2000 Maniacs

The hits just keep on coming at Phoenix City Hall

The City of Phoenix began the year ominously with Celebration 2000, a misnomeric millennial party featuring everyone from the Gin Blossoms to the Association. Built to attract 200,000 revelers, Mayor Skip Rimsza's world-class bash was a bust for the ages. Organizers sold merely 13,000 tickets, and the city eviscerated its own procurement codes and illegally gave money to a nonprofit group without city council authorization.

City managers finally instructed their rubber-stamp city council to formally authorize an illegal $526,596 expenditure on July 5.

For City Hall, the year 2000 started badly and has gotten progressively worse.

If the city's ineptitude doesn't agitate our collective consciousness, it's because the one thing at which city hirelings are truly gifted is managing an image. Phoenix is, after all, the "Best Run City in the World." We have the road signs to prove it.

With the Keystone Kops at the state Capitol providing endless amusement, it's easy to overlook the serene malfeasance in practice at City Hall.

Citizens and pundits fume over the state's half-billion-dollar alternative-fuel debacle, but the financial stakes are just as high, if not higher, at City Hall. The barbarians rally at the gate to demand the head of Jeff Groscost, while Skip Rimsza blithely engineers a slow-motion train wreck. In my estimation, Rimsza is just as scary as Groscost, but in different ways. Jeff is smart and calculating. Skip simply doesn't have a clue.

Voters in Mesa and Scottsdale have jettisoned the patrons of corporate welfare. Phoenicians have yet to make this welcome transition, and there's no indication that city policymakers (the most potent of whom are not elected) have recognized their constituents' disdain for such naked largess. The Phoenix City Council is sorely in need of a thoughtful hell-raiser.

A partial litany of the city's 2000 lowlights:

• City Hall was caught unawares when Maricopa County began demolishing historic buildings downtown to make way for the county's new billion-dollar jail and its obligatory parking garage. Lucid leadership would have convinced the county to locate the jail elsewhere. What municipality with any class allows a jail in its "Copper Square"? Lucid leaders aspiring to be something more than a strip-mall empire preserve their edifices of substance.

• The city's new Civic Plaza East Garage, built illegally for $43 million to serve museums and notBank One Ballpark, concluded its first full year of operation. It's losing more than $300,000 a month. City managers assure us this is exactly what they intended.

• The centerpieces of the City Hall's coveted downtown renaissance, new hotels, have been pulverized by the unlikeliest of adversaries. As it turns out, you can fight City Hall.

Free marketeers who believe private enterprise should pay its own way can thank Steve Cohn for confounding the city's dubious plans. Cohn, a part owner of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, single-handedly scuttled the city's scheme to pay developers $18 million and provide $118 million in loans and loan guarantees to build two new hotels. He claimed that the city's hegemony would ruin his business.

Not surprisingly, City Hall believes the frumpish Cohn to be a dastard. The guy should wear an eye patch.

Cohn mobilized last year after the council approved the staggering subsidies to float the hotel projects, a Marriott at Collier Center and an Embassy Suites at Arizona Center. He launched an initiative drive that would have required city voters to approve any such city expenditures exceeding $3 million. In addition, the measure would have prevented the city council from routinely invoking an "emergency clause" that prevents voter referenda.

Cohn also sued the city, alleging that its hotel deals violated the Arizona Constitution. The lawsuit stymied the sale of bonds to finance the hotels. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields ruled in June that the city's machinations were, in fact, illegal.

The city had until October 17 to appeal Fields' ruling. October 17 came and went, yet no appeal was filed -- despite the fact that the city paid more than $500,000 to outside lawyers to defend the lawsuit and work on an appeal. And the cost doesn't end there. The court recently ordered the city to pay $102,312 to cover legal fees for Cohn's lawyer, David Ramras.

"The judge found effectively that we were acting as private attorneys general on behalf of the public in this case," Ramras says.

Arizona's real attorney general, Janet Napolitano, intervened in the case -- on the side of the city and its developer friends.

City officials, exposed trying to give public money to private interests, asked Fields to seal the filings in the litigation. The city claimed that some documents contained proprietary information that could have damaged their would-be partners, the hotel owners and developers.

"I was very surprised that a public body wanted to seal it from the public," Ramras says.

Yet Fields agreed. It's possible that some material gathered during discovery was sensitive for the business owners. But I harbor no doubt about the city's desire to keep the public from learning what its representatives were saying under oath. All this material remains under seal.

The ubiquitous Cohn has filed enough signatures to put a milder version of his original initiative on the city ballot in March. It prohibits the council from invoking the emergency clause unless there's really an emergency. How novel. (The city council declared an emergency when it approved rezoning for Bank One Ballpark.)

The council completed its capitulation to Cohn last week by adopting an ordinance that mirrors his initiative. But Cohn's measure is still headed for the March 13 ballot, where voters can codify it as part of the city charter, preventing the council from rescinding it. (City voters will also act on a $700 million bond program in March, an event that has city hirelings convening committees and feigning fascination with the Will of the People. But that's a separate column.)

Some city staffers have suggested that the city simply build a hotel itself, though the political perils attached to such an effort are probably too foreboding even for the brash apparatchiks running City Hall.

In any case, until the Civic Plaza is expanded, Cohn says, "There isn't a market for a third hotel in downtown Phoenix, whether they figure out a way to do it legally or not."

Did I mention that Cohn was offered a bribe by a developer who claimed to be speaking on behalf of city management?

• The Civic Plaza expansion project is bogged down. This is not necessarily bad news for your wallet, since city managers want to spend copiously -- possibly $800 million -- to prop up the hospitality industry. The city had planned to include the Civic Plaza expansion question on the March ballot, but the convention center vote has now been pushed back until September.

Perhaps not coincidentally, a city-commissioned poll taken two months ago showed voter support for a costly expansion to be dismal.

City Hall was counting on a big contribution from the state to help with the cost of razing the Civic Plaza and building another twice its size. However, the alt-fuel fiasco has Capitol officials frantically bailing red ink. The state, usually stingy, is now very cranky. Legislators are certain to be gun shy about new appropriations next session.

• The city's vaunted effort to stymie gang activity in a neighborhood near downtown was shot down in court. The city asked a judge to impose a civil injunction against 14 alleged members of the Las Cuatro Milpas gang, prohibiting the members from associating in their neighborhood. It would have outlawed the reputed gangsters from congregating in public view and doing other things not normally considered criminal.

• The city scored a big victory in March when it finally convinced Phoenicians to ante up -- to the tune of $4.8 billion -- for a coherent mass-transit system. As it turns out, coherence was a rumor. Last month, when the city council established the light-rail route for downtown and points east, it bypassed Sky Harbor International Airport, where each day 25,000 people go to work, 100,000 get on or off a plane and another 100,000 people go to meet and greet them. Instead, the council chose to build the rail line along Jefferson Street. One estimate for daily ridership on the entire light-rail system is only 20,300. The city could potentially double usage of the system with a light-rail stop at Terminal 4.

This displays an astonishing lack of vision and/or common sense.

Why am I not surprised?

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