On the morning of December 12, 2015, Local Color XC interviewed the mayor of Sedona, a sharp and quick-witted woman named Sandy Moriarty. Though we're often hesitant to interview city officials - hoping to avoid boosterism and artificial perspectives on the local scene - the mayor was candid about the issues currently facing Sedona. Elected in August 2014, Moriarty previously served on Sedona's first city council and was a founding member of both Sedona Recycles and Sedona Winefest.
Like everybody else, I was a tourist. I was born and raised in Seattle. I lived there for a good part of my life, went to school there, graduated from the University of Washington. And I worked at the Space Needle in Seattle. I was a hostess in the revolving restaurant.
A friend of mine in Seattle is a folksinger type, and she’d been up to Alaska and got a job in this little town outside of Fairbanks called Cripple Creek. They have an old timey saloon there. I don’t know if you remember who Robert Service was. He was an Alaskan poet, well known. “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” are two of his most well known works. They’re narrative poems. They perform those in the saloon on the property. There’s an old hotel and the saloon. Sawdust on the floor, that sort of thing.
My friend got a job there, and the next summer she invited me to go back up there with her, so I did. I worked in the saloon at the restaurant as a hostess. Later she moved to the Florida Keys, so I bought an MGB and was driving across the country down to Florida to see her. And then I got married in Florida. And then he and I came this way and stayed in Sedona. We came down the canyon across I-40. The canyon was the first thing we saw, and it was stunning. And it was January, too, which wasn’t the best time to see it.
We found a house to rent. I got a job at the hotel, and worked there for a couple years. It was the King’s Ransom at the time, and now it’s the Arabella Hotel. Then I got a job at a CPA firm and I was there for 31 years.
I’ve been divorced for a while, but I stayed here. I’ve lived in a lot of good-looking places. Sedona beat them all.
How has Sedona changed since you first arrive?
Well, obviously the rocks are still here, and some of the buildings are still here. But most of the ownership has changed, and of course it’s growing. When I came here it was about 4,000 people. Now it’s 10,000 or 11,000.
I welcome change – that’s what life is – but a lot of people don’t. A lot of people who move here say they want it to stay the way it was the day they arrived. “It should just stay like this,” they say. “We don’t want any more growth. Tourists need to stop coming.” Well, wait a minute. You came here as a tourist.
But the character of the housing and the buildings has changed dramatically. The wealthiest people in town didn’t own huge mansions. And there are quite a few now, and a lot of newer, bigger houses all over.
You were a major proponent of Sedona’s incorporation as a city. What went into that campaign?
We didn’t incorporate in Sedona until 1988. I joined the group almost immediately that was trying to get Sedona incorporated. Frankly, they were all male senior citizens, kind of curmudgeons. And I was the only woman in the group.
There were two ways you could incorporate. You could incorporate by petition, which no one ever does, or by election. If you get petitions you have to get two-thirds of registered voters, which is a very high threshold. You only need ten percent to put it on the ballot, and so that’s what I thought we should do. And all the guys said, “Oh no. If we don’t win it will be the end.” Well, if we didn’t do it, it would still be the end!
That was the first time I tried. And then several years later, I got involved in a second group. We did go for an election, and we lost the first time. And then a few years later, we started another up again. You had to try it once to get people to even think about it. And there were enough people that moved to town in those proceeding years who understood it was going to be difficult to live here going forward without incorporation, so we won 2-to-1 the second time.
What steps had to be taken to incorporate?
One thing that is sort of unique to Sedona is that it is in two counties. And so we had to have legislation passed at the state level to be able to incorporate a city across county lines. At the time it was not difficult, but the legislature we have now? I don’t know if it would have happened.
In Yavapai County, the seat is in Prescott. In Coconino County, the seat is in Flagstaff. Anything anyone wanted to do in Sedona in terms of zoning or anything else, you had to do in accordance with where you lived. When you incorporate, you take over most of the functions the counties are doing. And so that was the incentive: we could make decisions locally.
What was the basis for the opposition?
Well, they just didn’t want any more government. “Oh, we’re just fine, leave us alone.” There are still a few people around who say we never should have incorporated.
Why run for mayor of Sedona?
I didn’t want my opponent to win. Of course, I didn’t run on that. It’s still a small community, and it’s difficult to find people who want to run. I never really had a desire to run. I’m busy, and I’ve always been busy.
In what ways did you disagree with your opponent?
Two years prior to our election, there was this big debate about putting streetlights on the highway. It’s owned by the Arizona Department of Transportation, and ADOT wanted to put in streetlights. My opponent was a big proponent of not installing streetlights. People didn’t want it to look like Las Vegas. But we’re an official Dark Sky International City, one of very few, and it means our codes now have dark sky-compliant portions of them.
We formed a safety committee that looked at the issue of lights and safety, because really, it was dark out there. So I always favored the lights, but that was a big litmus test: you liked the lights, or you didn’t like the lights.
My opponent and another city council member claimed, too, that if they put lights in they would have to cut down all of the mature trees the whole length of this west Sedona stretch of 89A. They went around and put yellow tape on all the trees they said would be cut down if we put up streetlights. Guess how many got cut down? Zero.
Eventually the proponents of no lights mounted a big campaign to take over the highway. And they were calling it a “take back,” but it was never a “take back,” it was a take over. We never owned it, but that was part of their campaign. And like I say, they tied ribbons around all the trees and all of that went on, and it went on the ballot and it lost 2-1. So we did not take over the highway.
What's driving this opposition to change in Sedona?
My theory is that it’s typically the people who move to Sedona who want it to stay the way it was. So they care a lot about Sedona and what happens here, I think a little more than in a lot of towns. And so I’ve been saying for a really long time: there is no issue too small for Sedona to have a knockdown, drag-out fight about. It’s kind of a joke, but it’s not a joke. Another thing I like to say is that government moves at the pace of a narcoleptic snail.
Is the job at all different than you thought it might be?
The time commitment is different, and that’s partly my own style of being mayor. I go to practically everything I’m invited to go to. And that’s what I’ve said for a long time: a council meeting isn’t the place to have a discussion. You don’t have a discussion at a council meeting. And so I believe in going out and talking to people one on one.
But Arizona doesn’t have strong mayors, even Phoenix really. None of the cities have strong mayors. We all have city managers that run things. I don’t tell people what to do. Last summer, when we had an employee day here in the city, I thought, “What can I do for the employees that would mean anything to them at all?” I’m not Oprah. I can’t give them anything. So I got up in front of them and said, “I’m nobody’s boss. I’m nobody’s boss. So I want you all to say with feeling, ‘You’re not the boss of me!’ I think I enjoyed it more than they did.
How would you describe the average Sedonan?
I don’t think there is one. People come here from everywhere, although it tends to be conservative. There are a lot of retirees. The median age is like 58. It wasn’t so much that way when I came here. There were some retirees, but it wasn’t so dominantly a retirement community, and now it tends to be seen that way.
Some people say there’s nothing to do after dark and the town closes up at 9:00 p.m., and that’s kind of true in some ways. But then other people complain about the noise from outside entertainment when we have it. And of course it’s hot here in the summer, so a lot of people are outside. Noise and traffic are the two biggest issues.
What changes would you like to see in Sedona?
We’d like to diversify the economy, but I’ve been hearing about that ever since I’ve been here. And there are ways we can do it, but the fact is that we will always be tourism based. It’s beautiful. People want to come here and see it.
People always complain about too many tourists on the road. “Why do you keep giving money to the chamber of commerce to keep encouraging tourists to come here?” What I like to say is that it’s not about how many, it’s about who and when. Tourists are going to come regardless. But we need to get the kind we want, who will stay a few days and spend some money in town, and stay in a nice hotel.
We’ve got one of the best commercials ever for any city in the world. You can look at it on the website. Our slogan is “Sedona: the most beautiful place on earth, in so many ways.” And it’s true. I can’t think of a better way to describe Sedona.