City Hall

Councilman Sal DiCiccio, Nearly Two Dozen Phoenix Insiders Gathering For Secret Meetings; Want Change in Phoenix Government

An influential group of individuals -- including three elected Phoenix officials, members of the Goldwater Institute and the firefighters' union boss -- have been quietly meeting over the past month and developing strategies on how to change city government.

It's unclear what will ultimately emerge from this group, but its members have so far tossed out a hodgepodge of the usual. Job creation. Smaller government. Reduced employee salaries. Better customer service for developers and businesses. Less red tape. More public access. Improved transparency. And Councilman Sal DiCiccio's favorite topic: Outsourcing.

"We believe the city is in a crisis," DiCiccio said. "We have to collectively come up with ideas allows us to be competitive."

One committee member said that the City Council district system might be part of the problem, since individuals are elected based on how they serve one area, not on their ability to grapple with crisis facing the city.

It is ironic that improving transparency is one of the goals of this hushed round-table gathering, and yet the three elected officials who are members -- DiCiccio, Councilman Bill Gates and Councilwoman Thelda Williams -- are using their private e-mail accounts to share info with the group.

That is the perfect example of how NOT to be transparent since elected officials' private e-mail accounts aren't subject to Arizona Public Records Law -- unless someone knows the accounts are being used for city business. It is too easy to conceal sensitive or controversial issues from the public.

(DiCiccio's staffers used their City of Phoenix e-mail accounts to send notes to group members, which is how New Times obtained the detailed minutes from the first meetings.)

The group may be talking about the usual issues, but the difference seems to be in how they plan to execute change - not necessarily through the City Council, but through the state legislature, voter initiatives or City Charter amendments.

Pete Gorraiz, current president of United Phoenix Fire Fighters Association, said that this committee is about a "real transformation." DiCiciccio said at its October 1 meeting that the group could bring about "recreated government," which would be unprecedented.

He told New Times that the committee was a diverse group of people "just getting together" and talking. And that while they "have an agenda going in," they do not have an ending expectation.

We asked DiCiccio why the meetings were kept secret. He said that they weren't publicized because, from a political standpoint, they would look foolish if they made some public announcement about the group and then nothing came out of it.

It may not be a city-sanctioned committee, but the council members are, in their official capacities, discussing potential changes to how Phoenix does business and serves the community.

Should residents at least know that these discussions are taking place? How the ideas are being developed? About the motivation, agenda or vested interest of each individual invited to sit at the table?

They don't seem to think so, but it's not a bad idea given the roster of members and the political pull many have over the City Council.

Members at the table include Gorraiz, Billy Shields, a lobbyists and former president of the firefighters' union; Paul Johnson, a developer and former Phoenix mayor; Alex Tauber and David Tierney, community activists; Joe Villaseñor, Shield's brother-in-law and former aid to Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon; Ray Bladine, a retired Phoenix Deputy City Manager; Todd Sanders, president and CEO of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and Industry; Senior Vice President of SCF Arizona Rick DeGraw; Glen Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce; the Goldwater Institutes' Nick Dranias and Byron Schlomach; and David Bodney, an attorney with Steptoe and Johnson who represents the Arizona Republic.

DiCiccio said that he and Gorraiz handpicked members for this private committee. According to minute notes, Shields also helped create the list of who would be involved.

The group is planning to meet again this month and in December at either the Goldwater Institute offices, at the Biltmore or at the Phoenix firefighters' union hall. They expect to wrap up discussions and come up with concrete ideas by January, just in time for the next legislative session.

DiCiccio told group members that "they could look at potential language that would instruct the city to only be involved in certain functions." Dranias of the Goldwater Institute said that the only things the city should be involved with are those related to life-safety issues.

One idea, for example, came after Johnson and others discussed how working with the Planning and Development Department was terrible, and so slow that it hinders economic development. Dranias told the group about a Minnesota law under which development plans are automatically approved if city officials do not approve or deny them within 60 days, with one 60-day extension allowed.

New Times asked DiCiccio why he formed this private group to solve problems in Phoenix instead of working with the city's existing Innovation and Efficiency Task Force, which reports to the City Council's Finance, Efficiency and Innovation subcommittee. (Gates is the chair of that subcommittee, and Williams is a member.)

DiCiccio said that change has to come from the outside, otherwise, it would have already happened. He said that city employees, and long-time administrators, don't recognize the need for change because they are part of the system and are comfortable with it.

It was a point that several members echoed during the meetings.

Tauber said that "they have a government and political structure where there is inertia," there has been an "absence of policy from the council," which mostly reacts to city administration, and that "everyone at the top ... [has] all worked at the city for 10 or 15 years at least, so it's no wonder that Phoenix is not responding to change."

It is funny that DiCiccio considers this group "the outside" since many of them helped establish the political structure in Phoenix over the decades.

You've got Williams and DiCiccio, revived council members from the 1990s. Tauber is a member of the Phoenix Board of Adjustment and co-chaired a 2007 campaign to increase sales taxes for public safety. Shields and Gorraiz have ties to Phoenix's most powerful labor union. So does Villaseñor -- his sister is married to Shields and she served as DiCiccio's chief of staff. And DeGraw, he has served as a consultant for the firefighter's union and they named him an honorary firefighter. Johnson served as mayor in the 90's and is best pals with Gordon. And Bladine, he came out of retirement to work on Gordon's staff.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo