Furious George

The failed hockey arena. The lost sales tax. The redevelopment projects delayed or defeated.

The supposedly smoldering ashes of ruin in Scottsdale are legendary.

That one man somehow supposedly undermined so much, all on his own, in less than four years, only adds to the legend that has become George Zraket.

The devil himself, some say. A power-mad zealot on a vendetta to diminish the Valley's wealthiest enclave. A bully. An anti-Semite.

In Scottsdale, where competitive growth matters more than common sense, this is the legacy that Zraket, 58, must contend with as his first city council term comes to a close.

His critics blame him for driving Los Arcos owner and arena developer Steve Ellman to Glendale. Purposefully hurting the feelings of elected officials and city staff alike. Refusing to meet developers before voting against issues concerning growth or redevelopment. They're also unhappy that he sometimes leaves council executive sessions midway through, or doesn't attend them at all.

Last year, a citizens' group tried to oust him from office by securing enough signatures to force a recall election. The effort failed to reach a vote, but it succeeded in adding to Zraket's mystique.

He doesn't mind the criticism, as long as it's accurate. Criticism represents the core of why he first ran for elected office in 1998.

"I absolutely respect the right of people to question their elected officials," he says.

But he gets angry when people try to pin things on him that aren't true. And he speaks his mind when mad, which his critics absolutely loathe.

Such is the myth of George.

Those who hate him really, really hate him. Those who love him would rather step in front of a bus than see him run out of city hall.

And, in about a month, these two camps will collide in what could be the most pivotal election in Scottsdale's history. Zraket is one of six candidates vying for three open seats.

"March 12 is a referendum. It's not an election," says the city's most controversial public official. "The question is, 'What do you want the future of Scottsdale to be?'"

The election marks the first opportunity since 1998 for the city's old guard to reclaim a city council that has closed the door to developers in recent years. Businesses used to hold sway over elected officials, eliciting subsidies and sweetheart deals. Construction projects got the green light with little discussion or scrutiny.

Zraket helped close that flue by asking detailed questions, alerting residents to changes near their neighborhoods and making it more difficult for developers to pitch proposals.

He pushed his agenda, which includes more open space, quiet unencumbered neighborhoods, streets free from excessive traffic and a renewed focus on returning Scottsdale to what it once was -- the resort destination of the Southwest.

In 2000, two new council members, Tom Silverman and Ned O'Hearn, began siding with Zraket. While representing a minority, the three men have proven a hurdle to unchecked growth and redevelopment. Now two other political newcomers, Wayne Ecton and Bob Littlefield, want to wrest council seats from incumbents Cynthia Lukas and Robert Pettycrew. If successful, the city's no-growth contingent will control city hall.

Supporters of taller buildings, public subsidies for development projects and the condemnation of private businesses downtown by the city to allow for expansion of existing companies see that prospect as chilling to Scottsdale's business environment.

"Am I going to get a landslide? No," Zraket says. "But I believe there's a majority vote waiting for me out there."

His supporters have already proved their might once. But that was before he made powerful enemies out of wealthy people with money to lose.

One of those, the Scottsdale Area Chamber, plans to do all it can to keep Zraket, Littlefield and Ecton from being elected. The chamber, which last year ended its $4 million city contract, has formed a political action committee and plans to endorse, fund and stump for Lukas, Pettycrew and political newcomer John Rooney, a local attorney.

Chamber officials cite the need to retain sales-tax dollars as critical. They say consumers don't come to town anymore now that regional malls have sprouted in Chandler and Tempe.

"Our big issue is, the growth is almost done," says Rick Kidder, the chamber's executive vice president for public policy. "What are we going to do, when growth inevitably stops, to keep Scottsdale Scottsdale?"

Zraket, he says, is a problem because he represents a small group of people who "have their particular vision of Scottsdale as a place that frankly should stay as it is, not move forward."

Zraket sees it differently. He remembers 1980, the year he moved his family to the Sonoran Desert. Scottsdale back then was a resort vacationer's dream. Light traffic, lots of good restaurants and expensive boutiques, scenic vistas unobstructed by skyscrapers and smog.

Visitors, he says, don't view the city as a resort anymore. And he refuses to sit by while economic forecasters suggest the city should compete with Phoenix for business dollars and retail density.

"It's the suburban character," Zraket says. That's what he wants to protect.

The chamber faces an uphill battle in unseating Zraket.

The media have made him a folk hero. Residents stop him at meetings to say he should run for mayor in 2004.

It will take more than money to defeat his following. That's why the strategy to discredit Zraket now appears focused on three specific issues, none of which holds up under scrutiny.

• He's got too much power.

Zraket's detractors love to talk about the issues they say he has defeated. Yet Zraket is just one vote on a seven-member council. At most, he commands three votes in the current political makeup, one short of the majority needed to approve or defeat any given item.

The oft-used example is Los Arcos and the proposed Phoenix Coyotes hockey arena at Scottsdale and McDowell roads. To imply that Zraket alone killed the deal makes as much sense as arguing that one vote can trump a majority. Six other council members never brought the issue to a vote during the more than two-year discussion. In the end, the arena died not because of Zraket, but because the city never secured a serious development plan.

• His focus is too narrow.

Although Scottsdale is a city without council districts, meaning each elected official must compete as an at-large candidate, Zraket's critics say he doesn't have the entire city's best interests at heart. That his attention too often is commanded by the desires of a handful of residents, and he doesn't consider what residents in the south and central parts of Scottsdale might want.

It's an assessment based in hypocrisy.

The chamber and its supporters of a development-friendly city have the same narrow focus. They want someone on the council who is sympathetic toward developers, which Zraket is not. The chamber isn't interested in what all the city's residents want, just what its own membership wants.

• He's a jerk.

"He's abusive to staff. He belittles them. We're talking about professionally trained people," says former councilman Richard Campana, a onetime Zraket friend who now bitterly dislikes him. "He likes to pick on people. George is a bully. He bullies the staff, he humiliates them and he dominates the agenda."

Anyone who has ever watched a Scottsdale council meeting knows Zraket can be blunt, even aggressive in picking apart agenda items. But his questions aren't unjustified. He doesn't come out of left field. And his demeanor, while intimidating, is no worse than that of any person who is passionate about a cause.

"Many times, we sat watching on television, sitting in the kiva, we would say, 'Why don't they ask such and such?' It became evident the questions were asked someplace else. We wanted to hear the answers," says Darlene Petersen, a 43-year resident of Scottsdale who volunteered during Zraket's first campaign. "It may look like he's putting them on the spot, but you know, that's their job, to answer the questions."

The myth of George. No two opinions seem to match.

For every pundit who says he's ruining Scottsdale, there is an average citizen who says he has taken a stand for them behind the dais.

George Zraket isn't the devil. He's not an angel, either.

He's just a man in for one hell of a fight come March 12.

The truth about George Zraket is almost as entertaining as the legend that's been created.

In person, he is gracious, bombastic, funny, charming and intense. He's the kind of guy you want to have a beer with.

He's the product of a working-class suburb: Lawrence, Massachusetts, an ethnic enclave of 100,000 people during his childhood, all of various descent.

The son of Harry Zlaket, a Lebanese immigrant whose family name was changed to Zraket upon arriving in America. A kid whose mother, Grace, died when he was 5, a year before he got his first job stocking shelves in his father's neighborhood market. A young man whose five brothers were all older, whose father, a World War I veteran, died when he was 19.

Zraket paid his own way through Northeastern University in Boston, earning a bachelor's degree in business administration. He met his wife, Carol, a North Carolina native, there and he went to work immediately after graduation, spending the next 30 years in hotel/restaurant management.

He lived and ran hotels in places other people dream of visiting: Cape Cod and Key Biscayne, where he presided over some of Miami's swankiest beach getaways.

In January 1979, Zraket accepted an invitation to Arizona to look at a piece of property on Scottsdale Road that some business partners wanted to turn into a hotel.

Several trips later, while in town for business, Zraket stepped outside.

"I could smell the desert. It was beautiful," he says. "The air was so clean. The switch went. I said, 'I'm moving here.' The commitment was made."

He went back to Miami, talked to his wife and daughter, Alexis, and by Christmas they had moved.

After several years, Zraket segued from hotel management into consulting. It was on a trip to Tucson in 1989 that he discovered the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. The largest gathering of its kind, the event draws thousands of exhibitors and more than 50,000 people worldwide every year for two weeks.

Zraket and his wife founded Atrium Productions, and have run one of the show's vendor sites ever since. They work from home, a spacious house with a pool, a circular gravel driveway and a scenic view of the McDowell mountains.

"I am not part of the grind anymore," he says proudly. "I have no alarm clock next to my bed."

He sets his own hours, shuns early morning meetings and spends months each year preparing for the February show in Tucson.

It's obvious that Zraket doesn't need the $1,384 he makes every month as an elected official. What's not obvious at first is why he would choose to endure the pitfalls of public office, especially after 51 years spent working a daily job.

The question isn't easily answered. For such a colorful background, George Zraket is deceivingly plain.

He's neither tall nor short, with a crescent-shaped halo of pink scalp and bushy eyebrows that make him resemble a fleshed-out Gene Siskel, the famed movie critic from the Chicago Tribune.

He appears equally comfortable in faded work pants as he does a suit. He still owns his 1977 Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon.

It's his personality and his presence that set Zraket apart.

He can't sit still when he talks. Either his hands, his face or his entire body is constantly morphing, mutating wildly into gestures both comic and absurd. His eyebrows arch, his mouth twists.

"Zraaaaaaaaaaket!" he growls, mimicking those people he knows mutter his name with dripping venom.

One minute he's telling a story so detailed that he recalls the specific ordinance number of a particular agenda item from years past. The next he's bouncing off a plush leather sofa in his office to pick up a newspaper clipping.

With high camp, he reads the words of Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts in January describing the looming political battle between the good old boys of Scottsdale past and the new regime it seeks to unseat.

"The empire is back and taking aim at one of the leaders of the rebellion," Roberts wrote. "Their rallying cry: a return to civility, which is empire-speak for 'get rid of that bigmouth, George Zraket.'"

It's a classic story of good versus evil, and as told by Zraket it becomes Star Wars.

The SAC PAC, as he calls the chamber's new political action committee, is the Empire, trying to build a partisan Death Star council to enact its will. Zraket himself is Luke Skywalker, a naive farm boy enlisted to battle the forces of darkness with a ragtag following of freedom fighters.

A look of glee spreads across his features.

It's 6:30 at night. He's been talking for more than three hours about various votes, issues and the extreme personalities he has encountered. In the kitchen, Carol is cooking dinner. When he leaves his office, still talking a mile a minute, still gesturing, she doesn't flinch.

It's just George.

A person's take on politics often can range from apathetic to obsessive, but rarely does someone make it seem like this much fun.

At first, Zraket was just a casual observer. He kept up with city government by reading newspapers and magazines when he moved to Scottsdale.

Even though he was friends with some of the city's highest-profile power players, including Herb Drinkwater and Sam and Richard Campana, he knew them mostly in a social context.

That began to change in 1984 with a simple city council decision to allow a property in his neighborhood off Cattletrack Road to be rezoned for use as a business.

Zraket went to city hall and pleaded his case that allowing one property to rezone would open the floodgates to a mixed-use neighborhood. He lost, but his prediction turned out to be true.

Over the next 12 years, Zraket found himself standing before the city's elected leaders, fighting each new rezoning case in his neighborhood. He lost each time. Support from his neighbors dwindled, as they grew frustrated with the lack of response to their concerns.

By 1996, when a neighboring property owner who offered space to local artists asked for his support in her effort to expand the makeshift artist's colony, Zraket had had enough.

The plan, he says, included more room for the artists, which was fine. It also envisioned retail space, a restaurant and a performance theater, which was not.

Zraket said he wouldn't support a rezoning effort that included businesses that might be open seven days a week, attract more traffic to his residential street and bring additional noise and commotion to his quiet enclave. He worried that a restaurant would need a liquor license. He envisioned loud, boisterous parties.

He battled city planners, arguing their records didn't support the facts. He lobbied the council. He rallied his neighbors.

After more than a year, the city approved the rezoning. Zraket still wasn't done. He and a small group of supporters got enough signatures to put a referendum on the next city election ballot. Then he took the city to Maricopa County Superior Court for allegedly misstating the wording on the ballot, and won. The referendum itself was defeated by voters.

"We had realized early on we had no council members to turn to," he says. "This case was the prime example of what was wrong with Scottsdale's government. They had lost touch with the citizens."

At the same time he was busy fighting the rezoning case, he got into another public fight, this one with Mayor Sam Campana.

Zraket remembers the day clearly. A resident called him, saying the council was set to approve an ordinance that would limit who could circulate a petition in Scottsdale to place a referendum on a ballot.

"If they weren't breaking rules, they were making laws restricting the rights of citizens," he says.

By now a familiar face, Zraket showed up at the council meeting to speak against the measure during the public comment period. Campana, he says, refused to allow him to continue past the three-minute cutoff for comment.

She asked him to leave the podium. Zraket objected. And Campana ordered police officers to remove him.

Zraket says no one ever touched him. He sat back down, the ordinance was approved without public comment and he went home.

Sam Campana says it was the only time in her four years as mayor that she ever asked officers to intervene. She says she gave Zraket numerous opportunities to limit his remarks.

"If you don't do something about it, you end up looking foolish," she says. "There was really no other option. He'd still be talking if I had let him go on."

Richard Campana says that specific incident set Zraket off.

"I think something snapped at that point. From then on, he was hell on wheels," Richard Campana says. "His hatred of Sam Campana for publicly humiliating him . . . has poisoned everything from then on. He was on a vendetta against her and the city generally."

Zraket laughs when told of Richard Campana's observation. He says he wasn't embarrassed by Sam Campana's action and that he never thought about public office until September 1997, while attending a land planning conference in Cave Creek.

There, Zraket spoke to the group about his victory against the city in court. He says he told the group there were three ways to deal with city officials: sue them, get a referendum put on the ballot or run for office and beat them at their own game.

"I wasn't campaigning," he says, but a resident in the audience told him he should run for council. That resident was a member of the Coalition of Pinnacle Peak, a group formed to monitor government decisions that might affect their affluent neighborhood's quality of life.

Zraket has long been accused of being the mouthpiece for COPP, as the north Scottsdale group is known.

"They don't give a shit about south Scottsdale, downtown Scottsdale," Richard Campana says. "All they care about is open space, mountain preserve and their little place. They're organized, they're smart and they've got money."

COPP, he says, found its champion in Zraket and now "has literally taken charge of the city."

Zraket acknowledges that a good chunk of the $17,000 he raised for his first campaign came from Pinnacle Peak residents. But he denies being at the group's disposal.

"They didn't own me or buy me. They embraced me," he says. "We had very common bonds about our lifestyle, our quality of life, and we weren't going to allow government to take it away."

Zraket points out, and city documents support it, that he has voted against issues backed by the Pinnacle Peak coalition.

"I will listen to everybody. I will take all the input I can get. But ultimately, I'm going to make the decision."

On May 19, 1998, Zraket dominated a runoff election, gaining 9,812 votes -- 53 percent of the vote -- to win one of two open council seats.

A new chapter in city politics was about to be written.

Anyone who says he has been surprised by Zraket's stance on council issues never bothered to read Zraket's campaign literature in 1998.

He openly said he opposed growth, favored less traffic and fewer development deals and supported the city buying more open space to be preserved.

Those on the council who had dealt with him during his neighborhood rezoning fight knew what to expect. Yet everyone, he says, seemed surprised once he claimed his seat.

Not that the council made it easy.

"They didn't want me there," he says. "Anybody else probably wouldn't have made the first six months."

Though he often found himself a lone voice, Zraket championed following the rules. He read the fine print of city law and spoke out whenever he felt the council was deviating.

One of the first fights, and one that continues today, four years later, involved executive sessions. State law says public bodies can meet behind closed doors to discuss issues pertaining to legal advice or personnel matters. The law has been tweaked over the years, but it essentially limits what can be said and specifically states that no action can be taken in private, such as a vote.

Zraket made it a habit to point out the law. He often got up in the middle of executive sessions and walked out. Sometimes he refused to show altogether.

His actions have been criticized, both by fellow council members and the public. Most recently, in December 2001, Zraket and Councilman David Ortega exchanged electronic messages about Zraket's stance. Ortega had admonished Zraket for leaving council meetings early after Zraket, in an e-mail to the entire council, criticized an item that had been discussed behind closed doors.

"The public might say I'm not doing my job," Zraket tells New Times. "I'm doing it in a way that takes a lot of fortitude and guts."

Zraket says the reasons for his decision to vacate executive meetings will never be known because executive session minutes are confidential and not public.

"I just believe the open meeting law should be followed very strictly, not only to the letter of the law, but the spirit," he says.

Councilman Ned O'Hearn supports the position.

"I think George is a relentless crusader against government abuse of the public trust. He refuses to tolerate good-old-boyism, sweetheart deals, insider politics. He's absolutely honest in that conviction," O'Hearn says. "George is outspoken. He's contentious at times, and he's uncompromising. But, frankly, the way I see it, that's what you look for in a leader when the odds are against you."

During public meetings, Zraket has voted against the majority on numerous occasions. Some of those votes have been misunderstood, such as an April 2000 vote against the Jewish Community Center

"I caught a lot of flak for that," he says.

The Scottsdale Tribune, in its editorial pages, published several anonymous opinions it received from citizens about the issue. The opinions painted Zraket as anti-Semitic.

Zraket, according to council minutes from the meeting, voted against the center because the council refused to grant a request from residents of the city's Sweetwater neighborhood for a continuance to allow residents to tweak a few design issues at the center. The issues involved increased traffic and ballfield lights that would shine directly onto their homes.

"I saw me," Zraket says, "just a resident who came to city council with a petition."

Other council members saw it the same way.

"All he was trying to do was buy a couple of more weeks for the neighbors to have input into the plan. He was in favor of the Jewish Community Center," says Councilman Tom Silverman. "I think it was very unfair [to suggest Zraket was anti-Semitic]. They also tried to paint him as anti-Semitic in the recall election. I've known George for over 20 years. That's the furthest thing [from the truth]."

Another sticky issue has been the city's Downtown Redevelopment Plan and its attempt to condemn private businesses within the redevelopment area. Zraket has consistently voted against such efforts.

"Condemnation is a governmental power granted for acquiring property for public use," Zraket says. "[It's] not to take one person's business and property so another business can have it."

Jack Long, who owns Scottsdale Auto Supply, was watching baseball one night when he got a call from a neighbor. The neighbor told him to turn on Channel 11, that the council was discussing his business and how they were about to vote to condemn it.

Long says he was not notified of the meeting. As he watched, Zraket was the only council member to vote against condemning the business he went to work for in 1955 at age 21 as a delivery boy. He bought the building and property in the mid-1960s and had planned to lease the building after retiring and use the rent to supplement his social security.

According to Long, Scottsdale Health Care wanted his property for a planned expansion. He says the city tried to get him to sell it to the hospital for a less than fair price. When he refused, the city moved to condemn his business.

The condemnation was eventually thrown out in court, but Long says the city can still move against his property if it wants.

"I just can't see how they can legitimately take it from one private business and give it to another. It's unconstitutional," Long says. "Far as I'm concerned, we need four Georges on that council."

The big issue, though, the one that still haunts Zraket, and will be brought up over and over during his reelection campaign, is Los Arcos.

It's a highly publicized project that everyone has an opinion about, even if the facts don't always support those opinions.

"I think Los Arcos was a tremendous opportunity that has gotten away. I don't think anybody set out to do damage," says former Scottsdale city manager Dick Bowers, who retired in late 2000, months before the arena deal fell through. "There will never be a deal like that again."

The deal, essentially, was for Los Arcos owner Steve Ellman, who also owns the Coyotes, to build an arena complete with space for retail, business and restaurant/nightlife activities. The city would have gotten the arena; Ellman would have pocketed a mint in sales-tax breaks and development fees.

Ellman declined to comment for this story.

The city struggled with Los Arcos for nearly two years. Two public votes were held, one to uphold the city creating a stadium district board and another to authorize the district to seek special funding from the state.

In March 2001, after numerous delays and questions from Zraket as well as other council members, the council voted 4-3 to grant Ellman a six-month extension. It no longer mattered. By April, Ellman had left Scottsdale and moved his project to Glendale, which ultimately agreed to pay for the arena.

"You can't hold George accountable for that," Bowers says. "It took a lot of people to make that not happen."

But Zraket has drawn the bulk of criticism.

Jim Wellington, chairman of the stadium district board, believes Zraket and O'Hearn, specifically, helped the arena fail because both said they would not support an arena at Scottsdale and McDowell roads.

"Both of them have flown in the face of what the city wanted," Wellington says. "I think [George] has intimidated the council and staff and therefore has become an informal leader. That's how he influenced the outcome of the Phoenix Coyote arena."

Richard Campana is even less diplomatic.

"These people have tarnished the image. Most businesses don't want to relocate to Scottsdale. You can't name me one thing they've done in the past two years that's positive," he says. "They've lost Los Arcos. Lost the sales-tax war. Everything they've done is negative. They've said no to everything."

Councilman Robert Pettycrew doesn't think Zraket is to blame, but he says that Zraket's refusal to compromise on the arena deal didn't help matters.

"I think a unanimous council moving forward on a project like this is critical for its success," Pettycrew says.

That's why, according to Pettycrew, he personally never made a motion for the council to vote on approving the project. He says he didn't believe enough support existed.

For his part, Zraket bristles when Los Arcos is mentioned. He objected to the arena, he says, because he saw it changing the character of a neighborhood with dramatically increased traffic, noise and pollution.

"All throughout this Los Arcos controversy, [there have] always been four votes on this council. Four votes that could have adopted this arena project at any given time," Zraket says. "They didn't."

Los Arcos was pivotal for two reasons.

First, it thrust Zraket into the spotlight even more than his prior escapades. Second, however, it gave his critics an alleged weakness to target.

The Bye George Committee was formed in October 2000 to oust Zraket after just two years in office. The group had four months and more than $11,000 at its disposal to get the 7,600 signatures necessary to force a special election.

The group actually got 12,500 signatures, but a majority of those were on petitions that didn't include specific wording, as required by law. The signatures were challenged in court and a Superior Court judge ruled that a bulk of the signatures were not valid. The recall effort never reached a public vote.

Michael Bentler, chairman of the committee, did not return two phone calls for comment. A man who answered the phone at Bentler's house said Bentler didn't want to be bothered.

Zraket says the recall effort didn't cause him to reconsider his controversial stance on issues. He says it didn't make him question the job he's doing.

And it didn't make him change his style, as evidenced by a recent council meeting on January 22.

What should have been a brief meeting, given the one agenda item, ended up lasting 90 minutes.

It was vintage Zraket. He asked question after question. He offered anecdotal gems.

When challenged about something he'd supposedly said at a past meeting, Zraket reminded everyone that he has 250 videotapes at home of past council meetings. He pledged to find the meeting in question and watch the tape, which caused a handful of city staffers to laugh.

"If I'm wrong," he told them, "I stand corrected."

The majority of the council sat quietly while Zraket spoke. They didn't appear amused by his questions. Ortega shifted in his seat and rolled his eyes. Mayor Mary Manross shook her head at various points and directly contradicted Zraket on several occasions. Pettycrew left.

Even after the rest of the council voted to approve the item, Zraket kept talking, spelling out why he refused to approve abandoning a portion of city right of way to allow a gated entrance for bicyclists and motorists going into the exclusive Hidden Hills neighborhood off North Canyon Road. The issue wasn't the right of way, Zraket said, it was the gate itself, which he deemed a possible liability magnet because of its untested design.

Unnecessary? Undermining? Intimidating?


Yet it sums up the myth of George. No one will remember that the neighborhood got its gate, only that Zraket voted against it.

And his legend will continue to grow.

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John W. Allman