Upon entering the Maricopa Association of Governments' retreat early in September, each MAG councilmember received a few note cards and several small, adhesive-backed green dots. On the cards, they wrote problems they saw in the operations of the group; the notes were posted on a board at the front of the room. The attendees then approached the board, looked over problems their colleagues had listed, and affixed green dots to those they found particularly important. The complaints that garnered the most dots would be discussed later in the day.
One mayor had a question.
"What if we think there are more problems than we have dots?" he asked. "What if we run out of dots?"
"Let's just try to get the biggest things on the agenda for today," another mayor chimed in. "If we try to talk about everything, we'll be here 'til Christmas." Two or three others within earshot laughed heartily, if somewhat nervously.
The council had reason to be edgy. Just days before the MAG retreat, the county Board of Supervisors said publicly for the first time that perhaps the organization, a group that handles transportation planning for the Phoenix area--and about $40 million in federal funds that flow into it yearly--should be abolished.
After authoring anti-MAG columns in the Phoenix Gazette, supervisor Chairman Tom Rawles told reporters that he wanted to "disband, dismantle and disembowel" the group. The supervisors then voted unanimously to have the county's budget office analyze how MAG spends its money.
Rawles' remarks cast a pall over the retreat. Regional Council Chairman Wilburn Brown, mayor of Gilbert, said he felt "betrayed and surprised" by Rawles' remarks. Like many of the other mayors present, he complained that MAG has never done anything wrong--that it is not the group's fault its freeway plans have been the object of public contempt, that the press has exaggerated any problems that may exist. Brown insisted that MAG has a "message" problem, not a "substance" problem.
The retreat ended with a variety of plans for improved communication with the public.
Just a few weeks later, the MAG staff proposed that the council back a plan to increase gasoline taxes in Maricopa County by the minor sum of $2 billion. The money was to be used to widen 542 miles of surface streets throughout the region to alleviate air pollution and traffic congestion.
The program, if adopted, would have eliminated nearly 4,000 "access points"--that is, turn-ins to local businesses--from surface streets.
The study recommended that streets be widened so much along many corridors that the fronts of businesses would have to be demolished and moved back. Many of the shops would need to be relocated entirely--at taxpayer cost.
The vote to back a $2 billion tax increase in tax-averse Arizona was buried in what is known as the consent agenda, where relatively unimportant, uncontroversial items are generally lumped for mass approval by the MAG council.
When Rawles asked why such an enormous, controversial project was included on the consent agenda, he received no answer.
The mayors on the council, few of whom seemed to know what the proposal was or that it was about to be voted on, hastily put off discussion until another time. Then they adjourned the meeting and went to dinner.
"I don't know enough about this to vote on it," said Elaine Scruggs, mayor of Glendale, after Rawles had finished his harangue. "I think this is one of those things we do sometimes that gets us into trouble."
MAG has been getting into embarrassing trouble for a long time now.
Rawles, and many others who have followed MAG over the last decade and a half, says the failures of two major ballot proposals backed by MAG, the botched construction of the Valley's freeway system, the bungling of the Rio Salado project--all of these problems were caused by procedural, technical and personnel irregularities that began in MAG's earliest days.
MAG mayors operate in a vacuum, Rawles and other critics say. There is little accountability because voters electing the mayors who serve on the MAG council vote on local issues rather than the regional concerns that MAG is meant to address. MAG staff keeps tight control over the information the mayors receive; even decisions about what will or will not go on MAG agendas are made ahead of time, by staff members who have been with MAG, in some cases, for decades.
Finally, the critics say, MAG works under an odd set of procedural rules, some unique in the country, that makes it difficult if not impossible for the group to address large, expensive and politically contentious questions.
For many reasons, however, it is unlikely that Governor J. Fife Symington III will disband MAG. Even if he were to take that step, there are many reasons--including a history of financial irresponsibility--that the county is a less-than-perfect candidate to assume the major regional planning functions that MAG performs.
Clearly, MAG has problems--problems involving both administration and accountability--that cannot be solved by the public relations makeover its council is pursuing.
Some solutions to those problems may be found in procedural changes that strengthen lines of responsibility for MAG's decisions. These relatively simple fixes are right under MAG's nose--and have been, for a long time.
Regional councils like MAG are a product of social policy of the 1960s, when federal legislation began requiring cooperation between cities within any given urban area to address social and economic concerns. These councils of government--or, in bureaucratese, COGs--act as go-betweens for cities and towns and the feds on regional issues such as mass transit and air quality.
MAG was formed in 1967, and in 1973 became the body that plans the transportation needs of Maricopa County. As such, it handles about $40 million a year in federal transportation funds.
MAG members and supporters like to point out the good things the group has accomplished over the years--and there are some. For one thing, MAG implemented the countywide enhanced 911 emergency telephone system. Also, Wilburn Brown says, MAG worked to pass uniform building codes all over the county. MAG has set up food and shelter programs for the homeless, conducted a long-running study on open space and managed solid-waste issues.
"Those are all things we've done, important things, that have made this a better place to live," he says.
As Brown points out the achievements, however, he cannot avoid touching upon the source of the group's current political and public relations troubles--highways.
"On the freeway side, I think we've done a good job planning," he says. "Except for the absence of the Paradise Freeway and the Grand Avenue [Expressway], the governor's plan uses the very routes MAG had had in place for some time. I think that speaks well for the planning process."
That Brown would take such a delicate, halfhearted tiptoe around the subject of freeways--trying to accept credit for part of the governor's highway plan, without mentioning the travails that made it necessary--is telling.
It is the freeway issue, and MAG's inept handling of it, that has dogged the group for years and now threatens to be its undoing.
In 1985, county residents voted to tax themselves with a half-cent sales levy for 20 years, raising billions of dollars. In return, they were promised a 231-mile freeway system. Ten years later, the money was gone, and what they had was about 25 miles of disconnected bits and pieces of that system.
Both MAG and the Arizona Department of Transportation, co-architects of the freeway debacle, said cost overruns and lower-than-expected tax revenues were to blame for the problems. Last year, they went back to the public, asking for both a brand-new tax and an extension of the old one to fund completion of the freeways.
Even though pre-election polls showed that between 65 percent and 75 percent of county residents were willing to pay more taxes to build freeways, the proposed $5.6 billion tax hikes were rejected.
Polls taken after the vote showed a majority of voters had no confidence in MAG's ability to plan a freeway system.
This spring, Governor Symington released his own freeway plan. He said it would use money already available to finish selected projects in the next several years. One look at Symington's plan had MAG types sniffing, as Brown does, that the governor simply appropriated their routes, taking credit for their hard work and exacerbating their public relations problems in the process.
But the governor compiled a freeway plan only because years of MAG bungling forced him to do so. He has won praise for it only because he did what MAG had failed to do for decades--say what freeways should be built where, by what date and for how much money.
"I don't know of anything that's occurring now that would increase the public's confidence in MAG," Tom Rawles says. "And I do believe at some point that people are going to have to recognize failure, and look for alternatives. The county is only one of those possible alternatives, but we want to be ready if we need to be."
Tossing in the line about the county being only one alternative to MAG is Rawles' way of heading off accusations of power grabbing. (Brown says he doesn't know what Rawles' motives are, but considers them "suspect.") Rawles insists that having the county budget office analyze MAG's books, as the Board of Supervisors voted to do earlier this month, is merely an effort to determine how much money is needed to perform the council's job, should the county be asked to.
"First," Rawles says, "we want to know if the money MAG is spending is being spent efficiently and effectively. Second, if MAG cannot regain its credibility, and therefore cannot do some of the important public policy functions it's designed to do, we need to be in a position to step in and take over some of those functions. And we want to know what the costs are."
Rawles has had bad things to say about MAG for a long time. The chairman of the county Board of Supervisors has always had a seat on MAG, but Rawles says the group's checkered past made him hesitant to become a part of it.
"I was a little reluctant because of what I'd heard about MAG," he says. "But I decided I needed to learn about it before I started criticizing it."
Once he did learn more about it, however, it didn't take him long to start kicking up dust at MAG meetings. Last spring, he created a minifuror when he questioned the way MAG staff handles its responsibilities. He has quickly been affixed with a "troublemaker" label; his anti-MAG rhetoric of the last few months has not helped him shake it.
The problems Rawles has given voice to echo those that MAG critics have been pointing out for years. Those ills are grounded in the group's lack of accountability. The council is made up mostly of mayors, Rawles says, and because people don't vote on regional issues in municipal elections, those mayors have no accountability for their actions at MAG.
Rawles also says that MAG staff has too much power, deciding what the mayors hear and see as they prepare to make their decisions.
"It is a totally staff-driven organization," he says. "The staff makes all the decisions, and the regional council just rubber-stamps them."
Also, he says, MAG's thinking is out of touch with today's political climate. Like other critics, especially those of a conservative bent, Rawles describes the council as an example of New Society thinking whose time has come and gone.
"They offer no solutions to any problems except tax increases," he says. "And they're too committed to old bureaucratic processes."
Ultimately, he says, it is all of these problems that have created a credibility gap that keeps the group from getting its most important jobs done. Hence, the proposal that the county take over for MAG.
"The county only would step up if the lack of public trust in MAG continues to hamper progress on important issues," he says.
But Maricopa County has its own trust problem. It is just now beginning to dig out from under $100 million in short-term debt--run up either with the knowledge of county supervisors, or because they didn't ask enough questions of their own financial advisers. Besides, most transportation watchers say, it is simply not likely that the county will wind up doing MAG's job.
The governor is the only person with the power to assign MAG's duties to someone else. Because the organization will eventually have to approve the freeway plan Symington proposed earlier this year, it is probable that he will not do anything to anger the mayors on the MAG council. After lambasting MAG for months after last year's freeway tax-hike defeat, Symington has toned down his rhetoric toward the group considerably.
Also, in an age in which voters cry out for less bureaucracy, Symington is unlikely to do anything that can be construed as placing another layer of government over Valley transportation planning.
Before it hands over any more transportation dollars, the federal government would have to give its blessing to whatever group Symington transferred MAG's duties to. That process surely would take time.
And, finally, MAG is not likely to be dissolved because--for better or worse--the agency's staffers are the people who know the way around the labyrinthine world of federal transportation and environmental regulation. Scrapping 30 years of experience--even flawed experience--might not make for better public policy making.
The question, then, seems to be not whether the group will survive the next year or two, but what it will look like in the future.
Critics have pressed for years for changes in the administrative system MAG already has. Two years ago, a bill was introduced in the Legislature that would have required MAG's mayors to vote in accordance with the wishes of their respective city councils. Dubbed the "MAG Sunshine" bill, the measure would have ensured that MAG mayors could not serve one master at home, then another at MAG meetings.
Lots of the headaches MAG faces today could have been avoided if this plan had been adopted from the beginning. When Paul Johnson was mayor of Phoenix, he pushed hard for the inclusion of the Paradise Freeway in MAG's program. Even though the Paradise was perhaps the most controversial of all the proposed freeways, and even though the Phoenix City Council was against it, Johnson worked tirelessly at MAG to keep the project alive. As the mayor of the city the road was to be located in, he had much say in whether it was built; had he not supported it so ardently, it probably would have been dropped from the plan.
Soaring land costs in the Paradise corridor were one major reason the system promised to Valley voters in the 1980s couldn't be built. A determined, tenacious opposition to the freeway kept plans for it in limbo for years, holding up development on other freeways as well. Ultimately, voters defeated last year's proposed tax increases, and Symington unveiled his own plan: It does not include the Paradise Freeway.
Politicking and haggling over the freeway had cost tens of millions of dollars; perhaps more important, it had also taken years, bolstering the public's perception that MAG can't get anything done.
Even today, with Symington's plan supported by a vast majority of Valley residents, and the $1 billion Paradise roundly considered too big and expensive a project to undertake for the slight good it will do, MAG is tightly hanging on to it. The mayors still want the Paradise built. As one mayor put it, "MAG doesn't like to change their mind once it's made up."
Another reform idea, closely linked to city council involvement in MAG decisions, concerns weighted voting. Under a weighted system, Phoenix would receive a large number of votes at MAG, and Gilbert a small number, because voting strength would be determined by city population. Opponents of the idea say that by adopting it, MAG would simply be trading the tyranny of the many for the tyranny of the few, since the mayor of Phoenix would be able to make decisions more or less unilaterally--and drag the rest of the council along.
Weighted voting is in use at many other COGs around the country, however, and members of those groups don't see it as a bad thing. In fact, some experts say that without a system of proportional representation, regional transportation planning is nearly impossible.
"I think it's good, actually," says Mark Tann, of the Denver Regional Council of Governments. "It's true that you need to address the concerns of smaller towns, but to hold up overall progress for the sake of an equality that doesn't exist anyway is foolish."
In MAG's case, the lack of an overall mover or direction has been perhaps the group's biggest shortcoming. Valley commuters have stewed in gridlock for years while parochialism and intercity bickering have stalled freeway construction. The process has been especially hobbled by squabbles between east and west Valley towns. It seems that MAG can build a road in one part of the metro area only by promising something else in another.
At least part of the reason the Paradise Freeway made it onto MAG maps was that approval of thoroughfares in the west Valley was all but traded for pro-Paradise votes; even with Paul Johnson gone and the Paradise effectively dead, MAG clings to it. The promises that were made to other MAG member cities is one big reason.
Most COGs that have weighted voting also have rules requiring mayors or municipal representatives to vote in accordance with the wishes of their own city councils. Tann says this helps ensure that a mayor is not acting capriciously or out of political malice.
Speaking of votes, critics ask, how about actually recording the votes mayors cast at MAG meetings? As surprising as it may seem, records are not kept to show which mayors voted for or against which proposals. It would certainly appear that accountability could be improved if citizens were able to find out how their mayors had voted on issues such as freeway placement.
Of 15 COGs contacted by New Times, MAG is the only one that does not record the individual votes of its members.
Unrecorded voting is not the only difference between MAG and other COGs. MAG is a political offshoot of the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, of which Jack DeBolske is the executive director.
When MAG was formed, DeBolske took the reins for that group, too--and has held them tightly ever since. One thing many mayors sitting on the MAG regional council do not even know is that the staff that prepares their agendas and answers their questions is not a MAG staff. There is no MAG staff. Part of the staff serving MAG is employed by the league, the others work for, and are paid and housed by, Maricopa County. If all 29 representatives on the MAG regional council became incensed at something a staffer did or said, they could not fire that staffer--because that staffer works for DeBolske, not for them.
Critics wonder how any political body without control of a staff can be accountable for that staff's actions.
Critics both inside and outside MAG grumble about the way crucial information about votes comes to councilmembers. As motions are made to vote on a question, mayors often say they lack sufficient information to make an educated decision.
Some say they receive information packets too late, and don't have adequate time to read through them before MAG meetings.
Even if they have time, anybody who has ever seen a MAG agenda can tell you it is a long, complicated document. So voluminous and confusing are MAG agendas that they arrive to mayors and the press color-coded. Agendas are broken up into different-colored sections with names such as "cherry," "orchid" and "goldenrod." They can weigh five pounds.
"Honestly," one mayor said recently, "I don't get the chance to read and understand this stuff the way I should."
Maricopa County Supervisor Betsey Bayless agrees that the group's agenda process needs to be changed.
"When I go to a Board of Supervisors meeting," she says, "I go armed with my agenda and all the supporting materials I need. I didn't always feel that well-prepared at MAG meetings. That's pretty technical stuff that they do, and I had a hard time keeping up."
MAG's harshest critics say that it is through the agenda process that the council staff is able to decide what the mayors know and what they get to vote on. The more conspiracy-minded point at DeBolske as the man who makes those decisions, an idea DeBolske has described as "bunk."
Mayor Brown is happy with the MAG retreat and the progress he says the group made there.
"I think we got a lot accomplished," he says. "We know the best thing to do is make changes to the system we have got, and not disband and throw everything away."
But the action plan MAG has prepared--based on suggestions voiced at the retreat--is long on ideas about public image and short on either administrative or structural reform.
Plans for possible new public relations activities include a MAG newsletter (going out at the end of this month), flyers to be sent all over the county and new polling and focus groups.
"These are all steps we would not have taken without the retreat," Brown says. "I'm optimistic about MAG's future."
The plan also contains a list of ideas to improve the group that do not necessarily involve PR: a summit with the Legislature; more annual retreats to talk about goals and budgets; and improving the amount and kind of information mayors are given by staff. The most telling sections of the plan, however, may be those that follow the lofty goals enumerated in the list. Those sections have these headings: "Who will see it is done?" and "By when will it be completed?"
Those sections are all blank.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.