Maricopa County Craziness

David Smith, Maricopa County Manager, to Retire in April; Served During Legal Fights With Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Maricopa County Manager David Smith announced today that he'll retire on April 27 after 17 years on the job.

Smith, 65, was at the helm during countless storms, guiding the county through severe fiscal crises and years of emotional legal battles with Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas.

The county, which hired Smith in 1994, issued a news release this afternoon about his retirement that praises him for single-handledly transforming the county from one of the state's biggest deadbeats into a smooth-running money machine. (See release below).

New budget problems in the latter half of the 2000s caused great friction between the county and Sheriff Arpaio, who employed his lackey, former Chief Deputy Dave Hendershott, to do his dirty work.

Back in March of 2009, New Times reported how a discussion between Smith and Hendershott went south, with Smith telling Hendershott he was a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type character and "just plain childish." Smith had been complaining how Arpaio's office seeemed to be using criminal investigations as a weapon in budget negotiations.

Hendershott, naturally, interpreted Smith's comments as possibly worthy of a criminal investigation and soon filed complaints against him with the State Bars of Arizona and New York. The bombastic complaints, rightfully, went nowhere.

Perhaps as revenge for Smith's decisions on the budget and legal fights, Arpaio named Smith as a co-conspirator in the now-infamous racketeering complaint filed against the county in December of 2009. Arpaio was later forced to drop the crappily written RICO suit.

Arpaio and Thomas had many enemies during their years of county infighting, and David Smith was among their most skilled opponents. In the long run, of course, Smith stood among the winners. Thomas faces disbarment over issues related to the county squabbles, the county beat back what appears in retrospect as nothing less than an attempted coup, and the county court tower -- a major source of contention between the county, Arpaio and Thomas -- opened this month without a peep from Arpaio about the corruption he once claimed was tied to it.

Smith practically has Arpaio eating from his hand now.

But the sheriff, who is running for a sixth term, will apparently outlast even Smith.

Smith may need to leave behind his chair and bullwhip so the next county manager can deal with Arpaio.

Full text of county news release follows:

County Manager David Smith announces retirement after 17 years After 17 years, the longest tenured County Manager in Maricopa County history, David Smith is retiring from county government, effective April 27.

Smith, 65, was recruited from Buffalo, N. Y. in 1994 where he was deputy county executive for Erie County, N.Y. At the time, Maricopa County was in a deep financial crisis with a $65 million budget deficit and Smith was selected as a "turnaround manager." He became one of the nation's most respected public administrators, winning Governing Magazine's 2001 "Public Official of the Year." He is credited with putting the county on solid financial footing by insisting on structurally balanced budgets, close, monthly monitoring of revenues and a pay-as-you-go capital improvement program designed to avoid general obligation debt.

Smith worked with elected and appointed county leaders achieving fiscal balance within 18 months. All county bonded indebtedness was paid off in 2004. Three credit rating upgrades put the county today at a Triple A rating. The county has not had an operating deficit since 1994.

"I have had the great fortune of being part of four multi-term county administrations in my career," Smith said. "Three were in counties in New York and one here in Maricopa County. For the past 40 years, I have always worked for elected officials. I like county government the best because what our National Association of Counties says is true: 'Counties are big enough to get the job done and small enough to care.' I have seen that happen over and over again in my career."

In his letter today to the board members, Smith wrote: "We have traveled a long road together, never failing to rise to any challenge or solve any difficult problem. You will now be forging a new team to pursue the next steps of excellence for Maricopa County."

Besides the fiscal turnaround, Smith is credited with helping to establish the Human Services Campus and guiding the construction of the new $335 million South Court Tower, both in downtown Phoenix.

"The fiscal policies of the Board of Supervisors shows there is a discipline to everything we do. We are always trying to save money and do things better," Smith said. "I believe we have the best management team at the county level in the country. We also work to go beyond best practices to next practices and always put ourselves to the measurement test."

Maricopa County has won numerous awards and recognitions, including 21 Arizona Quality Awards over the past eight years, more than any other public, private ore non-profit organization in the state.

Smith said he is undecided about future plans after April 27, his final day at the county, but it will include community service in Arizona.

Max Wilson, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said he appreciated Smith's help in Wilson's own transition from private business to public service on the county board. "David Smith is a great leader, with a long career in public service beginning with his service with the Marines in Vietnam," Wilson said.

Supervisor Don Stapley, a former NACO president, said: "David Smith is recognized as one of the top public administrators in the nation. He helped to make Maricopa County the best run county in the country. He will be missed, but his impact on fostering the highest professionalism in government will be a legacy he can be proud of always."

"Working for five independently elected officials can't be easy," commented Supervisor Andy Kunasek. " The Board set some ambitious, near-impossible goals and David was able to implement them."

Mary Rose Wilcox, the lone Democrat on the board and a former Phoenix City Council member, said Smith's vision on a host of issues served the county well. "Having been a member of the board of supervisors that originally hired David Smith, I have witnessed his tremendous leadership qualities for almost two decades. It is with sadness that we accept his resignation but realize that he has so much to offer as a wonderful resource for other counties or agencies that would benefit from his vast experience."

Supervisor Fulton Brock called Smith a "visionary". "David was key on the Homeless Campus but also working to help youth get on the right track," Brock said. "He saw that if we invested in our youth, we could lower recidivism, reduce the crime rate, enhance public safety and save lives. We at the county really appreciate his work."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.

Latest Stories