With November 6 only four months away, the political season in Flagstaff is just around the corner, and with it comes the forest of political signs that often line streets.
But not anymore, at least for a larger portion of the city than ever before.
On June 26, the Flagstaff City Council enlarged Flagstaff’s sign-free zone, which allows city staff to automatically remove all temporary signs along the public right-of-way. It goes into effect July 26.
Generally, the state bars tampering with or removing political signs, but it does allow cities to regulate their placement. This includes designating sign-free zones within the public right-of-way, which is essentially streets, sidewalks and the strip of land between the two.
The city’s current sign-free zone was created in June 2016 after the Supreme Court ruled that cities can’t regulate political and commercial signs differently. Because of this, other signs, such as those for yard sales, could also be removed in these newly designated areas.
Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans said she opposed the expansion of sign-free zones and that people should be allowed to place political signs on publicly controlled land with as few restrictions as possible. Evans said she has also heard from renters whose landlords illegally prevented them from putting up political signs where they live.
And with such a high percentage of the population renting, the public right-of-way is an important place people can place signs, she said.
Flagstaff has an ordinance against placing signs along roads within the public right of way but the city staff usually can’t take these signs down. Instead, staff must contact the owner and inform them of the rule.
But this is not the case within the sign-free zone, allowing staff to simply take down these signs and keep them until they are picked up by their owners. The city can also issue fines to campaigns that break the rules, although this is rarely done -- most campaigns remove the signs when informed of the law, said city planning director Dan Folke.
Prior to the expansion, Flagstaff sign-free zone included much of downtown and major thoroughfares such as Fort Valley Road, Milton and Historic Route 66.
Sign-free zones are specifically allowed in areas where signs may affect tourist businesses such as resorts or hotels, said Folke.
As a result, additions include Lake Mary Road, Woody Mountain Road, Lone Tree Road, South Yale Street and South Plaza Way. The zone also now extends the length of North Beaver and San Francisco Streets as well as Switzer Canyon.
In additions, signs can now be removed on all of Forest, Cedar and Butler avenues and Fourth Street. Lastly, the area around the Flagstaff Mall and Continental and Country Club drives as well as Industrial Drive are off limits -- the last because it can be viewed from Route 66.
“We looked at all major and minor arterial roadways and then we included a few sections off those arterials,” Folke told council on June 26. “These are areas where we have a predominance of tourist traffic coming off of the interstate, people going to restaurants, people going to hotels and people going into our downtown.”
Joe Bader worked on Flagstaff Needs a Raise, which campaigned to raise Flagstaff’s minimum wage during the last election and is now fighting Proposition 418, which would lower the minimum wage. Bader said that although the expanded zone has changed the way the campaign is placing signs, he doesn’t expect the changes to have any real effect on his or most other campaigns.
Without the sign-free zone, Bader said Flagstaff Needs a Raise would likely place signs along roadways. At the moment, they are just giving signs to people who want to place them on their own property.
But Bader added that roadside signs help get the word out and raise awareness, but they are not the most important form of a campaign messaging. For example, going door to door, he said, is far more effective than signs along roadways.
Only the mayor and Councilwoman Eva Putzova voted against the sign-free expansion. Councilmember Scott Overton said if it were up to him alone, the sign-free zone would be much larger.
“If I had my way, I would say no signs in the right of way period, and I know this is kind of our compromise at that point,” said Overton. “I really do continue to have the concern that our community clutter just gets to a point where it’s just not very sightly (and) these are our most prominent corridors.”
Updated July 7 at 12:43 p.m. to correct previously stated information.
WASHINGTON — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned Thursday amid ethics investigations of outsized security spending, first-class flights and a sweetheart condo lease.
With Pruitt's departure, President Donald Trump loses an administrator many conservatives regarded as one of the more effective members of his Cabinet. But Pruitt had also been dogged for months by scandals that spawned more than a dozen federal and congressional investigations.
Talking to reporters on Air Force One, Trump continued to praise his scandal-plagued EPA chief, saying there was "no final straw" and he had not asked for Pruitt's resignation.
"Scott is a terrific guy," Trump said. "He came to me and said I have such great confidence in the administration I don't want to be a distraction. ... He'll go and do great things and have a wonderful life, I hope."
In his resignation letter to Trump, obtained by The Associated Press, Pruitt expressed no regrets.
"It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role first because I count it a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also, because of the transformative work that is occurring," Pruitt wrote. "However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us."
Pruitt, a Republican, had appeared Wednesday at a White House picnic for Independence Day, wearing a red-checked shirt and loafers with gold trim. Trump gave him and other officials a brief shout-out, offering no sign of any immediate change in his job.
EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, will take the helm as acting administrator starting Monday.
"I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda," Trump tweeted Thursday.
Pruitt's resignation came days after two of his closest advisers spoke to House oversight committee investigators and revealed new, embarrassing details in ethics scandals involving Pruitt.
Samantha Dravis, who recently resigned as Pruitt's policy chief, told investigators last week that Pruitt had made clear to her before and after he became EPA administrator that he would like the attorney general's job, held then and now by Jeff Sessions.
Pruitt "had hinted at that (sic) some sort of conversation had taken place between he and the president," Dravis told congressional investigators, according to a transcript obtained Thursday by the AP. "That was the position he was originally interested in."
A former Oklahoma attorney general close to the oil and gas industry, Pruitt had filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the agency he was picked to lead. Arriving in Washington, he worked relentlessly to dismantle Obama-era environmental regulations that aimed to reduce toxic pollution and planet-warming carbon emissions.
During his one-year tenure, Pruitt crisscrossed the country at taxpayer expense to speak with industry groups and hobnob with GOP donors, but he showed little interest in listening to advocates he derided as "the environmental left." Those groups quickly applauded his departure.
"Despite his brief tenure, Pruitt was the worst EPA chief in history," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "His corruption was his downfall, but his pro-polluter policies will have our kids breathing dirtier air long after his many scandals are forgotten."
Despite boasts of slashing red tape and promoting job creation, Pruitt had a mixed record of producing real-world results. Many of the EPA regulations Pruitt scraped or delayed had not yet taken effect, and the tens of thousands of lost coal mining jobs the president pledged to bring back never materialized.
Pruitt was forced out following a series of revelations involving pricey trips with first-class airline seats and unusual security spending, including a $43,000 soundproof booth for making private phone calls. He also demanded 24-hour-a-day protection from armed officers, resulting in a swollen 20-member security detail that blew through overtime budgets and racked up expenses of more than $3 million.
Pruitt routinely ordered his EPA staff to do personal chores for him, including picking up his dry cleaning and trying to obtain a used Trump hotel mattress for his apartment. He had also enlisted his staff to contact conservative groups and companies to find a lucrative job for his unemployed wife, including emails seeking a Chick-fil-A franchise from a senior executive at the fast-food chain.
Pruitt's job had been in jeopardy since the end of March, when ABC News first reported that he leased a Capitol Hill condo last year for just $50 a night. It was co-owned by the wife of a veteran fossil fuels lobbyist whose firm had sought regulatory rollbacks from EPA.
Both Pruitt and the lobbyist, Steven Hart, denied he had conducted any recent business with EPA. But Hart was later forced to admit he had met with Pruitt at EPA headquarters last summer after his firm, Williams & Jensen, revealed he had lobbied the agency on a required federal disclosure form.
Pruitt also publicly denied any knowledge of massive raises awarded to two close aides he had brought with him to EPA from Oklahoma. Documents later showed Pruitt's chief of staff had signed off on the pay hikes, indicating he had the administrator's consent.
The forests around Flagstaff were mostly quiet on the Fourth of July, and not just because fireworks were banned.
Forest Service patrols estimated that forest visitation during the mid-week holiday was about half of normal and they had found no illegal campfires as of midday Thursday, said Kaitlyn Webb, forestry technician with the Coconino National Forest.
Because the entire forest is under either a forest closure order or Stage 2 restrictions, any campfire is illegal.
With monsoon rains in the forecast, though, the end of the closures could be near. A half-inch of rain needs to fall on the entire forest -- or a “good majority” of it -- for managers to start talking about lifting the closures, Webb said.
The latest forecast shows one-quarter to one-half an inch of rain will fall on southern Coconino County from noon Friday through 5 p.m. Sunday, said Dan LeBlanc, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. After that, the full monsoon pattern will set up, producing a near-daily pattern of afternoon and evening thunderstorms, LeBlanc said.
He did warn that such storms won’t drop an even amount of rain across the entire forest.
“They're small in nature and the Coconino National Forest is not,” he said.
Even if the forest closures are lifted, Stage 2 restrictions that ban campfires, smoking and target shooting will remain in place for a while longer until the area receives even more precipitation, Webb said. In addition to rain, monsoon thunderstorms bring the potential for more lightning-caused fires, so the idea is to avoid additional risk of human-caused fires for a while longer, she said.
With conditions as dry as they are and the forest restrictions in place, the Forest Service substantially increased its patrolling on the Fourth of July, assigning 47 staffers to enforce forest closure orders, make contacts with campers and look out for smoke and fire starts. On most holiday weekends, about 12 people are assigned to those tasks across the 1.8 million-acre Coconino National Forest, Webb said.
The fact that there were no campfires, either burning or abandoned, found over the Fourth of July is significant because patrols usually find a lot of abandoned campfires after holidays, Webb said.
Also notable, she said, is that the Coconino National Forest hasn’t recorded a single campfire or human-caused wildfire within any of the closure areas since they were implemented May 23. Usually those areas are busy with campers and other recreationists that pose fire start risks.
“It’s really, really impressive and pretty encouraging,” Webb said. “People are actually taking that pretty seriously.”
The public’s compliance with the current area-specific closure orders is one reason why the Forest Service didn’t move to implement a full forest closure, Webb said.
The number of abandoned campfires has dropped significantly from the two previous years, which is one indication that people are complying with fire restrictions and closures, she said. The number of abandoned or illegal campfires — those lit during fire restrictions or in areas where campfires are prohibited year-round — from Jan. 1 through July 5 is about half of what it was during the same time period in 2017 and 2016, according to Forest Service records.
“We really appreciate people hanging on,” Webb said about the closures. “It shouldn’t be much longer.”
The holiday was equally slow for the Flagstaff Fire Department, which received just one residential call about fireworks in the street that wasn't able to be verified, Capt. Kevin Wilson said. The agency also got a call from Summit Fire about a 1/10-acre fire near the Walnut Canyon exit of Interstate 40 early Thursday morning, but its engines were called off en route because their help wasn’t needed, Wilson said.
Coconino National Forest law enforcement reported no incidents on Wednesday, spokesman George Jozens said.
The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office responded to 260 calls for service during the July 3-4 holiday period, 70 more calls than the previous Tuesday and Wednesday, according to spokeswoman Erika Wiltenmuth. Calls included emergency medical events, trespassing, disturbing the peace and reports of fire-ban related violations such as the shooting of firearms and use of fireworks.
Sheriff’s deputies increased the number of patrols by 50 percent and conducted 70 traffic stops during the two-day period, which was more than double the number of stops on non-holidays, Wiltenmuth said in an email. The 70 stops resulted in:
Deputies also conducted a boat patrol on Lake Powell, with stops on 30 boaters and multiple boat operation warnings.
Statewide, law enforcement officers made 289 DUI arrests and 2,366 speeding citations over July 3 and July 4.
Down the road from Hank Blair's trading post in the tiny community of Lukachukai on the Navajo Nation, a sign occasionally would pop up in a corn field saying the crop was ready.
But the announcement wasn't for corn. It was a sign that a local gang was dealing a fresh supply of cocaine and methamphetamine.
For 15 years, the Red Skin Kingz terrorized this remote section of the vast reservation near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Dealing in drugs, murder, kidnapping, arson and aggravated and sexual assaults, the gang intimidated the community where law enforcement is more than 45 minutes away on a good day.
"They were the most organized, worst people that we've had around here forever," said Blair, who has owned the Totsoh Trading Post for 34 years. "It was scary."
Now, after the recent sentencing of three high-profile gang members, including a mother and son, authorities believe they have shut down the gang that meted out a level of violence not seen by gangs on the reservation since the 1990s.
Authorities conducted more than 300 interviews in the investigation of the Red Skin Kingz, using a task force made up of tribal, state and federal officials, said Michael Caputo, an FBI assistant special agent in charge for the Arizona district. It was formed in the mid-1990s when the Navajo Nation saw an explosion of gang activity in and around its capital of Window Rock, with turf wars, drive-by shootings and retaliatory killings. The model since has expanded to other parts of Indian Country.
Navajo Nation residents, numbed to silence by a gang that raised its profile on social media and threatened people to keep them from talking to police, are encouraged but still wary.
"This investigation did cut off the head of the snake, if you will, and we took out all the main players that were involved in this gang," Caputo said.
"Did we get everybody? Hard to say," he said.
Lukachukai is at the base of the mountains, about 10 miles from Dine College, the first college established by an American Indian tribe in the United States. The community of about 1,700 has a boarding school, gas station, post office, the trading post and mostly scattered housing.
Community members witnessed the gang's crimes for years, Blair said. But with the closest police district so far away, no one was sure authorities would or could make a difference, he said.
The death of a man in late 2014 was a turning point. Tim Saucedo's family in Gallup, New Mexico, reported him missing, and authorities discovered he was shot in the chest by two gang members at a picnic area in Wheatfields Lake where they met for a drug deal. Saucedo's body was dismembered and burned in a fire pit, according to court documents.
Federal prosecutors charged gang leader Devan Leonard and Kyle Gray in Saucedo's death the following year, a move that Navajo Nation police Capt. Michael Henderson said helped show the community that law enforcement was paying attention.
"It started falling together, looking at all these and doing the research all the way back to the 2012 time frame," he said.
The Red Skin Kingz didn't match the level of gang violence in the 1990s, but the drug trafficking operation was among the most organized police have seen on the reservation, Henderson said. The planning of criminal activity centered mostly on a steamed corn business, according to court documents. Members would gain status by selling drugs, collecting debts and assaulting community members, court documents state.
The charges against the five Red Skin Kingz under a federal racketeering statute meant to combat organized crime are rare in Indian Country, prosecutors said. The other two defendants — Uriah Shay and Randall Begay — will be sentenced later this year.
Getting the community to talk was difficult because people feared retaliation. Some lived near the suspects and others are family or related by clan. Many who worked up the courage to talk would only do so anonymously, Henderson said.
Philip Sandoval Jr., the vice president of the Lukachukai Chapter, was hesitant to say anything even after Gray, Leonard and Leonard's mother, Lucille, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
"You start opening your mouth and saying this and that," Sandoval said. "You don't know who is still out there."
The fear wasn't unfounded.
After Saucedo was killed, the gang kidnapped a witness and threatened to harm her child if she told anyone what happened. Gang members also stole vehicles and burned the dwelling of one of their victims because they believed the family was cooperating with law enforcement, court documents state.
Samuel Yazzie, the Lukachukai Chapter president, said that even after the arrests, some residents remain afraid, unwilling to photograph or report suspicious activity, or publicly call out suspects, he said.
"I understand, but I think that's the way it goes," he said this week.
Henderson can't say for sure whether the arrests of the gang members have made the community safer. But he points to drops in the number of felony sexual assaults, homicides, robberies and aggravated assaults since the arrests in the police district that includes Lukachukai.
"It's interesting to see those numbers," he said.