PITCHING A SHUTOUTTHE PUBLIC WAS CUT OUT OF THE BASEBALL-STADIUM DEBATE BEFORE IT EVEN BEGAN
Baseball lovers and tax haters waited all last week for word on the proposed baseball stadium they will be asked to pay for.
Two months after Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo and an investor group announced plans to pursue an expansion franchise, a breakthrough in negotiations was expected any day, as soon as Maricopa County Supervisor Jim Bruner, the swing vote, came to terms with Colangelo.
But if the public expected to finally be told any details of the proposed $300 million-plus stadium development, it was sorely disappointed when an agreement was finally announced last Friday afternoon.
Bruner and Colangelo did not attend the announcement. Lawyers who had negotiated for the county and Colangelo's group outlined the deal in the broadest possible terms--$240 million in county sales tax money, and a sliding rent structure--and then refused to answer questions about details of the transaction.
After two months of intense negotiations on one of the largest public-works projects in recent county history, the county's spin doctors passed out one sheet of paper purporting to explain the proposed deal.
Nothing further would be released, they said, until the proposal is formally presented to the county Board of Supervisors at a meeting tonight.
Voters, who have swamped county offices and radio talk shows with telephone calls trying to find out what sort of deal was being made in their name, were still left waiting for information.
But then, it has been that way ever since the stadium proposal surfaced last November.
From Colangelo's initial press conference in front of America West Arena last year to the strangely secretive announcement by negotiators on Friday, the public has been deliberately shut out of the process.
Only tonight, when the supervisors are scheduled to meet and formally receive the proposal, will voters get to learn the inner workings of the deal for the first time. And tonight, the supervisors are also expected to approve the deal, making any attempt at public input into the deal a charade.
Supervisors Ed King and Mary Rose Wilcox have already announced they will support new sales taxes to build the stadium. Supervisor Tom Rawles has said he will not; Supervisor Betsey Bayless has withdrawn from the discussion because of a conflict of interest.
Until last week, that left Bruner--a longtime baseball booster who has his eye on a congressional race this year--to decide if the citizens of Maricopa County will be putting up almost a quarter-billion dollars for a new baseball park.
Now Bruner is on board, capping a weeklong flurry of talks.
Throughout the critical week, telephone lines coursed with thousands of calls from voters who wanted to have their say about paying a new quarter-cent sales tax, and from citizens groups clamoring for details of the secret plan.
But the public's questions went unanswered, its comments largely unheard.
The doors to the negotiations were deliberately closed. By the time the stadium arrangement is laid out for the public tonight, it will be a done deal.
The mammoth stadium project--and one of the county's largest tax increases, levied by a board that has slashed services in the face of recent budget problems--will probably come to pass without any messy interference from the public.
There have been no hearings. No public vote on the tax levy. In fact--except for the single sheet handed out at Friday's press conference--barely a scrap of paper providing even the most general outlines of the deal between the county and Colangelo's group has been made public while the negotiations were taking place.
Instead, voters have been left to ferret out from press conferences, news leaks and sound bites what actions were being taken in their name, and what the deal might cost their pocketbooks.
The sidelining of public opinion was no accident.
@body:Voters were cut out of the loop on the question of a baseball-stadium tax four years ago. The entire process took five minutes and 15 seconds.
It happened on June 14, 1990, long before Jerry Colangelo entered the baseball scene. A totally innocuous bill--a technical correction in the state groundwater code--was up for consideration by the Arizona House of Representatives.
Representative Chris Herstam, about to wrap up eight years in the legislature, rose to offer an amendment to Senate Bill 1344. The amendment was what is known in legislative jargon as a "striker." Strikers, past and current legislators agree, are the stealth bombers of the legislative process. To launch this type of surreptitious attack on the law, a legislator proposes an amendment "striking" all the wording from a pending bill, and then replaces the original language with a completely new, unrelated law.
The rules governing strikers have been tightened since 1990, but at the time, Herstam was able to completely transform a hypertechnical correction in the groundwater code (which had already passed the Senate) and substitute new verbiage that allowed the Board of Supervisors of Maricopa County--and only Maricopa County--to create a county stadium district with the power to levy a quarter-cent sales tax.
The timing of Herstam's legislative foray into major league baseball was also not accidental. The year before, Phoenix voters had gone to the polls and resoundingly rejected new taxes to pay for a sports stadium.
There was talk of expansion among major league owners, who were soliciting bids for two new teams, and Herstam says he wanted to enhance Phoenix's chance of landing one.
"Nobody asked me to introduce the legislation," Herstam says. "I just determined that there would be no chance at all for an expansion team without the funding mechanism for a stadium. I just thought I would go ahead and give it a try."
The idea, Herstam says, was to give the county Board of Supervisors, acting in its capacity as the board of a stadium district, the power to levy a tax without a public vote. The supervisors could then absorb the wrath--or accolades--of the voters.
"You elect five individuals to represent the entire county, and it is their job to make the difficult decisions," Herstam says.
Herstam says he used the striker because by the time he drafted his proposal, it was too late in the session to introduce a new bill. The proposal, he says, was widely known before he rose to offer the amendment.
"This wasn't legislation that was hidden away somewhere in dusty statutes," he says. "It was a bill that was thoroughly discussed."
Still, virtually nothing about the proposal appeared in the daily press before Herstam brought it up on the floor. Some legislative members say they were blindsided by the striker, which was never sent to committee or subjected to any public hearings.
"Some of us caught up on it in caucus, and some of us voted against it," says state Senator Lito Pea. "But there was no public hearing at any point in the process."
Herstam was then the House majority whip, and the bill had the support of legislative leadership, Pea and others say. With that blessing, the statute was greased before the public, and some legislators, even knew of its existence.
Herstam says that, at the time, the bill seemed to him to be an all-around winner. If the county got a team, it could build a stadium. If it didn't, no tax could be imposed.
When the bill was raised on the House floor, only one legislator, Representative Lela Steffey, spoke in opposition.
Steffey--who describes herself as a baseball lover whose nephew plays for the San Diego Padres--offered an amendment that would require the sales-tax levy to be put to a public vote.
"I think when we're asking the entire county, the entire public population, to agree to a quarter-percent tax, that we should give them a voice in it," Steffey told her fellow lawmakers. "For myself, I would support it, because I support sports. It's a good moneymaker for Arizona. But we are asking for this tax, and I think that we should be able to trust our electorate. If they want a sports stadium built with their money, then I think they should have a choice in the vote."
Herstam, however, disagreed with Steffey. Timing, he argued on the floor, made a public vote impracticable, since major league baseball was poised to award two expansion teams. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Herstam contended, could be trusted to best guard the interests of its constituents.
"I feel that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors is well aware of the political heat that they could take in making that decision," Herstam told the House. "If they have the political courage to do what they think is a smart investment for Maricopa County, we ought to allow them to do that. They stand for reelection based on that record."
Steffey's amendment requiring a public vote on the sales tax was quickly defeated. Herstam's striker amendment allowing the establishment of a stadium district and the levying of a sales tax then passed easily. From start to finish, it took only five minutes and 15 seconds to lay the groundwork that, four years later, would engulf Maricopa County in a debate about baseball.
After passing the House, the bill returned to the Senate, where it also passed on the closing day of the session. Without one moment of opportunity for the public to voice its views, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors was empowered to levy a sales tax for a major league baseball stadium.
Among those lobbying for the legislation, lawmakers say, was Maricopa County Supervisor Jim Bruner.
"The supervisors pushed for that bill," says state Senator Pat Wright. "Jim Bruner was in the lead, as I recall."
The bill was also backed by the Maricopa County Sports Authority--a taxpayer-supported group created several years earlier to boost sporting events in the Valley. Sports authority chairman Lamar Whitmer was a key supporter of the new law, legislators say. (Whitmer stepped down from his post in 1991 amid allegations that he had misused $40,000 in sports-authority funds. Late last year, he was acquitted on one count of fraud and three counts of theft.)
Bitterness still remains among some lawmakers who feel they were bulldozed by Herstam and the bill's backers.
"I know it was a conscious effort to bypass what the people had already turned down, and I didn't like any part of it," says Steffey. "The people had already spoken that they did not want to pay their tax dollars for a stadium."
Herstam, however, says that he only did what he thought was best in the interest of bringing major league baseball to the Valley. There was nothing nefarious about his bill, he says.
"It wasn't something that was done one night and voted on the next day," Herstam says.
At the time, Herstam points out, Phoenix Firebirds owner Martin Stone was trying to put together a proposal to land an expansion franchise for Phoenix. The bill he authored, Herstam says, was an effort to give Stone another arrow in his quiver--financing for a stadium.
"It was sort of a last-ditch effort," Herstam says. "Obviously, it didn't work."
It didn't. Stone was never able to put together an ownership group that could afford to bid on a franchise. The supervisors appointed a board to hold public hearings on a stadium proposal, but voter support was lukewarm. Phoenix was blanked in its effort to win a franchise, with Miami and Denver awarded the expansion teams.
But the law Herstam authored stayed on the books. The next year, in 1991, the legislature revisited the statute and expanded it. Other counties were given the authority to levy surcharges on rental cars and recreational vehicles to fund improvements for Cactus League facilities. All 14 other counties were also given the power to levy a sales tax. But only if the voters approved it.
Maricopa County alone retained the right to levy a tax without voter approval. And that is how the statute remained, a sleeper in the state law books, until it was resurrected in November.
"I don't think the people realized that they got screwed," says Senator Wright, who voted against Herstam's bill. "They [the Phoenix voters] thought they had voted down the stadium, and then they didn't pay attention. They wake up now and say: 'Oh, you did this to us three years ago.'"
@body:Early last Tuesday morning, Jerry Colangelo geared up yet again to expound on the virtues of major league baseball. This time, he was on the scrambled-eggs-and-bacon circuit, addressing a breakfast meeting of East Valley business leaders.
The crowd, seated around eight round tables in a hotel conference room, was friendly. But even with a receptive audience, the Phoenix Suns owner seemed defensive.
Ever since County Supervisor Jim Bruner had approached him to lead an investor group for baseball, Colangelo complained, he had become a lightning rod for critics and naysayers.
"The personal abuse that has come along with this particular project is unwarranted," Colangelo told the crowd. "I thought everyone was in this together to make something happen for the Valley, but there are too many different agendas. The effort, the time, the agony is something I didn't bargain for."
One source of Colangelo's frustration sat in the rear of the room with his legs crossed and a tight grin on his face--County Supervisor Tom Rawles.
Three days earlier, Rawles had announced that he would vote against a tax levy for the baseball stadium. Supervisors Ed King and Mary Rose Wilcox then hastily called a press conference to announce they would support the tax.
After weeks during which all of the supervisors remained vague on their intentions, the political lines were drawn, and Jim Bruner became the sole arbiter of the stadium proposal's future.
At the breakfast meeting, Rawles watched as Colangelo, without mentioning Rawles' name, chided the supervisor for not backing the project.
"The people who are voting yes on this issue are showing leadership," Colangelo said. "I'd like to say to anyone who already has cast a public vote still has the option of changing that vote."
The uncomfortable scene offered a small window into the fractious political fight that was playing out behind closed doors, a fight that had become quite personal. Colangelo was pissed at Rawles. Rawles was pissed at Wilcox and King. Bruner wasn't talking.
All of the supervisors were in search of hallowed political ground, wanting neither the blame for botching a baseball deal nor the wrath of taxpayers if it appeared the government was playing fast and loose with public money.
Given the county's recent financial straits, the possible backlash for a vote to levy the sales tax was no small consideration. In the past three years, the supervisors had whacked more than $50 million out of the county budget--cutting programs, freezing pay and hiring and squeezing money from whatever else it could find--to avoid raising property taxes.
Since it can only be used for the stadium district, the sales tax is a different creature than a property tax, and cannot be used to help with other county budget woes. But the board's fiscal history underscores how reluctant it has been to impose any tax increase on the public.
Which may explain why Rawles was the first to bolt from the stadium deal.
One source close to the negotiations says Rawles had been holding out for the stadium to be built in his district, despite Colangelo's unbending insistence that the ball field go downtown, next to America West Arena.
When it became clear that the stadium would not go in Tempe, the source contends, Rawles decided to play to the antitax crowd and oppose the deal. With his wife, Linda, gearing up to run for Congress, the source says, Rawles figured he should score some points with the conservative wing of the Republican party.
"If he could have brought this thing to Tempe, it would have been big-time for him," the source says. "In exchange for that, he'd take the gamble [on voting for the tax]."
Rawles says that is not true. He announced his vote against the project, Rawles says, because he is "philosophically opposed" to using taxpayer dollars for what is basically a private business deal.
Rawles also made up his mind, he says, after learning that supervisors King and Wilcox had gone behind everyone's back, meeting with Colangelo personally--without the county's negotiators present--to try to cut a deal.
"Our negotiators were in a totally intolerable position," Rawles says. "They had two supervisors, two of their bosses, go behind their backs."
By announcing his opposition, Rawles contends, he forced King and Wilcox to announce their support, thereby handing Bruner the final vote and the leverage Bruner needed to negotiate a favorable deal for the county.
"It worked," Rawles says.
And it clearly upset Colangelo, who showed up all over the radio, talking about how "disappointed" he was in Rawles for failing to show "courage" and "leadership."
Colangelo said he had reluctantly agreed to three concessions sought by King and Wilcox: capping the county contribution to the stadium; agreeing to pay higher rent; and guaranteeing that the county would receive some money if the baseball franchise were ever sold.
Still, Colangelo said, he was being painted as a bad guy, a greedy businessman out to loot the public treasury. The public, he said, simply did not understand the economics of baseball, and if it did would certainly see that his demands made perfect sense.
Of course, neither Colangelo nor any of the supervisors ever bothered to lay out for the public just what was being demanded or why.
Lost amid the squabbles between board members and Colangelo was the public, which was being provided mere glimpses of the fevered negotiations taking place.
Rawles, the only supervisor talking last week, says he is not troubled by the secretive nature of the stadium discussions. "I gave people an opportunity to tell me what they thought," he says. "You may not think that phone calls have any impact, but they do, and we've had a tremendous response."
Former representative Herstam, whose bill made the whole stadium discussion possible, says he is also not bothered by the lack of formal public input.
"In my heart, I do believe that elected officials should make the tough public policy decisions and stand on their record at election time," Herstam says.
But citizens groups like the Sun City Taxpayers Association and Westmarc--a coalition of west Valley business and civic leaders--were clamoring for some information on the proposal so they could inform their members and ponder the ramifications.
Whatever the supervisors' final action, citizens group leaders said, they expected at least to have an opportunity to study the stadium deal and comment on it before it was slam-dunked through the system.
Colangelo concedes that a public vote on the sales-tax levy might be nice. But echoing the argument Herstam made four years ago to get his bill passed, Colangelo says there is simply not enough time to go to the voters.
"If time allowed, it would have been wonderful to have a public vote," Colangelo says. "But we have to move within the system."
During his breakfast speech, in a line filled with unintended irony, Colangelo explained the ground swell of interest in baseball by saying, "There are thousands and thousands of people who have been involved in this process, some of whom have been heard, and many who have not."
Later, as the breakfast crowd headed for work, Colangelo seemed exasperated by questions about public involvement in the stadium decision.
"I didn't set the ground rules," Colangelo said. "I was asked to participate in this game."
@body:Even as the stadium deal was reaching its final stages, opponents of a tax increase--and lawmakers who just believe that voters should have a say before a tax is imposed--were trying to figure out if there was any way to force a vote on the issue.
Cliff Cowles, president of the Sun City Taxpayers Association, pledged late last week to work for the defeat of supervisors King and Wilcox when they next run for office, adding that he would look for a way to force a referendum on the tax.
State senators Lito Pea and Pat Wright introduced legislation that would change the 1990 Herstam bill and require a public vote on a stadium sales-tax levy in Maricopa County.
But the technicalities of the original stadium legislation have created widespread confusion about the prospect of voters and citizens groups finding a way to inject themselves in the process.
One looming question is whether voters have the option of trying to force a referendum on the sales-tax levy.
While the Arizona Constitution--and state statutes--provide generous avenues for referendum petition drives, several legal experts say it is unclear whether those rules apply to special taxing entities like the stadium district.
County elections director Jim Shumway says he is simply not sure whether the sales tax, if formally enacted, could be challenged by referendum. The County Attorney's Office has declined to issue a legal opinion on the question until there is a specific board action on which to pass judgment.
Adding to the confusion is what exact action the board takes when it okays the stadium deal.
By law, the board cannot actually levy the sales tax until Maricopa County is awarded a baseball franchise. Prior to that, officials say, the board can approve only a memorandum of understanding that it will vote for the tax if a franchise is awarded.
In a strict technical sense, therefore, the board will not have levied a tax, but merely expressed its intent to do so. And the board may well have a different membership when, or if, a vote on actually levying the tax occurs.
"There is no tax passed, so there is nothing to try to hold a referendum on," says one source in the county administration. "You can't do anything, no how, no way, until we have that franchise in hand."
All of which leads to the largest question of all: Is there any chance that Phoenix will even be awarded a major league franchise, or was the entire stadium debate an exercise in communal wishful thinking?
Although he will provide no details, Colangelo insists that he has received signals from major league baseball owners encouraging his bid for a team. Expansion, he says, should be a topic at the upcoming owners' meeting in Florida.
An observer close to the major league owners, however, says he'll be surprised if Phoenix is awarded a franchise anytime soon. "I'm guessing it would be a slim chance at this point," the source says. "These guys [the owners] are so far from being united on anything, I don't know if they could make up their minds."
At the uninformative press conference held last Friday, negotiators were willing to stick their necks out and predict that the chances of Phoenix landing a team are good. Joe Garagiola Jr., son of the famous catcher and a longtime baseball supporter, jauntily characterized the odds of gaining a franchise as "very high."
Which, until tonight's scheduled meeting, is as solid as any other information the public has been given.
AGENT OF CHANGE AN OFT-REJECTED TUCSON W... v1-20-94
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.