The cover charge for Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza's April 12 "State of the City" address and luncheon -- brought to you by AT&T and the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce -- was 55 bucks. That's pretty stiff to hear a public official deliver an assessment of the community he serves.
However, I discovered one could easily make up the cost and then some by pocketing a few of the forgotten $25 gift certificates for Southwest Airlines tucked beneath hundreds of untouched plates of apple pie at the event's end. I walked out $145 ahead, and polished off my stocking-stuffer shopping with seven months to spare.
I also engaged in the modern business ritual known as "networking." Or at least I tried, since the official schedule read: "11:00 to 11:30, Networking." My networking did not go well. As I learned the hard way, the first stage of networking is to exchange business cards, and there was something about mine that seemed to be a turnoff for my would-be networking partners.
After a few tries, I said to hell with it and went to hang out in the hotel lobby with the Recyclesaurus, a guy in a dinosaur suit waving to new arrivals near the registration table. Also working the crowd in costume were a giant lizard in a hard hat whose affiliation I never determined, and a giant, fluffy Southwest Airlines jet.
Speaking of fluff, Rimsza could have served his speech twirled around a cone on a carnival midway. And it wasn't just his force-fed artificial sweetening (Rimsza makes Al Gore look like William Jennings Bryan), or the way he needlessly emphasizes almost every other word so that listening to him you don't feel like you're being drawn in by his words so much as dragged by the neck.
Rimsza's address wasn't a matter of style over substance. He just didn't have either.
Here's how he began:
"How can anyone not look back on the last 12 months in Phoenix and not have a thousand things to say?"
I don't have a clue, and evidently neither does Rimsza, because this is what he said next:
"Except that this is a speech, I have to say the past 12 months have left me speechless."
You tell me: How is it possible for Mayor Rimsza to simultaneously have a thousand things to say and be speechless?
I posed this question to the Skipper on one of the five query cards I filled out and handed to a roaming Chamber of Commerce representative.
Following his speech, the body of which I'll get to in a minute, Rimsza took questions from the audience, which were read to him by KTAR talk show host Pat McMahon, who warned everyone in advance there wouldn't be enough time for the mayor to answer all the questions.
I didn't expect my question about the paradox in Rimsza's introduction to make the cut, since it was more of a dis than a question. And I didn't hold out much hope that any of my questions would receive a public hearing and response, because they weren't nice. They weren't deliberately mean, either. They were just real.
Here's one of them, reprinted verbatim:
"Shifts in U.S. Border Patrol policy are funneling an unprecedented number of undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America into the Phoenix area. The opening prayer today reminded us to help those less fortunate than ourselves. What's being done to help these people? Also, do you support a guest worker program which would legalize their labor, tax it, and avail them of social services such as health care?"
Here's a question Rimsza took instead:
"Do you have any advice on how to convince your wife to let you have a dog?"
Now, some mayors of major cities might have tried to dodge such a wicked fastball. But not our Skipper.
"I love my dogs," he said. "The best thing about them is in the morning, they go out and get my newspaper, and hopefully if there's a bad article about me they tear it up before they bring it in the house."
Here's another question I thought worthy:
"What's being done to diversify the recreational and cultural attractions of downtown Phoenix, and to encourage people to live there, instead of the suburbs?"
Here's one Rimsza answered in its place:
"Wouldn't it be fun to lead the crowd in a rendition of 'I've Been Working on the Railroad'?"
Rimsza demurred, proving himself more diplomat than fool. "That would be fun," he said. "But I'm afraid we have more important matters to discuss with our limited time here today."
In reality, Rimsza chuckled, then asked several of his advisers to stand and sing, in unison, the first verse of the requested ditty, during which the mayor waved his arms like a conductor (the orchestra kind) and punctuated the lyrics with a hearty "Choo-choo-choo!"
I'm guessing, make that praying, this performance was in reference to the recent passage of the transit tax to fund expanded bus service and a light rail system, which Rimsza backed, and which he ticked off in the formal portion of his speech as one of the city's crowning achievements of the past year, along with the passage of a referendum to fund the preservation of 15,000 acres of "pristine Sonoran Desert."
Here's what else was accomplished by Rimsza and the City of Phoenix, according to Rimsza, and in his own words:
"We made a trade visit to our sister city in Hermosillo, Sonora, and subsequently hosted them for a business symposium, right here in Phoenix. Now hundreds of business people on both sides of the border have a better understanding of how to expand their markets and ours and make NAFTA work to everyone's advantage."
The original draft probably read "every multinational corporation's advantage," before Rimsza remembered it was a Chamber of Commerce crowd, so "everyone" would suffice.
"We backlit every single street sign at every single intersection in Phoenix using smart technology that keeps the lights lit. No burnt-out light bulbs in this city, ever!"
"We approved the largest destination resort and conference center in the Southwest: Desert Ridge Marriott."
Get busy, go Skippy!
"We broke ground on the new Phelps Dodge headquarters, making them the first business to leave downtown, and then come home."
See previous downtown question.
"We eliminated a hotbed for crime called the Rainbow Market, and made way for real economic investment. Last month, the Legacy Golf Club hosted the LPGA [and] the Phoenix Thunderbirds bought the Thunderbirds Golf Course . . ."
Look into my eyes and repeat after me: "Golf equals money. Money equals golf."
"In the past 12 months, the Arizona Diamondbacks reached postseason play faster than any expansion team in history. And, ladies and gentlemen, KJ's back."
Hey, who's running this town: Mayor Rimsza, or Jerry Colangelo?
Sorry, stupid question.
"We were successful in honoring the memory of Shannon Smith by increasing the penalties with our partners at the state for the criminal stupidity of firing guns randomly into the air. For those who continue such deadly nonsense, we're going to install sophisticated equipment to allow us to pinpoint the exact location from which these shots are fired, using the science of triangulation."
Note the transition from a recap of the glorious recent past to plans for the future.
Rimsza proceeded to announce plans for the City of Phoenix to launch its first major bond program since 1988 to fund infrastructure improvements which have yet to be specified, and to "high-tech the police department."
(Regarding that "science of triangulation": Anyone who believes random gunfire in Phoenix is a problem should visit south central Los Angeles on New Year's Eve, when it virtually rains lead. The city leaders of L.A. installed a system of sonic monitors similar to the one Rimsza loosely proposed, and while it was highly successful in pinpointing the location of the source of a sound, it was unable to distinguish between a gunshot and, say, a firecracker or a backfire.)
The pièce de résistance of Rimsza's address, though, the One Big Thing he said he wants to get done in the next 12 months, is to clean up democracy on a local level by ridding it of the scourge of "those who manipulate the system for profit, who are not motivated by philosophy, but cold, hard cash."
Would that be lobbyists?
"I'm talking about paid petition circulators."
Oh. Guess not.
(In case you don't know, a paid petition circulator is someone who gathers signatures of registered voters for a company that's been hired to get enough signatures to put an initiative or referendum on the ballot. Typically, these circulators are contract employees paid on a per-signature basis by a management firm.)
Rimsza hardly forged a new battleground with his call to arms. Paid signature gathering has become a necessary evil of modern democracy, akin to raising campaign money. And just as there is a movement for campaign finance reform, there is a growing chorus of voices crying out against paid petition circulators, led by Washington Post political reporter David Broder, author of the new book Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Broder was in Phoenix last week promoting his book. (For a more comprehensive discussion of Broder's opinions and the controversy over campaign initiatives, I recommend you check out Amy Silverman's excellent profile of Derrick Lee, the go-to guy in Arizona for any individual or group looking to purchase thousands of signatures; Silverman's story, "Autograph Hound," appeared in the April 13 issue of New Times.)
Back to Rimsza:
"This fundamentally brilliant tool of the people, for the people and by the people for their common good has evolved into a bought and paid-for expense for special interests and their selfish greed. . . . My proposal is to make this process pure again by simply eliminating paid petition circulators."
The Arizona Republic quickly hopped aboard the Rimsza Reform Express, with an editorial the next day headlined "A Call for Pure Initiatives/Rimsza builds compelling case."
One problem: Last January, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a State of Colorado law that required paid petition circulators to wear badges identifying them as such. The ruling was based largely on the First Amendment. Free speech and whatnot.
Consider this: The Colorado law was enacted by a state government, and sought only to require petition circulators to wear ID badges. Rimsza's proposing that a municipal government attempt to outlaw the practice entirely. This would be taking a page from the "How to Waste Taxpayer Money With Doomed Legislation" book of government.
Rimsza would have realized this if he'd conducted a minimum of research (in the Republic's case, it would be called "reporting"). Instead of announcing his intentions to ban paid petition gathering, he should have denounced the practice, and announced plans for a public information campaign to get voters not to sign petitions circulated by non-volunteers. Paid petition circulators in Arizona are required to tell you they're being paid if you ask. Also, they're easy to identify because they usually have several petitions and don't know diddly about the referendums and initiatives they're asking you to help put on the ballot.
Instead, Rimsza came roaring into the Hyatt Regency banquet hall on the express train from left field.
Contact David Holthouse at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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