Furious George

Is Scottsdale ready for four more years of political scrutiny from George Zraket? It all depends on who you ask.

"The public might say I'm not doing my job," Zraket tells New Times. "I'm doing it in a way that takes a lot of fortitude and guts."

Zraket says the reasons for his decision to vacate executive meetings will never be known because executive session minutes are confidential and not public.

"I just believe the open meeting law should be followed very strictly, not only to the letter of the law, but the spirit," he says.

Jim Wellington, chairman of Scottsdale's Stadium District Board.
Kevin Scanlon
Jim Wellington, chairman of Scottsdale's Stadium District Board.

Councilman Ned O'Hearn supports the position.

"I think George is a relentless crusader against government abuse of the public trust. He refuses to tolerate good-old-boyism, sweetheart deals, insider politics. He's absolutely honest in that conviction," O'Hearn says. "George is outspoken. He's contentious at times, and he's uncompromising. But, frankly, the way I see it, that's what you look for in a leader when the odds are against you."

During public meetings, Zraket has voted against the majority on numerous occasions. Some of those votes have been misunderstood, such as an April 2000 vote against the Jewish Community Center

"I caught a lot of flak for that," he says.

The Scottsdale Tribune, in its editorial pages, published several anonymous opinions it received from citizens about the issue. The opinions painted Zraket as anti-Semitic.

Zraket, according to council minutes from the meeting, voted against the center because the council refused to grant a request from residents of the city's Sweetwater neighborhood for a continuance to allow residents to tweak a few design issues at the center. The issues involved increased traffic and ballfield lights that would shine directly onto their homes.

"I saw me," Zraket says, "just a resident who came to city council with a petition."

Other council members saw it the same way.

"All he was trying to do was buy a couple of more weeks for the neighbors to have input into the plan. He was in favor of the Jewish Community Center," says Councilman Tom Silverman. "I think it was very unfair [to suggest Zraket was anti-Semitic]. They also tried to paint him as anti-Semitic in the recall election. I've known George for over 20 years. That's the furthest thing [from the truth]."

Another sticky issue has been the city's Downtown Redevelopment Plan and its attempt to condemn private businesses within the redevelopment area. Zraket has consistently voted against such efforts.

"Condemnation is a governmental power granted for acquiring property for public use," Zraket says. "[It's] not to take one person's business and property so another business can have it."

Jack Long, who owns Scottsdale Auto Supply, was watching baseball one night when he got a call from a neighbor. The neighbor told him to turn on Channel 11, that the council was discussing his business and how they were about to vote to condemn it.

Long says he was not notified of the meeting. As he watched, Zraket was the only council member to vote against condemning the business he went to work for in 1955 at age 21 as a delivery boy. He bought the building and property in the mid-1960s and had planned to lease the building after retiring and use the rent to supplement his social security.

According to Long, Scottsdale Health Care wanted his property for a planned expansion. He says the city tried to get him to sell it to the hospital for a less than fair price. When he refused, the city moved to condemn his business.

The condemnation was eventually thrown out in court, but Long says the city can still move against his property if it wants.

"I just can't see how they can legitimately take it from one private business and give it to another. It's unconstitutional," Long says. "Far as I'm concerned, we need four Georges on that council."

The big issue, though, the one that still haunts Zraket, and will be brought up over and over during his reelection campaign, is Los Arcos.

It's a highly publicized project that everyone has an opinion about, even if the facts don't always support those opinions.

"I think Los Arcos was a tremendous opportunity that has gotten away. I don't think anybody set out to do damage," says former Scottsdale city manager Dick Bowers, who retired in late 2000, months before the arena deal fell through. "There will never be a deal like that again."

The deal, essentially, was for Los Arcos owner Steve Ellman, who also owns the Coyotes, to build an arena complete with space for retail, business and restaurant/nightlife activities. The city would have gotten the arena; Ellman would have pocketed a mint in sales-tax breaks and development fees.

Ellman declined to comment for this story.

The city struggled with Los Arcos for nearly two years. Two public votes were held, one to uphold the city creating a stadium district board and another to authorize the district to seek special funding from the state.

In March 2001, after numerous delays and questions from Zraket as well as other council members, the council voted 4-3 to grant Ellman a six-month extension. It no longer mattered. By April, Ellman had left Scottsdale and moved his project to Glendale, which ultimately agreed to pay for the arena.

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