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.