El Mirage Finds Itself at a Crossroad; Acting City Manager Rick Flaaen Faces Tough Decisions

El Mirage once again finds itself at a crossroad.

The departure of B.J. Cornwall, the city's longest tenured city manager, leaves City Attorney Rick Flaaen in charge of a community in a financial crisis with little left to cut and no sources of new revenue in sight.

A major decision resting on Flaaen's shoulders is whether the city can afford to re-hire five El Mirage Fire Fighters that Cornwall laid off earlier this year. He has to figure out how to bridge a $1.2 million budget gap.  

Cornwall lasted about seven years in El Mirage. A few weeks ago, he was all but booted from the city. He resigned after a closed-door meeting with the City Council, which not coincidentally came after he ignored council member's direction to re-hire the firefighters he had laid off on August 6.

Those layoffs caused quite a fervor. Apparently Cornwall didn't know that you can't mess with fire fighters backed by one of the most politically influential unions in Valley. His decision ultimately led to his untimely departure.

But what his departure really untimely? Or overdue?

Cornwall had been agitating El Mirage's politically active residents and heavyweight politicos in the West Valley for a while now by raising concerns about the arrival of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Luke Air Force Base.

And it's not the his concerns about the fighter jet sharply increasing noise levels and further hampering economic development weren't justified. They were, and still are. Cornwall just didn't have the most diplomatic approach -- not even with his own neighbors.

When Cornwall first moved to El Mirage, his neighbor's cat kept jumping the backyard fence and using the Cornwall family sandbox as its personal litter box. A frustrated Cornwall reportedly "returned" the cat scat over the fence.

His approach didn't go over so well. The poop, on the other hand, went over just fine.

While he enjoyed the support of the majority of the council, that ended when some members resigned and were replaced by new, less Cornwall-friendly faces.

Even in good times, Cornwall didn't keep his bosses in the loop.

Some members of the City Council weren't aware of Cornwall's plans to go to Washington, D.C. and ask the feds to cough up about $400 million to compensate the city for economic losses its suffered for having Luke as a neighbor.

(State laws meant to protect Luke from encroachment restrict developments such as residential projects on about two-thirds of the city's land. City officials have said that such restrictions have prevented the city from reaching its full economic potential. And even though it doesn't make sense that a city would want to build more homes, without a larger population base, it is difficult for the city to attract businesses.)

Cornwall's message to Washington was met with fierce objection from just about everyone in Arizona, including the governor, West Valley mayors and some El Mirage residents.

It contributed to a wholesale turnover on the El Mirage City Council. One of Cornwall's biggest detractors -- Lana Mook -- was recently elected mayor.

And there were things that Cornwall did that made it appear that he really didn't know or understand his own cash-strapped community.

For example, he hosted a $19,000 party in late 2009 to celebrate the opening of Gateway Park and honor the late John F. Long, who donated 18 acres for the community park -- and then hired security guards to keep the public out.

Instead of a community celebration, the city arranged for an invitation-only party under air-conditioned tents with a carving station, shrimp and chocolate-covered strawberries.

He also insisted on a Maricopa County transportation plan that would turn El Mirage Road into a six-lane roadway and punch it right though the heart of downtown. He favored displacing homeowners to make room for businesses.

But as abrasive as he may have been, he was no dummy. And some good things did happen under his watch.

Cornwall called for audits of both the police and fire departments, which outside auditors found were being horribly mismanaged. Then, to fix those departments, he hired the right people. He brought on former Phoenix Assistant Police Chief Mike Frazier, who became the community's police chief and rebuilt the police department and restored its integrity.

Cornwall brought on economic development leaders, such as Scott Chesney, with creative visions for an artsy downtown -- and who are actually delivering on those plans. And he helped bring in the city's first real gas station, a community park and a major big box, Wal-Mart Supercenter, to generate some sales tax revenues for the city.

But perhaps Cornwall's most lucrative economic play in the city was the one that benefited his own pocket.

Provisions in his contract, which was approved by the El Mirage City Council, called for a hefty severance package.  

He walked away from the city with at least $120,000 in severance pay, plus six months of continued health insurance and life insurance benefits.

New Times requested financial records to figure out if there was anything else Cornwall got on his way out. Would be a shame considering the city doesn't have much to give and he was already getting a ridiculously high salary. He was one of the highest paid city managers per capita in the Valley.

He was pulling in about $200,000 a year to manage a community of about 34,000 residents. And that didn't include additional perks, such as a car allowance and health benefits.

Cornwall's base salary rivaled as the annual salary for the city manager in Mesa, a city of more than 456,000 people. Phoenix and Glendale city managers -- David Cavazos and Ed Beasley, respectively -- made $236,998 and $227,163 (as of December 2009).

Flaaen will be wearing two hats -- attorney and manager -- until the city finds someone else to manage the community. He said it could be two weeks or several months.

He took on the task, but told the City Council that he had "absolutely no interest" in becoming the city's permanent city manager.

Given the tumultuous political history of the community and its choppy relationships with its West Valley counterparts, it's hard to imagine that they will find someone who will.