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CITY COMPLICITYPHOENIX'S CITY STAFF AND COUNCIL DID THEIR SHARE TO KEEP VOTERS FROM HAVING A VOICE IN STADIUM

Remember Jim Bruner? He chaired the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and cast the deciding vote in February 1994 to impose a $238 million sales tax to build Jerry Colangelo's palatial baseball stadium.

Seven months later, the heavily favored Bruner was drubbed in his bid to gain the Republican nomination to Congress. Voters sent Bruner to the private sector.

But Jim Bruner was hardly alone in ramming the baseball-stadium tax down the public's throat. Supervisors Ed King and Mary Rose Wilcox led the charge.

And the Phoenix City Council quietly did its share, too. The council, led by Mayor Skip Rimsza, delivered perhaps the most important prize to Colangelo--quick zoning for the stadium.

No other single action by county or city leaders was as vulnerable to the public's wrath than January's slam-bam zoning approval, first by the Phoenix Planning and Zoning Commission and then by the city council.

The reason: Unlike the county's vote, which courts have ruled to be exempt from voter referendum, the city council's vote to amend downtown zoning ordinances could have been subject to referendum.

Stadium opponents would have had 30 days to gather the signatures of only 10,000 Phoenix voters to place the zoning question on the October 3 ballot.

"That would have killed the stadium," says a Phoenix zoning attorney who monitored the process.

Quick zoning was essential so Colangelo could show Major League Baseball owners last March that the stadium was guaranteed. Any doubts concerning the stadium's feasibility could have ended Colangelo's chances of securing the $130 million expansion franchise. No franchise, no tax.

But the public never got a chance to take the issue to referendum, thanks to some clever work by Phoenix city staffers, Colangelo's slick attorneys and a compliant city council.

Here's what happened, according to city records and interviews with city officials and councilmembers:

This was no simple zoning case. The changes sought by the baseball team required a major overhaul of two Phoenix zoning districts--the Downtown Central Core and the Historic Warehouse Overlay district. The ordinances governing development in the two districts needed to be amended to allow a baseball stadium and associated parking.

The team believed amending the ordinances would be faster and pose less risk to the project than waiting a year or longer for the Maricopa County Stadium District to acquire the land for the stadium and apply for site-specific zoning.

On September 23, 1994, Colangelo's zoning attorney, William H. Jury, sent a draft of the amendments to Phoenix Planning Director David Richert. Six days later, Jury sent a proposed time schedule for the needed amendments to Richert.

Jury, who works for the Phoenix law firm of Gallagher & Kennedy, urged the city to process the amendments quickly. The "time schedule is tight and forces us all to accomplish a great deal of work in a relatively short period of time," Jury's letter states.

Jury provided two target dates, one with council approval coming on December 15, 1994, and the second with the council nod on February 1, 1995. In both cases, Jury noted that there would be a 30-day lag in the ordinance taking effect because the changes would be subject to a referendum.

City planners and Colangelo's lawyers met repeatedly last fall to draft the proposed amendments to the zoning code that would allow the stadium to be built downtown. Discussions were also held with private-property owners in the area and downtown business leaders.

The city advertised the amendments, as required, for four days--November 18 to 21--in the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette. (The papers' owner, Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., is an investor in the baseball team.) The proposed amendments filled two full pages of fine print and notified the public that hearings would be held.

The ads, however, failed to mention a rather important item--the dates of the hearings. The dates were not included on the last three days of publication "due to problems in setup and printing of the advertisement," according to city documents.

Apparently, this snafu went unnoticed until the Reverend A. Cosentino, director of the Interfaith League for Sound Government, complained to the city on December 7, 1994.

The city republished the advertisements, this time in the far less widely circulated Arizona Business Gazette, a small weekly owned by Phoenix Newspapers. However, instead of publishing the notice four times, the city only requires legal notices in weekly newspapers to appear twice.

While it was bungling the advertising of the zoning ordinance, city staff was acceding to Jury's wishes that the typical month lag between reviews by the planning commission and city council be compressed to one week.

The staff also agreed to have the city council hold a public hearing on the ordinance and vote the same day. Generally, there is at least a week separating a public hearing and a council vote on a major zoning ordinance.

 

By mid-December, Jury's updated schedules for city action no longer contained any reference to a referendum or a 30-day delay in the ordinance taking effect. The absence of discussion of this crucial issue suggests that the city and Jury had arranged to avoid the problems. Jury did not return a phone call requesting an interview.

Given the lack of widespread public notice by the city and the complete news blackout by the Republic and Gazette--which never mentioned the upcoming hearings in news stories--only a handful of people showed up at the January 11 planning commission hearing.

The commission voted 7-0 to approve the stadium zoning ordinance with only minor changes. There was no news coverage on perhaps the most important vote made by the commission this year.

The city council took up the matter on January 18 and, once again, only a handful of people attended the hearing. Again, there was no advance publicity in the Phoenix dailies.

One of the people who did attend was council gadfly Cosentino. According to meeting minutes, Cosentino "was not in favor of the taxpayers paying for this stadium and suggested a public initiative should be launched to allow a public vote on the matter."

Cosentino then read the following statement: "Sun City Taxpayers Association and Northwest Taxpayers Association join in support of a referendum to defeat any effort to rezone" downtown for the baseball stadium.

He placed the council on notice that there was public support for a referendum.
Several councilmembers--including mayoral candidate Thelda Williams, and Frances Emma Barwood and Sal DiCiccio--have publicly stated that voters should have had the right to decide on the stadium tax.

The opportunity was at hand for the Phoenix City Council to give voters that chance.

But the council voted 8-0, with vice mayor Craig Tribken absent, to approve the measure. The council didn't stop there. If it had simply passed the ordinance, a referendum challenging the measure could have been launched.

But Councilmember John Nelson made a motion, seconded by Councilmember Peggy Bilsten, to declare that the baseball-stadium ordinance was an emergency and immediately effective. The emergency action required a three-quarters vote.

Barwood, Bilsten, DiCiccio, Nelson, Salomon Leija, Thelda Williams, Cody Williams and Mayor Rimsza all voted in favor of the emergency clause.

That vote killed any chance the public had to vote on the baseball stadium because zoning ordinances passed by emergency clause are not subject to referendum.

Emergency clauses are supposed to be used only in the case of, well, an emergency. But the council uses them frequently when no emergency exists.

"For the health, safety and welfare of the City of Phoenix, we have to have a baseball stadium," Ernie Hancock, chair of the county Libertarian party, says sarcastically.

Hancock, a vocal critic of the stadium tax, has filed several lawsuits against Maricopa County and the Maricopa County Stadium District after he was blocked from taking out referendum petitions to challenge the quarter-cent sales tax. The suits have been dismissed in Maricopa County Superior Court. Hancock plans to appeal.

The city council's emergency vote shocked Hancock.
"We didn't anticipate that they would or could use the emergency clause," he says. "To us, it wasn't something that was susceptible to an emergency vote. That hit us as a surprise."
Most councilmembers say they are just as surprised at the effect of the emergency clause. Five councilmembers say they didn't know the emergency clause killed a referendum until New Times told them so.

"You learn something new every day," says Cody Williams.
DiCiccio says he didn't know the impact and insists no one asked to have the measure placed as a referendum, apparently forgetting Cosentino's comments to the council.

"I don't remember any group calling my office opposing" the zoning, he says.
Nelson, a 12-year veteran of the council, responded with a terse "no" when asked if he knew the emergency declaration would kill any chance for a referendum.

Thelda Williams says she wasn't opposed to a referendum, but didn't understand the implications of the emergency declaration.

"I was unaware that had any impact on" a referendum, she says.
Barwood was angry when told of the consequences.
"I feel like I have been had," she says, criticizing city staff for failing to inform the council about the implications of declaring an emergency.

Barwood says "the mayor's office" requested the ordinance be passed as an emergency measure.

Mayor Rimsza declined repeated requests for an interview.
Only Councilmember Leija--a close associate of Supervisor Wilcox's--says he knew exactly what the impact was of the emergency clause when he voted.

 

"I guess the whole reason behind that was to have things move as swiftly as possible," Leija says.

The momentum to push the ordinance through quickly was generated by the baseball team and adopted by city staff, which recommended the council declare an emergency, says city planner Joy Mee.

But the ultimate responsibility for foreclosing the public's last chance at voting on the stadium lies with the Phoenix City Council. Pleas of ignorance concerning the emergency clause don't hold much water with other candidates for council positions.

"They knew exactly what they were doing," says Libertarian candidate Robert Anderson, who is opposing Nelson in District 5 next Tuesday. "Can you explain to me the emergency in baseball zoning?


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