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Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Augustine Delgadillo, 93, holds a framed letter from his younger brother Angel expressing his thanks for Augustine’s military service during World War II.


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NAU OUTLOOK CONFERENCE
Economists forecast modest Flagstaff growth in 2018

Flagstaff can expect continued modest economic growth in the next year, local economists predicted at the 42nd annual Northern Arizona University Economic Outlook Conference Thursday morning.

Flagstaff experienced a lower rate of job growth than the state's for the year through September 2017: 0.6 percent compared to the state’s 1.25 percent, NAU economist Ron Gunderson said.

“Flagstaff is in for a reasonably good year,” Gunderson said.

However, he added that the threat of increasing the fee to visit the Grand Canyon to $70 per vehicle could deter tourism in northern Arizona, and a shortage of construction workers has created problems for developers.

“Flagstaff should experience growth consistent with the nation’s economy,” Gunderson said.

Nationwide, consumer confidence continues to increase, Gunderson said, approaching the most recent highest point, which was recorded in December 2000.

Gunderson and the other two economists featured in the panel discussion, Dennis Foster and Elliott Pollack, all said the nation is experiencing a slow recovery from the latest economic recession.

“There were a lot of people who were unemployed longer than they had to be because of the crappy recovery,” Pollack said.

Pollack said in Arizona, 88 percent of job creation has happened in the greater Phoenix area, and Arizona ranked 12th in employment growth in 2017, with nearly all counties slowing down in employment growth over the last year.

“Employment growth has been abysmal in this cycle, but that’s true nationally,” he said.

Slow population growth in Arizona has also hindered faster economic recovery, the panelists said.

Pollack said the cost of rent in Arizona is increasing at two-and-a-half times the rate of inflation, meaning there is an imbalance of supply and demand illustrating a need for new multifamily housing.

The effects of the slow growth are particularly noticeable in non-metro areas, he said.

Both Gunderson and Pollack expressed worry about President Donald Trump’s desire to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“If we really want a Depression, we’ll get out of all these trade agreements,” Gunderson said, adding that Mexico is Arizona’s top trade partner.

Pollack said he “certainly wouldn’t fool around with NAFTA,” and said the country should “make it easier to get people with skills into this country, because we need them.”


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Snowplay squeeze: Winter parking on county roads, Highway 180 banned

Snowplayers will no longer be able to park their cars along county roads in the winter under an ordinance revision passed by the Coconino County Board of Supervisors this week.

The new law applies to all county-maintained rights-of-way and is in effect Nov. 1 through April 1. But it is aimed mainly at neighborhoods in the Highway 180 corridor inundated by snowplayers on many winter weekends. 

Other changes going into effect this winter will put even more squeeze on snowplay in the Highway 180 corridor:

  • Wing Mountain Snow Play Area announced this summer that it would not operate this winter, and the Forest Service will block access to the cinder pits and 500 off-highway parking spaces.
  • The Forest Service has decided it will close the parking lot at Crowley Pit, an undeveloped snowplay site on the national forest, this winter.
  • The Arizona Department of Transportation installed new signs along a 9-mile section of Highway 180 to discourage snowplayers from parking along the road shoulder. The signs read “Emergency Parking Only.”
  • The Arizona Department of Public Safety plans to enforce ADOT’s new signs using “whatever manpower we have available,” spokesman Bart Graves said in an email. Graves said DPS will work to “heavily enforce” parking violations in the Highway 180 corridor during the first few busy weekends so people will expect the same into the future.
  • The county will again install temporary barricades at local roads along Highway 180 to prevent nonlocal traffic from entering the corridor’s neighborhoods.

With the closure of Wing Mountain, the agency knows that even more traffic will be pushed to Crowley Pit, causing unsafe conditions at the 50-car-capacity area, Coconino National Forest spokesman Brady Smith wrote in an email. Smith also wrote that there are no resources or concessionaires to manage the area, so it wouldn’t be wise or safe to keep it open. Additionally, the Forest Service wants to see if closing Crowley Pit will help alleviate traffic concerns on Highway 180, Smith wrote.

The changes could mean more traffic funnels into remaining snowplay sites around Flagstaff, including the Flagstaff Snow Park at Fort Tuthill County Park and the Walker Lake Watchable Wildlife parking areas just off Highway 180. Farther west, the owners of Arizona Snowbowl have purchased Elk Ridge Ski Area near Williams with plans to offer skiing, tubing and snowshoeing opportunities.

MORE CARS, MORE PROBLEMS

The county’s ordinance addresses the cars that pull off on the sides of roads and highways outside of designated snowplay areas.

Those cars, which can stretch for miles up Highway 180 on snowy days, are creating congestion and causing problems with litter, trespassing, private property damage and hostile confrontations, county staff reported.

Coconino County Supervisor Matt Ryan said he heard about people barbecuing in the middle of the road in Kachina Village. Brian Furuya, one of the county’s attorneys, noted instances of people building fires on private land, leaving trash and demanding to use local residents’ bathrooms.

The problems are the worst in residential areas in the Highway 180 corridor, around Kachina Trail in Kachina Village and in Munds Park, according to county staff.

Previously, the county's winter parking ordinance applied only to cars that were in the way of snow removal operations. The decision to expand the ban to all cars parked on the side of county roads during the winter came out of “hundreds and hundreds of hours” of conversations with community members and law enforcement, Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott said. Babbott organized a public forum on snowplay traffic in March and followed that with the creation of a Highway 180 task force and additional meetings to hash out possible solutions to the gridlock problem.

“The objective is to balance winter recreation visitation and our existing quality of life and neighborhood quality of life issues,” Babbott said.

In the longer term, the task force wants to create and improve more off-highway parking options like the Peak View Winter Recreation and Parking Area, Babbott said.

He called snowplay traffic, and the safety and environmental problems associated with it, the most challenging issue in his district outside of wildland fire and forest health.

ENFORCEMENT

With the passage of the revised winter parking ordinance, the county is making new signs — a total of 80 — that will display the time period when parking is prohibited and will be placed in certain high traffic areas, said Lucinda Andreani, director of the county’s public works department. Andreani said the cost to manufacture and install the new signs and remove old ones will be about $50,000, which works out to about $625 per new sign.

The new ordinance will go into effect 30 days from Tuesday unless challenged. While the winter parking ban applies countywide, drivers will only be cited and fined in sections of the county where the signs are posted.

Still uncertain, however, is whether those who violate the parking ban will actually see consequences. Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll said that at current staffing levels, his deputies won’t be able to effectively enforce the new law and he doesn’t see those staffing levels changing anytime soon. He said he would be open to partnering or contracting with other agencies to boost enforcement.

Even so, Driscoll repeatedly expressed his support for the new winter parking ordinance.

“We support having one more tool to try to help address the traffic problem,” he said at an August meeting.


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Anonymous postings in Arizona case unmasked by court

PHOENIX -- Those comments you post online about your employer -- and others -- may not be as anonymous as you thought.

The website Glassdoor.com went to court to block federal prosecutors from demanding that it surrender the names of people who had written about their company, which is being investigated by a grand jury here. Attorneys for Glassdoor, which provides both job listings as well as reviews of companies, argued that the people who shared the comments did so with the understanding that they would not come back to haunt them.

But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said none of that matters. And in a new ruling with statewide and potentially national implications, the judges said Glassdoor must give prosecutors information they have about the people so they can be questioned by the grand jury.

The new decision most immediately affects efforts by federal prosecutors to look into whether a government contractor that administers two healthcare programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Arizona committed wire fraud and misused government funds.

But the ruling essentially means that when the government decrees it needs information as part of a grand jury probe, it can force those who operate websites to help them find who made the comments, even though the postings were designed to be anonymous.

That legal conclusion, by definition, is not limited to employees of a firm under grand jury investigation. It also paves the way for prosecutors to seek the identity of anyone whose online comments about any other business -- or even individual -- lead them to believe that person has information relevant to their inquiry.

Glassdoor said Thursday the ruling is a disappointment because the firm believes the trial judge in Arizona who agreed to the subpoena applied the wrong standard, "placing the interests of the government ahead of Americans' protected free speech rights under the First Amendment." And she said the company believes those rights include "sharing opinions online about their workplaces anonymously."

Glassdoor said the company is weighing whether to pursue an appeal, which could put the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to court records, as of earlier this year, current and former employees of the company being investigated -- it is not identified -- had posted 125 reviews on Glassdoor.com. Appellate Judge Richard Tallman, writing for the court, said many of these criticize the firm's management and business practices.

For example, the judge said, one anonymous employee wrote that the company "manipulates the system to make money unethically of the veterans/VA." Another said there is "a real disconnect between how this program runs and how the VA thinks the program runs."

In March, the federal government served Glassdoor with a subpoena ordering it to provide "reviewer information" for every review on the site, including user names, email addresses, resumes, and billing information like credit card numbers.

After Glassdoor objected, the government agreed to limit the scope to eight specific reviews. When Glassroor refused, a judge found it in contempt and imposed a fine of $5,000 a day.

Tallman, in the 24-page ruling, acknowledged there are certain rights at issue.

"An author's decision to remain anonymous ... is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment," he wrote, quoting from earlier cases. "However, the right to speak anonymously is not unlimited," the judge said, with the issue depending on the circumstances and the type of speech at issue.

"Here, the government seeks to unmask anonymous speakers in order to identify potential percipient witnesses in aid of a federal grand jury investigation into possible fraud," Tallman said. "The speakers whose identities the government seeks may well be witnesses to this criminal activity, perhaps even participants in it."

More to the point, the judge said the U.S. Supreme Court has held that reporters -- even those who have promised confidentiality to sources -- must cooperate with grand jury investigations. In fact, he said, Glassdoor has no right to refuse to tell the government how to contact those people because those who made the postings have no First Amendment right to avoid testifying in the first place.

There is an exception, Tallman said, when there is evidence that a subpoena was not issued in good faith, something not alleged here. And the judge said there is no evidence the government is on a "fishing expedition."

Instead, he said, the postings at issue give prosecutors -- and the court -- reason to believe that the people who wrote them have information that would be helpful.

One, he noted, says the company created a system that focuses more on call quotas, versus "designing a more efficient system to assist veterans," as the firm gets paid by the VA based on the number of calls made.

Forcing Glassdoor to disclose the identities of posters, Tallman said, will enable the grand jury to question workers who have observed potentially fraudulent behavior.

"Thus, there is a clear connection between the nature of the investigation -- waste, fraud, and abuse by the subject -- and the information the government seeks -- the identity of potential witnesses to that fraud and abuse."