Off Color

Skip Rimsza and Mike Johnson race into another controversy

Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza and his city council cohorts (all two of them) continue to provide the most entertaining show in town. So The Spike just had to grab a ringside seat at last week's city council meeting.

What a show. Co-conspirators Rimsza and councilman Mike Johnson managed to dupe many African-American community members into believing that an internal council power struggle was actually a racist attack on Johnson, who's black.

Except the council's move to oust Johnson from a seat on the (ho hum) Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitor's Bureau board was never about race. And both Rimsza and Johnson knew that all along.

Our hero: P.J. Jasso stands up to the mayor.
Hector Acuña
Our hero: P.J. Jasso stands up to the mayor.
Mayor Skip Rimsza: Stop whining.
Hector Acuña
Mayor Skip Rimsza: Stop whining.

So The Spike wonders why the dubious duo let the city take a fairly major racist hit for no good reason. That seems an especially cheesy thing for Johnson, who, The Spike hears, even organized a phone bank the night before the council meeting to drum up a nice turnout of supporters.

The race card was clearly the easiest play to make for the mayor, who has been increasingly at odds with most of the rest of the council. (See last week's Spiked column, "A Fly in the Anointment," which details the rift between the council and the mayor over Rimsza's attempts to boost assistant city manager Sheryl Sculley into power, even though City Manager Frank Fairbanks is a couple of years away from retiring.)

To get back at veteran council members who have gone against him, Rimsza has taken to giving freshmen council members plum assignments. Johnson, a retired cop who has held elected office a mere three months, has been named to the influential Downtown Phoenix Partnership and was given chairmanship of the council's Downtown, Sports and Tourism subcommittee. Then Rimsza also gave him a spot on the convention board (Rimsza and Fairbanks also sit on that board), thus pretty much cutting any other council member out of key downtown civic groups.

Vice mayor Claude Mattox spoke to Rimsza privately about picking someone else for the board, but was told to pound sand, according to The Spike's sources. So Mattox and others decided to bring the appointment before the council for a vote.

Late on Tuesday, March 19 (the day before the contentious meeting), four council members -- Mattox, Dave Siebert, Peggy Bilsten and Doug Lingner -- asked Fairbanks to add the item to the meeting agenda.

Rimsza was ticked. He cranked out a memo that night, saying the mayor has long had the right to make the appointment. He called the impending vote "an insult to Councilman Johnson."

Then Johnson got on the horn to rally African-American supporters; about two dozen showed up at the meeting the next day, including former city councilman Calvin Goode, who held Johnson's District 8 seat for many years.

On Wednesday, March 20, the council haggled for nearly an hour over whether Johnson should stay on the convention board or whether the seat should be handed over to councilman Greg Stanton.

The Spike was most amused by Rimsza's public temper tantrum in front of a packed house.

"We're spending too much time whining," the mayor whined, oblivious to the irony, before mounting his own crybaby campaign.

He argued with Mattox and councilman Phil Gordon. He yelled at Lingner, who responded by calmly telling Rimsza, "Don't tell me what I think. Don't go there."

He interrupted speakers. He laughed at people who were trying to make a point. And he had the really bad form to harangue council chief of staff P.J. Jasso until Fairbanks stood up and told him to knock it off.

Jasso didn't need Fairbanks' help. She delivered one particularly snarky dig before being told to sit down.

"I will question the mayor in the future," she said. "As a professional, [I] did not believe I should question the mayor, and now I will question his intent."

With each comment, the crowd murmur grew louder. The audience mocked the council along with Rimsza. And why not? It was Rimsza who allowed them to call the council racist during a blistering series of public comments.

Goode and Ron Busby, chairman of the Greater Phoenix Black Chamber of Commerce, questioned the council's motivation.

Bettye Jackson, a Johnson supporter, was less tactful, saying, "As an African-American, I am very offended."

Even Johnson suggested the entire proceeding was racially motivated.

"I think it is very unfair, very biased, very unjust," he said. "It's very personal."

What a crock.

As Lingner tried to explain to the council and the crowd, the council's action had nothing to do with race, or even Johnson. It had to do with Rimsza refusing to discuss his appointment with his council peers.

"You simply dug in your heels," he told an angry Rimsza. "We deserve the respect that you demand of us."

Ultimately, the issue of adding a different council member to the convention board wasn't resolved. The mayor tried to placate the council by saying he would consider -- no promises, but he'd think about -- giving up his own seat on the board if the council would let Johnson stay.

Gordon didn't fall for that one. He said no way and called for a recess, which meant the council really shut itself in a back room and hollered at each other for a while.

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