City Councilmember Linda Nadolski is on her way out, but before she leaves, she wants to do something mildly quixotic.
She wants, she says, to do the right thing: an antidiscrimination amendment that would extend protection to gays, the disabled, unmarried couples living together and people in the military. Currently, the city code proscribes discrimination in public accommodations or employment on the basis of sex, race, religion, color, national origin or ancestry.
The issue was expected to face the council this week.
"It's really an equal-rights amendment," Nadolski says, "something everyone ought to be able to support."
But she says there has been one real problem: Mayor Paul Johnson is uncomfortable with vigorous, controversial, public debate. That's why, says Nadolski, he has done everything in his power to delay bringing the amendment to a vote, hoping to avoid or forestall any unpleasantness for as long as possible.
That might be difficult. One of the mayor's aides told Ty Waymire, an activist for disabled veterans, that "it had turned into a speeding bullet heading right for them and they're having to step out of the way."
The way Nadolski sees it, the timing is right. She unexpectedly lost her bid for reelection in District 6 last fall to Kathy Dubs and will leave office on December 31. After Nadolski has receded into private life, she says, an equal-rights amendment might simply fade away. In a conservative city like Phoenix, it would be difficult for any other member of the council to resurrect the proposal without political consequences.
Nadolski herself was dissuaded from proposing the idea two years ago by members of the gay community who apparently felt having an ally on the council was preferable to whatever moral victory might be gained by trying to revise the law.
Liberated by her political defeat last October, Nadolski submitted her proposed amendment to the council's family and youth subcommittee on December 9. After hearing brief testimony from members of the gay community, a disabled newspaper vendor and a Navy veteran, the committee--comprising councilmembers Mary Rose Wilcox, Calvin Goode and Nadolski--approved the proposal.
In recent years, approval by a council subcommittee has routinely meant acceptance by the full council. Proposals accepted by the subcommittees are often placed on a "consent agenda," and rubber-stamped en masse by the council--with no debate. More difficult items are placed on the regular agenda for debate, with the council generally following the recommendations of subcommittees.
Simply put, whoever controls the agenda also controls the flow of city governance.
And the mayor controls the agenda.
Tall and imperially slim, Paul Johnson zips through public life like a razor through velvet. He readily acknowledges his preference of consensus to debate, and unanimous votes have become commonplace on his watch. Agenda-setting power is one of the subtle devices that make the mayor first among equals on the council, and Johnson uses it like a rudder to steer the council--and his own political career--safely down the middle of the stream.
He concedes the city has a duty to ensure that all citizens enjoy equal protection under the law, even those citizens who might co-habitate without benefit of clergy or sleep with friends of the same sex. He has, he says, no problem with the principles espoused by Nadolski's amendment, but . . . "There are some legitimate questions that need to be addressed," he says. "It shouldn't look like we're doing this just to appease an outgoing councilman. It ought to go through the normal channels, the council ought to have time to look at it and the city attorney ought to have time to review it."
Johnson admits Nadolski asked him to place the proposal on the consent agenda and that he refused. "I told her I couldn't do that, that there were legitimate concerns of employers and others that need to be debated," he says. "Even if I had done that," he adds, "it would only take one councilman to take it off [the consent agenda]."
Nadolski counters by saying she asked the mayor to place the proposal on the regular agenda, where it would be subject to public comment and debate by the council, and that Johnson refused. She says four of the nine councilmembers--Mary Rose Wilcox, Craig Tribken, Calvin Goode and Nadolski--then filed memos requesting the proposal be placed on the agenda, a seldom-used procedural maneuver that overcomes mayoral reluctance.
Sources say that, after learning that the memos were to be filed, Johnson approached Wilcox and offered to place the proposal on the agenda if the memos were withdrawn. Wilcox refused. (Johnson insists he's "happy" to put it on the agenda.)
Johnson says he was aware of the memos but had not seen them. "If four of them want it on the agenda, then I'll put it on the agenda," he says. "But I'm real uncomfortable with it--I think they rushed one of those issues that is very difficult."