By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Upon entering the Maricopa Association of Governments' retreat early in September, each MAG councilmember received a few note cards and several small, adhesive-backed green dots. On the cards, they wrote problems they saw in the operations of the group; the notes were posted on a board at the front of the room. The attendees then approached the board, looked over problems their colleagues had listed, and affixed green dots to those they found particularly important. The complaints that garnered the most dots would be discussed later in the day.
One mayor had a question.
"What if we think there are more problems than we have dots?" he asked. "What if we run out of dots?"
"Let's just try to get the biggest things on the agenda for today," another mayor chimed in. "If we try to talk about everything, we'll be here 'til Christmas." Two or three others within earshot laughed heartily, if somewhat nervously.
The council had reason to be edgy. Just days before the MAG retreat, the county Board of Supervisors said publicly for the first time that perhaps the organization, a group that handles transportation planning for the Phoenix area--and about $40 million in federal funds that flow into it yearly--should be abolished.
After authoring anti-MAG columns in the Phoenix Gazette, supervisor Chairman Tom Rawles told reporters that he wanted to "disband, dismantle and disembowel" the group. The supervisors then voted unanimously to have the county's budget office analyze how MAG spends its money.
Rawles' remarks cast a pall over the retreat. Regional Council Chairman Wilburn Brown, mayor of Gilbert, said he felt "betrayed and surprised" by Rawles' remarks. Like many of the other mayors present, he complained that MAG has never done anything wrong--that it is not the group's fault its freeway plans have been the object of public contempt, that the press has exaggerated any problems that may exist. Brown insisted that MAG has a "message" problem, not a "substance" problem.
The retreat ended with a variety of plans for improved communication with the public.
Just a few weeks later, the MAG staff proposed that the council back a plan to increase gasoline taxes in Maricopa County by the minor sum of $2 billion. The money was to be used to widen 542 miles of surface streets throughout the region to alleviate air pollution and traffic congestion.
The program, if adopted, would have eliminated nearly 4,000 "access points"--that is, turn-ins to local businesses--from surface streets.
The study recommended that streets be widened so much along many corridors that the fronts of businesses would have to be demolished and moved back. Many of the shops would need to be relocated entirely--at taxpayer cost.
The vote to back a $2 billion tax increase in tax-averse Arizona was buried in what is known as the consent agenda, where relatively unimportant, uncontroversial items are generally lumped for mass approval by the MAG council.
When Rawles asked why such an enormous, controversial project was included on the consent agenda, he received no answer.
The mayors on the council, few of whom seemed to know what the proposal was or that it was about to be voted on, hastily put off discussion until another time. Then they adjourned the meeting and went to dinner.
"I don't know enough about this to vote on it," said Elaine Scruggs, mayor of Glendale, after Rawles had finished his harangue. "I think this is one of those things we do sometimes that gets us into trouble."
MAG has been getting into embarrassing trouble for a long time now.
Rawles, and many others who have followed MAG over the last decade and a half, says the failures of two major ballot proposals backed by MAG, the botched construction of the Valley's freeway system, the bungling of the Rio Salado project--all of these problems were caused by procedural, technical and personnel irregularities that began in MAG's earliest days.
MAG mayors operate in a vacuum, Rawles and other critics say. There is little accountability because voters electing the mayors who serve on the MAG council vote on local issues rather than the regional concerns that MAG is meant to address. MAG staff keeps tight control over the information the mayors receive; even decisions about what will or will not go on MAG agendas are made ahead of time, by staff members who have been with MAG, in some cases, for decades.
Finally, the critics say, MAG works under an odd set of procedural rules, some unique in the country, that makes it difficult if not impossible for the group to address large, expensive and politically contentious questions.
This belief--that MAG has severe, all but irreparable problems--is what led Rawles to call for abolition of the group and transfer of its responsibilities to the county government.
For many reasons, however, it is unlikely that Governor J. Fife Symington III will disband MAG. Even if he were to take that step, there are many reasons--including a history of financial irresponsibility--that the county is a less-than-perfect candidate to assume the major regional planning functions that MAG performs.
Clearly, MAG has problems--problems involving both administration and accountability--that cannot be solved by the public relations makeover its council is pursuing.