Street Fight

Leon Woodward's tangles with the city go way back.
Emily Piraino

Leon Woodward was expecting an apology when he picked up the letter from city zoning officials in late March.

After all, city officials had admitted their inspectors were wrong for harassing Woodward about the height of signs in his U.S. Parking Systems parking lots, which dot the landscape of downtown Phoenix. They had told him his signs could be no more than four feet off the ground. During a year and a half of appeals, Woodward showed that the city was wrong: Zoning officials were citing an ordinance that referred to properties with buildings, not sprawling slabs of asphalt.

If he was forced to follow the city's mistaken instructions, he pointed out, only midgets in go-carts could safely enter and exit his parking lots.

Instead of an apology, though, Woodward received this warning:

"In today's America, people are fearful and are taking comments to heart. In an era of postal killings, drive-by shootings and September 11, we should exercise care not to frighten or intentionally intimidate other people.

"I implore you to take this letter seriously," wrote Denee McKinley, a senior official in the city's zoning section. "Please avoid all communication with the Sign section staff."

Is Leon Woodward a psychopath, gangbanger or terrorist?

Not at all. He's just a sometimes mouthy businessman with the wrong-headed notion that you can fight City Hall when City Hall is wrong.

Thanks to that notion, Woodward, owner of U.S. Parking, has been the victim of a litany of harassment by zoning and law enforcement officials in Phoenix. Indeed, over the last two decades, he has arguably been Public Enemy #1 to those in local government who believe their power should never be questioned by lowly citizens.

The strange letter likening Woodward to psycho killers stemmed from his arguments with zoning regulator Kelly Kvetko about her incorrect, and likely retaliatory, application of city ordinances. But the letter to Woodward was also prompted by an absurd accusation by Kvetko: that she feared for her safety because she had seen Woodward outside her home in a red pickup truck.

In typical Woodward fashion, he's offered his million-dollar home to anyone who can find a red truck that he owns, leases or ever drives.

Woodward doesn't have a red truck. But he does have a target on his back.

"I can confirm he was targeted because I was told to target him," says Phil Marriott, who worked as a zoning inspector for the city through several of Woodward's fights with the city. "They did target certain people, and it's clear they still target certain people. And I'd guess Leon has been their biggest target for the longest time."

And now City Hall has a new trick to silence complainers like Woodward. The message to property owners is clear: Fight us, and we'll compare you to Mohammed Atta.

Here's what can happen to you if you get crosswise with the city:

Leon Woodward's brawl with City Hall started back in the mid-1980s, when Woodward, a burly former high school football coach, decided he'd had enough of construction workers parking in his lots for free while they were building the parking garage under Patriots Square downtown. He called the construction workers freeloaders, and they called Woodward any number of vulgar names.

As the verbal encounters escalated, an off-duty Phoenix police officer at the construction site began to harass Woodward about his treatment of the construction workers.

A few days after Woodward began confronting the workers, a sign appeared on the entrance to his paid parking lot:

"Free parking today. Happy Holidays. Thanks for your business."

Woodward was incensed when he discovered the sign, which left his fee box empty that day.

So Woodward started putting stickers on the trucks of those who didn't pay. The stickers were difficult to remove.

Three weeks later, construction workers confronted him. As both sides screamed threats, the off-duty officer came over to break up the fight. Again, the officer sided with the construction workers and threatened to arrest Woodward. The next day, Woodward called Phoenix police internal affairs to complain about the officer.

A few days later, Woodward was written up by the construction site officer for disorderly conduct.

Woodward got a copy of the report. Oddly, the report's handwriting looked identical to the handwriting of the "Free Parking" sign.

Woodward then paid $1,500 to a nationally respected handwriting expert to analyze the handwriting of the report and the sign. Sure enough, both were written by the same person.

After a Phoenix police internal investigation of the incident, the officer was suspended for a week.

And the harassment of Woodward by all levels of local government shifted into high gear.  

In 1989, Woodward, increasing his activities as a political gadfly, began accusing the state Department of Public Safety director Ralph Milstead of having gone to illegal lengths to oust Governor Evan Mecham from office. Mecham was ousted the year before.

Soon after, Woodward began receiving phoned death threats at all hours of the night. From April 25 to May 3 of that year, the Woodwards received more than 50 harassing phone calls.

Phoenix police were called in to investigate. They made an amazing finding. Forty-three of the calls had come from DPS headquarters.

By the end of internal investigations by Phoenix police, DPS and the FBI, a frightening picture of police-state tactics became clear. Several DPS officers apparently had been involved in the harassment, although only one, Van Jackson, was punished. And Phoenix police officials clearly attempted to impede and quickly shutter an investigation that was proving to be a huge embarrassment for their colleagues at DPS.

Later investigations proved that, at the time of the attacks on Woodward, Phoenix police and DPS often worked together to harass mouthy citizens. At least twice, for example, former police chief Ruben Ortega enlisted the aid of DPS officials to investigate his own foes, one of whom was New Times executive editor Michael Lacey.

Since the police scandals, the job of harassing Woodward apparently was turned over to the city zoning inspectors. And that harassment continues to this day.

Since 1990, Woodward has been cited 18 times by the city for code violations that he proved to be bogus or arbitrarily applied only to him.

In one instance, Woodward had to spend $32,000 on attorneys to fight city orders that he add extensive landscaping to his properties, landscaping that clearly wasn't required by city ordinances.

Woodward won that battle, then got back at Phoenix officials by correctly pointing out that city ordinances did not allow for a planned $23 million amphitheater. Phoenix had already spent $8 million in the planning stages when the city scrapped the project in the late 1980s.

So what is now Cricket Pavilion ended up in the West Valley.

"I told them, You cost me $32,000, I cost you $8 million,'" Woodward tells me. "Now, don't screw with me again.'"

Of course, they did screw with him again, and again, and again.

Which brings us to the latest fight.

In late 2001, Woodward submitted applications to erect signs 10 feet off the ground in his parking lot just west of Bank One Ballpark.

Kelly Kvetko wrote back that his application was being denied. In accordance with city ordinance 643.H.8, she wrote that Woodward's signs could only be four feet off the ground.

The problem with Kvetko's analysis: The ordinance she cited only deals with properties with structures on them. Woodward's lot has no building.

After fighting with zoning officials for 17 months, Woodward sought the opinion of Dave Richert, the city's planning director.

Richert in turn produced a letter on March 7 that stated: "It is clear that Section 643.H.8 does not apply" in Woodward's case.

Again, Woodward was proven to be correct.

That's why Woodward expected an apology letter from the zoning department. He figured that an apology was only logical, since once again city officials had made him spend thousands of dollars because they misinterpreted their own codes.

Nope. They just compared him to terrorists, accused him of stalking Kvetko and told him never to come around a building that the owner of a parking lot company must visit often to keep in business.

Last Thursday, Woodward called zoning supervisor Lionel Lyons to set up a meeting to discuss the letter. Woodward says Lyons agreed to meet him at 10 a.m. the next day. When Woodward arrived at the city's Development Services Department, he asked for Lyons.

Three minutes later, a Phoenix police officer and building security guard came to escort him from the building.

What a nice little trick on Woodward.

Late Friday morning, I talked to one of Phoenix Police Department's bicycle cops involved with the incident. The officer said that in his three years of working his beat, which includes the city's Development Services offices, he has never seen Woodward be "anything other than cordial."

"There's never been any incident that I know of," says the officer, who wished not to be identified.

Needless to say, the letter and the incident at the city offices has Woodward once again in a fighting mode.

And he says he has ammunition. For one, Woodward says he has irrefutable proof that the city has failed to follow its own laws in landscaping city parking lots. Most notably, he says, the sprawling economy parking lots at Sky Harbor International Airport were not built to the same code that city zoning officials wrongly attempted to apply to his lots.  

If Woodward is forced to become a landscaping advocate, he says, the city will be forced to turn at least 1,000 city-owned parking spaces into green space. If so, he estimates, the city will lose up to $1.8 million in revenue each year.

Sure, he'd be vindicated, but the rest of us would be screwed.

I don't mean to sound like Dr. Phil here, but it's time for this ridiculous feud to end.

All of the time and money spent by the city trying to destroy Leon Woodward could be better spent on building a better Phoenix.

Planning director Dave Richert, the one guy Woodward says he still respects downtown, needs to send a letter of apology to Leon Woodward for the years of harassment he's suffered at the hands of the city. And he needs to promise to oversee personally any future zoning issues regarding Woodward to ensure that Woodward gets the fair treatment he deserves.

Of course, Woodward also deserves an apology for the screwball letter likening him to a psycho killer. That was a cheap shot.

Finally, Woodward deserves a meeting with zoning officials that doesn't include a police escort out the door.

City officials need to take this opportunity to end their fight with Leon Woodward. In doing so, they'd take the first step in proving they've moved beyond the Gestapo tactics of guys like Ruben Ortega and Ralph Milstead.

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