El Mirage Councilman Jim McPhetres wants to hang out at the city-owned El Mirage Senior Center once a month, invite residents to stop by and chat about city issues.
But, city officials are not making it easy -- even though it is pretty standard for elected officials to set up tables, typically in public buildings, in hopes that constituents stop by with questions, concerns, gripes, and maybe even a compliment or two.
Instead, City Manager Spencer Isom is telling him that he can try to get approval from the City Council or pony up the fees, which include a $200 deposit and as much as $50 per hour. Odd way for a city to operate.
In neighboring Surprise, council members, without having to jump through such hoops, routinely host "meet and greet" events with residents inside City Hall or city-owned recreation center.
It's the same story in Peoria -- elected officials can use city facilities to meet with residents as long as they don't use them for political campaigning or fundraising. No hoops to jump through.
We suspect that McPhetres is facing these unnecessary challenges because he is often the lone voice on the City Council questioning city expenses, opposing tax increases and failing to vote in lock-step with Mayor Lana Mook and the rest of the El Mirage City Council.
Ain't it a kick in the pants? They may be making it harder for McPhetres, but it's really the resident who suffer from by not having easy access to their elected official.
It started on September 7, when McPhetres sent an e-mail to City Manager Spencer Isom informing him that he'd like to reserve about 90 minutes one evening each month at the senior center "as part of my effort to connect with the constituents in our wonderful city ... to hear from the residents and for them to talk to me and share the good things the city is doing and to hear what they have to say."
McPhetres tells Isom that he prefers Thursdays, but is flexible, and that he's reviewed state law and doesn't think his "meet and greet" will violate any Open Meeting Laws.
He also tells Isom that he'll "gladly share all information with you so that you can utilize the feedback received and share at your pleasure with others. I will not require any time from staff or yourself at these gatherings so compensation should not be an issue," McPhetres writes. "Your assistance is greatly appreciated and if you like I can work directly with staff if you prefer, just let me know. I would like to start this month."
Three days later, City Manager Isom replies to McPhetres, telling him that he should put his request on the city council agenda so the council can decide whether he can use the city building. He also tells him he's forwarded his request to Robert Hall, the city's interim attorney for review because McPhetres' request "has policy implications," but doesn't say what they are.
For a quick refresher on why El Mirage has Hall, a probate and estate planning attorney from New Mexico as their city attorney, read El Mirage Officials Hire Political Pals; Refuse to Answer Questions, June 2011.
McPhetres writes back, the same day, telling him that he isn't going to ask for approval from his colleagues to meet with the people he represents.
"I am not looking for approval by council and frankly do not need approval to connect and support the residents of El Mirage, this is what they hired me to do," he writes.
After 12 days, the city attorney's response mirrors Isom e-mail -- telling McPhetres that the "city council and staff need the benefit of review, discussion and clarification of this issue. It may be appropriate to put this item on the agenda."
A defiant McPhetres writes back on September 25:
"I am again asking for the use of the Senior Center as asked previously requested to make myself available to the [constituency] of El Mirage. This is not a request that needs council for approval and I do not think it is appropriate to do so."
On September 28, Isom tells McPhetres that if wants to use the city facilities -- he can fill out a permit application and pay the associate fee "the same as any other resident and according to the City's fee schedule."
Isom doesn't stop there.
"Although, the facility use permit application indicates I have the authority to waive fees, I would not be inclined to waive fees for Council members conducting an activity that has not been approved by the Mayor or Council as a whole," he writes. "If I were to receive such a request, I would request Council first establish its policy regarding waivers for Councilmembers desiring to meet for non-approved activities. Approved activities do not require a permit and fees do not apply."
In what world would an elected official meeting with constituents fall under a "non-approved activity"?
Oh, that's right. In El Mirage's world.