After nearly a three-hour executive session Wednesday night, Mayor Ann Thurman announced Duncan will get a new town manager but not why.
According to the agenda, the council was to meet in executive session to evaluate Town Manager John Basteen’s performance “and to receive legal advice pertaining to the performance of the town manager.”
The next item on the agenda was “consideration and possible action with regard to the town manager’s employment.”
When Thurman came out of the meeting, she said, “This has been tabled. No action necessary at this time. Town manager will continue as interim town manager until the hiring of a new manager after which time he will transition to a new position within the town.”
The council set May 25 to discuss how the transition will work.
It’s unclear if Basteen resigned and he declined to comment, noting all of the discussions took place in executive session. State statutes preclude anyone from talking about what is said during those sessions.
Basteen’s future employment with the town was put on the agenda shortly after an accountant from a Gilbert firm hired by the town expressed grave concerns about Duncan’s financial situation. He told council members the town’s financial health has been steadily declining for five years. The town has not been charging enough for water and sewer to cover costs and the town’s savings have been eaten away.
After that meeting, council members Alex Blake, Deborah Mendelsohn and council member Valerie Smith said Basteen’s performance is partially responsible for the dismal financial picture and that they believe there is a lack of transparency and communication from his office. Blake and Mendelsohn went so far as to wonder if the town would have to disincorporate.
According to financial records obtained by The Copper Era under the Arizona Open Records Law, the town’s unrestricted deficit was $168,103 as of June 2015. According to the most recent audit by CPAs Colby and Powell in Gilbert, the town’s unrestricted deficit in June 2020 was $317,254, a nearly 89% increase.
Basteen has said he doesn’t believe Duncan’s financial situation is any different than any other small community.
“The auditors have always given us the the doom and gloom from the time I’ve started with the town,” Basteen said. “It’s a struggle for every small town. We rely on grants. Grants are what pays for some of the stuff. We don’t get any revenues for the streets so we rely on grants.”
He has also said council members have been reluctant to increase fees and they’ve rejected ideas for raising revenue, including Mud Boggs, a recreational marijuana dispensary, chain hotels or businesses. In addition, they have voted to continue paying for town employees’ rising insurance rates, he said.
Many of those at Wednesday night’s meeting supported Basteen, who they described as a selfless public servant who works 24/7 performing tasks no one else can or will do.
Amanda Calloway and Dustie Robinette said they were bothered by negative articles in The Copper Era and questioned whether the Town Council bears some responsibility for the current difficulties. Robinette suggested that if the Town Council had read and followed guidelines printed by the Arizona League of Cities and Towns they wouldn’t have found it necessary to meet Wednesday night.
Others in attendance pointed out that 20 years ago the council obtained an $800,000 USDA loan to install water infrastructure on the south side of the river and the town still owes $585,000 in principal.
It’s not the first time Basteen’s job has been up for debate.
In December 2019, the council met in executive session to “review town manager’s job performance with possible dismissal,” according to the agenda. Although Basteen kept his job, council members began creating performance evaluation procedures but were interrupted by COVID-19.
Further complicating the issue was the decision of the town’s attorney to resign in November, Mendelsohn said. Last month, the council hired the law firm of Pierce Coleman.
Attorney Christina Estes Werther, who joined the firm last year after a nearly six-year tenure as general counsel to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, participated in Wednesday night’s executive session.
In other action Wednesday, the council voted unanimously to take steps toward annexing seven parcels of land, including those owned by the Family Dollar and Dollar General stores. The first step is to meet with Greenlee County Assessor JoJo Cathcart.