Welker said.
Welker knew the annexation was solid because he’d researched the case law and found the little-known, almost-forgotten Phoenix case. Thatcher’s success spawned a string of similar annexations until the State Legislature passed a law clarifying annexation requirements, Welker added.
Following his retirement and the passing of his wife, Marilyn, in 2010, Welker continued to represent the town of Thatcher, driving from his Tucson or Mesa homes for the monthly meetings. Full of history and knowledge, Welker will be truly missed, according to Thatcher Mayor Bob Rivera.
“He was always very helpful and full of insight. Dudley Welker was valuable to everyone in this Valley, not just to Thatcher. He takes along with his retirement all that history,” Rivera said.
“He’s truly been a gem,” Vice-Mayor Bill Mulleneaux said.
Welker said his relationship with town officials has been what he values most, from long-time mayor Nat Hoopes and former manager Herb Winsor to the current council and staff.
“It’s time now to step down,” he said.
Welker is passing along the helm of town attorney to Matt Clifford, who resumed duties at the Thatcher Town Council meeting this month. Clifford also serves as the Safford City Prosecutor.