Politics of Frustration

These guys knocked down Terry Goddard's amphitheatre deal... and they're still looking for a fight

Are you mad as hell at City Hall? Are you sick of its taxpayer-funded megalomania? Are you pissed about potholes, craven politicians and taxes? Are you ready to revolt?

The two are leading a voter initiative drive that is rapidly making hay of all the undirected angst simmering out there in the City of Ashes. Under their proposal, the city would not be able to expend more than $3 million in public resources, either land or money, on amphitheatres or sports facilities unless a majority of voters give their approval at the next general election.

This won't do a thing to correct lousy schools, tacky commercial development or savings and loan magnates who manage their--our--money badly. But it would prevent the Phoenix City Council from making deals with big shots like Zev Bufman and Jerry Colangelo, would-be developers of an 18,000-seat concert amphitheatre and a new Phoenix Suns' arena, respectively.

Judging by the welcome they're getting from the public, Shaw and Morrow have struck on a popular idea indeed. "Half a dozen people were at our first organizing meeting," Morrow recalls. "Thirty-five showed up at our second meeting, and there were fifty at the meeting following that. And they're all ready to carry petitions."

Politicians, especially Phoenix City Council members, hate the initiative petition. So do many of the citizen activists who helped reform City Hall in 1982, when the district system was established to make the city council more responsive to the public.

"I think the initiative is a bad deal because it seems almost like a vendetta rather than a policy," says Peter Martori, vice president of the Greater Phoenix Neighborhood Coalition.

Morrow says he and fellow initiative sponsors, most of them neighborhood foes of Bufman's amphitheatre, are motivated purely by a sense of civic duty. "We got such a response from people all over the city saying this referendum is needed and begging us to continue with it even after the city folded its hand on the amphitheatre site," Morrow says.

"We honestly didn't want what almost happened to us to happen to other neighborhoods," he explains with a smile.

Critics of the initiative snipe that it is more likely fueled by a sense of civic destiny--Shaw competed against Mayor Terry Goddard in 1987--and say its appeal is based in the politics of resentment.

During the 1987 campaign, Shaw reminded voters that Goddard, too, was once an outsider who used grassroots tactics to goad the smug graybeards down at City Hall. (Goddard threatened an initiative to cap the gas tax, forcing politicians to enact one, and instituted the voter referendum that brought in the district system.) Shaw even referred to himself as "a younger Terry Goddard," perhaps in hopes of capturing idealists disappointed in their leader's current performance.

Shaw forged his campaign for mayor around his sponsorship of a referendum to protect the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, a measure that was both anti- developer and anti-city council. The public stampeded to support Shaw's mountain preserve initiative, but Shaw the candidate was left behind in the dust.

He is coy about his reasons for orchestrating another referendum now, in the months leading up to the November mayoral race, but the timing strikes some as significant. "I really can't speculate about why Gil is doing this. . . . One can, but I shouldn't," drawls Hizzoner the Mayor. "Usually referendums gain energy from an issue that was not resolved to popular satisfaction, and in this case the neighborhood won. So what is the reason for this? I don't know."

North Phoenix councilmember Paul Johnson, one of the first to be elected under the district system, thinks the initiative sponsors are playing to the same crowd that elected Evan Mecham governor once upon a time. "They may be claiming it's a neighborhood- protection issue, but the movement gains its strength from the anti-tax, anti-government mentality that's always out there," he says.

The city's most influential neighborhood advocacy group, the Greater Phoenix Neighborhood Coalition, is not supporting the initiative. In fact, coalition leader Martori likens the proposal to "a case of zits on a teen-ager."

"Who the hell knows why they come and what makes them go away?" shrugs Martori. "The initiative doesn't seem to have any particular concept behind it except being against sports facilities. If the concept is a check-and-balance for city government, it's too narrowly defined to accomplish that."

Maybe so, but its backers know they've got a constituency. "People feel very disenfranchised on things that they feel they ought to have input on," Shaw says. "We've tapped a distrust among people that, when it comes time for the council to deal with something out of the ordinary, the deal will be cut for the developer instead of the city."

If the demolition of Goddard's cherished ValTrans proposal reveals anything, it is the danger of underestimating people's ability to think for themselves. Though Goddard interprets the defeat as a sign the issue was too complex for the average dunderhead, the polls indicate that public support for ValTrans was high to begin with and dropped steadily as citizens became more familiar with it.

The initiative is a way to say, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," and there's no doubt people are frustrated with City Hall. But it doesn't necessarily mean they'll buy snake oil as a cure.

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