Flagstaff City Council meetings can often become heated. On Tuesday, after claims that City Manager Barbara Goodrich approved the first step toward fracking on city owned land without public approval, members of staff received extensive criticism from members of the public and a councilmember.
The criticism became so strong, Mayor Coral Evans stopped the proceedings.
“I will say that I have been on this dais for 12 years and I have not quite seen this before; this is new,” Evans said before she recessed the Feb. 12 meeting.
Councilmember Austin Aslan, who later apologized for his passion, criticized the actions of city staff and the city manager.
While the city manager’s actions were fine according to the city charter, Aslan focused on the impact upon his and the public’s trust. Neither Council nor the public were informed of a license agreement with Desert Mountain Energy, allowing company personnel access on and across about 600 acres of city owned land southeast of Flagstaff in Red Gap Ranch.
Councilmembers often speak passionately about issues and at times are frustrated with staff, but it is rare to see the kind of criticism directed from a councilmember toward city staff.
“I feel betrayed. As a new city councilmember, I feel taken advantage of. I feel embarrassed for how much faith I proffered this system as I was coming into it,” Aslan said.
Goodrich covered her face and appeared to be deeply affected by the comments made by Aslan and members of the public before Evans interrupted Aslan and recessed the meeting.
“One of the things that I said when I was first electing in 2016 and then again in 2018 to this council, to the audience, to staff, is that we would have meetings that were respectful and civil in nature,” Evans said, adding she should have stopped the meeting earlier.
After the recess, Aslan apologized to both city staff and Goodrich, saying his passion for the issue at hand had made him unaware of the tone of his comments toward the city manager.
Nonetheless, in a statement to the Daily Sun, Goodrich thanked those who came to the meeting to share their thoughts.
“The passion and love that our residents have for Flagstaff and its future was obvious [Tuesday night] and one of our community’s strengths,” Goodrich wrote. “I look forward to working together as we develop options for Red Gap Ranch.”
The license agreement
The controversy surrounded the agreement Goodrich signed with Desert Mountain Energy, a company involved in oil, gas and helium extraction.
The city bought the roughly 8,000-acre parcel of land at Red Gap Ranch in 2005 in order to provide a future source of groundwater.
The agreement also allows the company to conduct seismic testing on the city-owned sections. The process is commonly used to gain a better understanding of an area's geology, and can be used to obtain information on groundwater and fossil fuels underground.
In return, per the agreement, Desert Mountain Energy would provide the data gathered by the testing to the city at no cost.
Goodrich said the company originally proposed an agreement that would allow it to immediately start drilling for helium. However, staff refused and any contract allowing Desert Mountain Energy to drill would have to go before the council.
The city charter gives the city manager the authority to sign shorter term license agreements without the need for council approval. Goodrich said she believed a licensing agreement allowing the city to obtain useful geological data, without the use of taxpayer’s dollars, made sense.
According to Brad Hill, the city water services director, Flagstaff has spent about $120,000 to $150,000 over the past 16 years for similar data. He speculated the testing that would be done by Desert Mountain Energy on Red Gap Ranch would cost about $20,000 to $30,000.
Nonetheless, the council seemed unanimous in its dislike for the agreement, directing staff to end the agreement with Desert Mountain Energy.
Alicyn Gitlin, conservation coordinator with the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, said she was happy with council’s direction but felt its hands had been tied by the staff’s action.
And despite the justification and authority of the staff, Gitlin called the agreement “a blatant disregard for public input and of council.”