Alice in 1984
When you run the best-managed city in the universe, you will stop at nothing -- including surreal bookkeeping -- to maintain the image. Such is the case with Phoenix bureaucrats, who decided to nip the costly Celebration 2000 embarrassment in the bud(get) by cooking the books and, yes, declaring expenses as profits.
The Flash is conflicted. Is this Orwellian? Or merely Carrollesque?
More than two months have passed since the city's panic-stricken hirelings issued a $527,000 check -- sans city council approval -- to cover burgeoning expenses for the New Year's Eve bust, er, bash. Those expenses were the responsibility of a private, nonprofit group, Citizens for a Community Celebration (CCC).
The city Parks, Recreation and Library Department asked the council to retroactively approve the expenditure in early January. Yet the questionable outlay has not been placed on the council's agenda. Must be a Y2K problem. Deputy city manager Alton Washington, who is responsible for organizing the agenda, did not return a call seeking comment.
Meanwhile, the city and the CCC are manipulating financial statements to make it appear that both organizations profited from the event.
Records show that Phoenix actually faces a loss exceeding $1.1 million.
Deputy city manager Jack Tevlin vowed during a December 28 press conference that the city would not advance any money to cover event expenses without first obtaining council approval. "It's not something that we will do without council approval," Tevlin had said.
He was so not correct. When Tevlin made that pledge, city finance director Kevin Keogh had already cut a $527,000 check, on December 17, and placed it into a special account at Bank One -- without city council authorization.
We don't need no steeenking authorization.
Parks department official Dale Larsen says his office asked for the money because entertainers and production crews were threatening to boycott the event unless they were paid in full, in advance. The CCC -- whose members were appointed by Mayor Skippy Rimsza -- had bounced a $700 check in early December, bank records show.
"It was an emergency authorization from finance [department] to cover those bills," says Larsen. "Now, we're waiting on the . . . city council authorization that that was okay to do."
Records obtained last week show the finances for the event have now been divided between the city and the CCC, which was chaired by former state attorney general Grant Woods. The two balance sheets divide up revenue -- which came primarily from "loans" and "advances" from the city -- and expenses for entertainment, production and advertising in a way that allows both the city and the CCC to show a profit.
The city's balance sheet -- under the name Celebration 2000 -- has been jiggered to show a remarkable profit of $4,400 as of February 7. The private CCC, meanwhile, shows net income of $5,900.
How could the city and the CCC show a $10,300 profit from an event that drew fewer than 15,000 people and generated a whopping $165,000 from ticket sales, merchandise and concessions while expenses soared to more than $1.17 million?
Creative accounting, Phoenix style.
The city never intended to invest more than $25,000 in the event, records show. The council approved an additional $500,000 loan to the CCC last summer and voted in early December to sponsor a stage at the party by paying the CCC $150,000.
Even those allocations weren't enough to stem the tide of red ink, which led to the unauthorized December 17 expenditure of $527,000. Like the $500,000 loan last summer, the $527,000 was spent with the "understanding" it would be repaid from the proceeds of the event, Tevlin has said.
By converting the outlays to income, the city can subtract $1 million in expenses for entertainers and advertising -- including a whopping $50,000 ad bill from the Arizona Republic -- and show a profit.
This new math might explain why the council would rather avoid the $527,000 question. While unauthorized half-million-dollar checks and million-dollar losses ("income") still swirl unattended, the city has the temerity to congratulate itself for the event.
"I know that it took a huge amount of extra time and attention to make Celebration 2000 a great evening for Phoenix," City Manager Frank Fairbanks wrote parks employees in a January 3 memo. The city is so thankful, it will throw employees a luncheon on March 6 at the Phoenix Museum of History, catered by Eddie Matney's. The fete will cost -- er, enrich -- the city to the tune of $1,500.
Even Secret Service agents, bomb-sniffing dogs and several hundred eager supporters can't bring much excitement to the Phoenix AFL-CIO headquarters. The meeting space is sandwiched between a beige tile floor and a low ceiling with fluorescent lights, squeezing all the joy from the room. Union workers are represented in sloganified tee shirts and worn jeans. They are patriotic Americans waiting for a pay raise -- or, at least, the promise of a pay raise and earned income tax credits.
On this night, Monday, Al Gore is coming to make such promises. The media have been corralled into a small section at the back of the room. "No wandering, no mingling," we are sternly warned. When one rebellious reporter cuts the white rope cordoning us off, a press pool wrangler who looks more like an Axis/Radius bouncer than a White House representative spies the breach and angrily ties up the loose ends -- there, that ought to hold 'em.
Local newsies arrived first, obediently following instructions to show up two hours prior to the rally. There are print, radio and TV representatives, and most socialize only with members of their own medium. The dorky men of radio are the exception, trying fruitlessly to strike up conversations with the babes of TV news.
The newsbabes are uniform in their use of hair highlights, sleek pantsuits and chewing gum; shiny stars among frumpy colleagues. Towering above them all is Fox 10's Julie Staley-Rodriguez, positively monolithic in a blazing red pantsuit, and chewing her gum more sternly than the rest. TV3's Stephanie Guadian wins the award for Most Effort on the Clock, dangerously straining the white rope to interview as many Gore supporters as possible.
About 15 minutes before showtime, event volunteers yell for local press to clear the prime spots on the news camera riser to make room for their superior colleagues. Enter the national press, ugly and pissy, bustling in with their bulky, somehow more national-looking equipment. Their rumpled presence signals the imminent approach of the candidate.
The vice president enters to the disco beats of The O'Jays' "Love Train," and the cheers of a half-full auditorium. The event volunteers distracted, the Flash slips from the press area and into the crowd to get a closer look -- freedom at last!
"Are there any teachers here?" Gore yells into the hissing PA, and receives a handful of affirmations. "You are heroes!"
Gore launches into a pro-union stump speech, pledging to raise the minimum wage and more pay for educators. This is his second Phoenix appearance of the day, the first being a $200-per-plate fund raiser at the Inter-Tribal Council Center. The previous event couldn't have been arduous, yet Gore looks strained and sweaty.
This is the improved, more fiery Al Gore. But not passionate, exactly. He talks as if a speechwriter added mandatory exclamation points to the end of his sentences that require him to yell at times. And yell he does, brandishing a fist and hurriedly plowing over the crowd's applause.
"I happen to agree with your senior senator, John McCain, on campaign finance reform," Gore shouts. "But I disagree with him on just about everything else!"
As Gore continues, he keeps moving. Not with purpose, just energy. He sways from side to side like a ship's mast, gulping and gasping out his words, with weird pauses between syllables. He looks like a man having a heart attack.
Gore advises union members to just say "I don't go for that" to friends who make racist comments. Gore also "guarn-damn-tee"s a pledge and ends sentences with modifiers like "or somethin'," while letting his Southern accent rise to the surface.
The effect is quite folksy and endearing. Until you realize that this man has been the vice president for eight years and doesn't really talk that way.
Winding up, he shouts: "I need your vote! I want your support! I want to be your next president!"
The crowd cheers, rushes forward to shake his hand, and then it's over. It was a few promises, a tear-jerk union anecdote, a quick bashing of the competition, a line in Spanish, a request for support at the polls and a few patriotic thoughts about the future. What's his time? Did he beat the clock?
But the union crowd is excited. They heard everything they wanted to hear.
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"I couldn't help but to think," says enamored listener Carolyn Modeen, "that what he said was from all of our hearts."
And with this candidate, you wouldn't expect anything less. Or more.
Feed the Flash: voice, 602-229-8486; fax, 602-340-8806; online, firstname.lastname@example.org