Lodging Complaints

The best-run city on Earth may turn the Marriott rip-off into a cause celebre

Last week, the Phoenix City Council crammed a $112 million hotel down our throats.

Is the Marriott deal good public policy? I don't know. But what I do know is that securing its passage was no "emergency"--even though the city council invoked its so-called emergency clause and put the deal into law immediately, thus bypassing the possibility of a vote of the people.

Now, however, there is an emergency at city hall. A political emergency. Phoenix is on the verge of a crisis of confidence, and the potential cost to the city could be much, much greater than a few hotel rooms and some sales-tax dollars.

The emergency clause has been used to bypass public opinion on many high-profile, controversial issues--and Phoenix is not alone. Tim Hogan, director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, says he watched the phenomenon for years, at the Arizona Legislature and other cities, including Prescott.

Complaints about the emergency clause date back to the 1920s, according to Hogan. In recent years, the Phoenix City Council used it to ram through zoning for Bank One Ballpark and the Sumitomo Sitix plant, but never, in anyone's memory, has it been used so blatantly as it was in the case of the Marriott deal.

"This one [sets] a new precedent," says former Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson, who actually wants to see the hotel built. "This one's after an initiative's already been filed. And it's dangerous enough to use it, but it's really dangerous to use it in the manner that they did."

The Arizona Republic's editorial writers have gone out of their way to sugar-coat the Marriott story, but this abuse of the public trust is nonetheless resonating with the people and could affect public policy in the city for years to come.

The hotel debacle brought the first potential heavyweight challenger--hotel consultant Randy Pullen--into the ring for this September's mayoral election. Conventional wisdom says Pullen doesn't have much of a shot; Rimsza loves being mayor so much he'd happily purchase re-election with his sizable bank account. And although he has a good reputation in the business community, I'm not so sure that Pullen is the candidate we want; he's a disgruntled would-be hotel developer himself, snubbed by city staff and frustrated that he wasn't offered incentives to build downtown.

Privately, city leaders are wondering what the backlash will mean for the desert-preservation initiative, which will be on the ballot along with Rimsza and four city council members in September.

And what about future public votes such as the anticipated transit election and the eventual bond election to expand Phoenix Civic Plaza--necessary, we're told, to brighten the vision of a vibrant, revenue-spewing downtown? Not to mention justify building that Marriott.

Phoenix Civic Plaza currently loses more than $10 million a year, supposedly because there are not enough hotel rooms within walking distance. With the addition of the Marriott and, potentially, an Embassy Suites, the convention center would be so successful an expansion would be necessary.

A formal feasibility study is under way, I'm told. In any event, the expansion will be a tough sell. Even tougher when it's coming from a mayor, council and staff who force-fed us a 31-story hotel.

Is there a way to restore the public trust? Doing away with the emergency clause is not the answer. The answer is to hold the staff and elected officials who abuse it accountable. And in this case, there's a long list.

As the dust settles around the Marriott deal, it becomes clear that there are no good guys to be found.

City Manager Frank Fairbanks and his staff did a remarkably poor job of managing the situation. Usually, Fairbanks and Co. are good at keeping Rimsza in his place, but they were far off their game this time.

Rimsza insisted on trumpeting the deal before it was ready, I'm told, in an effort to upstage the Rio Salado Crossing project, which was on the ballot in Mesa in May.

When Steve Cohn, managing director of the downtown Crowne Plaza Hotel, emerged--full of complaints and demands--Rimsza and city staff quickly gave up on trying to work with the acerbic hotelier and told him to go blow.

Cohn may be difficult to get along with, but he wasn't necessarily wrong. His business has struggled for years, he says, and he could desperately use some help. Why should a new business get all the assistance?

(Cohn isn't alone in his thinking. Maricopa County commissioned a study, released this spring, that concluded that the county should be offering more assistance to existing businesses and devoting fewer dollars to luring out-of-state heavies.)

When Cohn launched what looked like a potentially successful referendum campaign against the original Marriott deal, Fairbanks and Rimsza pulled the plug and went back to the drawing board.

This time, they used the emergency clause to prevent Cohn from launching another referendum. Even Councilman Phil Gordon, who frequently stands alone in support of The Right Thing, caved and voted for the deal, complete with the emergency clause. Gordon's excuse? Cohn had threatened a recall, and Gordon says he wouldn't be bullied.

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