It has nine heads.
It has 18 eyes.
It seems to speak its own language.
It can drone a man into a drooling stupor, or it can make decisions faster than most mortals can place a drive-through order at McDonald's.
It comes to life in a sacred spherical dwelling where the light is dim and the curtains are always drawn.
It has been known to enjoy shaking hands.
It is the Phoenix City Council, and I have seen it. I have witnessed it in the flesh, in action, and am here to tell you what I saw. And I swear that every word is true.
There is no mistaking that the lair of the Phoenix City Council (henceforth referred to as the PHOCICO) is an important, hallowed place. Is it a hall? A room? An office? No. It is a "chambers." The Council Chambers. Every Wednesday, the PHOCICO comes here for "formal" meetings to make decisions that will affect the lives of Phoenicians great and small.
But there is no need to fear this place.
In fact, when I entered the downtown council palace, I was greeted by a friendly, well-dressed young woman with the comforting demeanor of an airline hostess. She handed me a program, a "Formal Agenda," and said, "Can I help you find your item?" I assured her that I was well-aware of the location of my item. Little did I know that "items" were what made up the afternoon's agenda, 66 of the things in all. And that, in just a little more than an hour, the mighty PHOCICO would have confronted and dealt with them all in a stunning juggernaut of decision-making.
The agenda informed me of other things:
That I was "now participating in the process of representative government," and that "democracy cannot endure without an informed electorate." The knowledge that I was, in some small way, keeping democracy from drying up and blowing off into the desert to have its bones picked clean by hideous scavenging creatures brought new value to my visit.
Now this part is important.
"Phoenix utilizes a Council-Manager form of local government." As opposed to, say, a totalitarian regime based on terror and mind control. "Policy is set by the Mayor and Council who are elected by the people, and carried out by the City Manager, who is appointed by the Council. The Council decides what is to be done . . ."
And so I sat there in the Chambers along with a scattering of other simple folk, waiting. In front of me, the dais was naked; nine chairs, nine name plates, nine microphones and four golden pitchers of what I can only guess was water awaited the arrival of the PHOCICO. A small flurry of action ensued one aisle over, a large man slowly making his way down, shaking hands and smiling. It was the mayor himself, the leader of the Best Run City in the World, Skip Rimsza, warming up the crowd. Before I knew it, he was standing right in front of me, asking about my item.
"I'm just here to watch," I choked out. He offered his hand, I took it. No words were spoken, yet he smelled of an aftershave I couldn't place, a smell of suits and offices and business.
I glanced back at the agenda. With sexy items like Office Moving Services Requirements Contracts, Purchase of Legal Case Management System--Automobiles, Vans and Light Trucks Requirements Contract, Skunk Creek Landfill Gas Extraction and Flare Station Stirrat Design Contract Change Order, it was tough to choose a favorite.
I decided I'd try to follow item number three, Purchase of Wood Waste Grinder, and item number six, Purchase of Back (Lumber) Support Belts Requirements Contract. It was almost three o'clock, and the meeting was about to begin. I could hardly wait.
The members begin to file in with the kind of supreme, easy casualness that comes with power. Here they are in person, superstars of local government that had previously only been names in the paper to me: Yber-patriot Frances Emma Barwood, the thoughtful, urbane Sal DiCiccio, the confident, relaxed Cody Williams, the tough, laconic John Nelson, the shrewd, jovial Craig Tribken. And the rest.
A man of the cloth steps up at the mayor's behest, Reverend Evan Howard of St. Mary's Basilica, to offer an invocation. He reminds God that the City of Phoenix is our home and reminds us that we should "act justly and love kindly."
Then, to cover all the bases, we say the Pledge of Allegiance. I have not said the Pledge of Allegiance since maybe the fourth grade. I still remember it. There is nothing funny about saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
And then we're off, but before any items are introduced, the PHOCICO will give out November Phoenix Service Awards to a secretary, a detective and two sanitation workers, all of whom had put in 25 or 30 years of service.
The ceremony consists of councilperson Barwood reading off the vital stats of each person's life, their achievements, their passions, things that have characterized their performance on the job ("He is industrious and cheerful") and their family backgrounds, all very quickly in the kind of unemotional monotone one associates with high-school-debate preambles. As this goes on, the honorees approach the dais, where they are treated to a photo-op with Hizzoner and then receive a firm handshake and a prize.
The whole thing is mundane and heartwarming.
A sanitation man by the name of what sounds like Refugio gets a huge clock that he holds like a newborn baby for the picture-taking. This iron horse of trash pickup, who's wearing a bright-orange uniform shirt, has devoted 30 years to Phoenix garbage. As he walks back up the aisle, I give him a thumbs up and am rewarded with a prideful smile that brings a lump to my throat. Though it may be hard to believe, in terms of raw excitement, this will pretty much be the highlight of the afternoon.
Then the PHOCICO moves on to the real business of the day, the blood and guts--the "items." And things get strange. Fast. It's like listening to an auction. Items are presented, votes are taken, things pass or don't, borne ahead by the subtle, judicious taskmaster that is our Rimsza. The afternoon creeps ahead in the amber light of this power chamber.
It's city government working like greased lightning, live and in person; resolutions, orders, licenses and requests have me dizzy with boredom. Before I know it, the two items I had adopted as my personal causes celebres have passed me by in a whirl of "yeas" and "nays."
Oh, yes, Skip and company are good, they're real good.
Occasionally, a citizen will get up and speak out on an item that concerns him or her. At item 19, a man named Meriem E. Abdou rises to plead his case. It's a bit hard to understand him, as Abdou has a thick, Middle Eastern-sounding accent, the type that makes me wonder just how much inspiration and confidence he derived from the nice Christian prayer that opened up this whole thing.
Abdou wants a Series Ten liquor license so he can open up a minimart with two drive-through windows. The local Homeowners Association says it's opposed to the liquor license. There are already enough liquor stores in the 'hood, apparently. Actually, there are only 1.37 liquor licenses per 1,000 residents within a one-mile radius, which does not exceed the "need and convenience threshold" of 2.00. Not by .63 it doesn't. Give poor Abdou his license, let the people of North Glen Square have the booze, I'm thinking.
I wish I could tell you what happened, but it got sort of dull, and I started thinking about Dan Quayle and a press conference I was supposed to go to later, where I ended up getting photographed shaking his hand--which is really something--and by the time I started paying attention again, we were on to item 20-something.
Damn. A tough way to learn that you've got to play heads-up ball at all times when the PHOCICO is "in sesh."
But it isn't all business with these formidable councilnauts; on a couple of occasions, they burst into laughter. But I couldn't even understand their jokes.
"Hey, that's like asking DiCiccio to vote for negative-impact evaluations on the bid purchasing after proposition 18 with maximum dual provisions!" a councilperson would pipe up--or something to that effect--and they'd all lose it. It is like the Algonquin Roundtable. Only very, very different.
Then what else?
Not much. I'd love to have dramatic tales of our local government at work, of citizens hurling invectives and councilpeople standing to deliver enlightened speeches with righteous fervor.
But, really, it just didn't happen that way.
By 4:18, things are over and done with, the agenda a thing of the past. Sixty-six items in 78 minutes. As the council disperses, an overweight man in plastic sweat pants, red tee shirt and elaborate, American Indian-looking necklaces gets up and delivers a speed-rant that involves referring to Mayor Rimsza as a "land baron." The mayor thanks him. I hear the man's sweat pants swish loudly as he strides up the aisle past me.
Barely conscious of the multiple applications that have been granted, of hopes that have been dashed, of dreams that have been fulfilled by the Phoenix City Council, I get up and stagger out of the chamber, into the late-Wednesday sunshine, and to the corner. When the light turns green, I cross.
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