This Ombudsman's for You
For a man charged with the herculean task of policing Arizona government and resolving citizen complaints, Pat Shannahan has headquarters that are, at least for now, humble.
The Office of the Ombudsman is housed in the basement of the historic Carnegie Library, which stands about a mile east of the Capitol dome and now serves as a museum.
"We'll probably be hearing the pitter patter of little feet soon," one of Shannahan's two aides says, musing about the students who soon will flood the museum during field trips.
She adds that glitches with the air conditioning have yet to be ironed out. "It gets kind of stuffy," she says apologetically.
Moments later--and a few minutes early for his first meeting with a reporter since taking office July 1 as the state's first ombudsman--Shannahan bounds in, his six-foot-four frame magnified by the low ceilings.
Shannahan, 47, stoops down to study newly arrived boxes lining one of the walls before making his way to his small, windowless office, which, like everything else in the place, has the look of a work in progress.
While his surroundings are Spartan, they likely are a step up from the recently retired Army artillery officer's former digs, which at times no doubt included tents or foxholes. Training maneuvers were the closest Shannahan, a colonel, ever came to combat, though. During Operation Desert Storm, he was not one of those called upon.
"You know, you spend your whole career training for something, and then you miss it . . . it does give you some regrets," he says.
Shannahan's latest campaign requires that he monitor the actions of state bureaucrats who may not take kindly to having him look over their shoulders. According to a handout from Shannahan's office, the ombudsman "is an independent and neutral official to whom people can go with grievances about the administration of state government."
Shannahan's office was the brain child of Representative Bob Burns, Republican of Glendale, and its birth was arduous. When Burns introduced legislation to create the post several years ago, Democrats and some pundits likened the office to a star chamber that would pass summary judgment on state agencies.
"I definitely took some heat over it," says Burns.
Burns is no fan of state regulators, especially those from the Department of Economic Security charged with overseeing day-care centers. Burns and his wife, Gayle, have owned several centers that have been cited repeatedly for inadequate adult supervision. During the last session, Burns raised eyebrows by introducing legislation that would have required DES investigators to halt probes into abuse at day-care centers if the allegations couldn't be substantiated within 60 days. The bill, which nearly passed, also would have narrowed the definition of child abuse and cut the number of DES inspections from one per year to one every three years.
"The entire regulatory process is like a police operation, with one key difference," says Burns, who believes DES regulators unfairly singled him out. "Police departments have internal affairs divisions to look into problems that may crop up. There was no type of internal affairs function for these agencies."
Democratic legislators managed to derail Burns' push for an ombudsman several times, but it became clear last year that Republicans would finally muster the votes to establish the office.
"It seemed sort of self-defeating to create a bureaucracy to look into a bureaucracy," says Democratic Representative Ken Cheuvront, who sat on a bipartisan committee that selected Shannahan from a field of almost 200 applicants. "Our feeling was that everyone in the Legislature already acts as an ombudsman."
The Legislature will review the ombudsman's performance in 1998, and then decide whether to retain the position.
Shannahan received almost unanimous approval from both houses of the Legislature, making his selection the least-controversial aspect of Burns' initiative.
"We were worried that it would be a political appointment," Cheuvront says, "but he [Shannahan] was a good selection."
Though Shannahan grew up in Phoenix and graduated from Arizona State University in 1970 with a political science degree, his 25-year Army career meant he had no political baggage in Arizona.
"He's not beholden to anyone," Cheuvront says.
Shannahan's office is patterned after similar posts in Alaska and Iowa, two of four states that now have ombudsmen. And if those states serve as accurate examples of what is to come, Shannahan will not remain in the basement for long.
Alaska's ombudsman employs 23 investigators in two separate offices, while Iowa employs 13. Each of those offices, which were established in the 1970s, processes thousands of cases each year.
As with Alaska and Iowa, Arizona's ombudsman is barred from investigating elected officials. To do so, the theory goes, would make the ombudsman vulnerable to the prevailing political winds.
Shannahan says he has received 18 complaints so far.
Any citizen with a grievance about a state agency can call the ombudsman's office at 1-800-872-2879. Legislators can also route gripes to Shannahan. However, the law gives the ombudsman wide discretion when deciding which complaints to follow up on.
For example, if a complaint seems frivolous, or if it looks like the caller hasn't made a good-faith effort to resolve it with the agency, Shannahan doesn't have to pursue it.
In cases in which citizens--including journalists--make requests for public documents that fall on deaf ears, Shannahan says he will only step in if agencies refuse to say why they won't turn over the paperwork. Otherwise, he says, it's up to the lawyers to hash things out.
A key difference between Arizona's office and those in Alaska and Iowa is that Shannahan will be barred from looking into complaints from state prison inmates. That authority was stripped at the insistence of Governor J. Fife Symington III.
Duncan Fowler, who served as ombudsman in Alaska for 14 years before taking the job in Iowa two years ago, calls the omission "unfortunate."
"We find that, with a lot of the more petty gripes you see inmates coming up with, we can defuse the situation," he says, adding that such intervention curtails litigation expenses.
But Shannahan will still enjoy broad investigative powers. He can issue subpoenas and depose witnesses. Likewise, the scope of what he can examine is far-reaching, taking in everything from state workers who behave badly on the phone to serious wrongdoing.
Shannahan can submit reports to legislators recommending remedial measures. He can also forward his findings to prosecutors.
Shannahan will decide whether his investigations and reports become public, however. That provision drew criticism while the legislation to fund his office was still being hammered out. Shannahan defends the need for secrecy.
"If people are going to come to me in confidence, it's fundamental to my job to respect that," he says. "Conversely, agencies are going to stop talking to me if, each time they give me a confidential document, it winds up in the newspaper."
Shannahan says he will, however, submit annual reports to the Legislature and the governor outlining his activities. Those reports, he said, will be made public.
Do not expect Shannahan's office to begin churning out indignant press releases about lapses among state agencies anytime soon.
"Some people seem to think I'm supposed to be some sort of advocate for either the people or the government," he says. "Well, that's not the case. To do this job right, I have to be an honest broker. I need to remain neutral."
Tom Fogerty, a veteran political reporter with the Des Moines Register, Iowa's largest newspaper, scratches his head when asked about the activities of his state's ombudsman.
"You know, that's a good question," he says. "All I know is that's about the last place I look for stories.
"They're not terribly controversial.
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.