When former Mayor Greg Stanton resigned to take his brand of unaccomplished grandstanding to Washington there was a great deal of optimism inside the monumental glass and concrete tower that serves as Phoenix’s City Hall. Six months later, that feeling is gone. A council that had teetered between center-left and hard-left control for years suddenly looked to have swung back to the middle after Stanton was followed out the door by the reliable Democrats Kate Gallego and Danny Valenzuela, who both resigned to run for Stanton’s former office. Instead of making progress on the many issues facing our City – from potholes to panhandlers – the Council has been wracked by one failure after another.
First, there was a long-simmering proposal to drastically cut back on our plans to expand light rail. As discussed, the plan would have cancelled three future lines and freed up nearly a billion dollars for desperately needed street repairs. But when it came time to pull the trigger, the Council could only agree to cut one line – a proposed extension North to the Paradise Valley Mall – that was never going to happen anyway. First, there’s no route for that line that wouldn’t require a prohibitively massive use of eminent domain – a cost that was never contemplated in the planning. Second, the money the council supposedly pulled from that project no longer exists because, to date, every mile of light rail Phoenix has built has ended up costing forty eight percent more than projected, and Valley Metro has been quietly (as in, silently and without public oversight) paying for out of the monies meant for the upcoming expansions. In the end, instead of taking decisive action to address the number one complaint of our citizens, the Council wimped out and bowed to the screaming protests of a handful of progressive zealots.
Next up was Interim Mayor Thelda Williams’ plan to add a massive new tax on medical marijuana, envisioned as a key centerpiece of her plan to increase funding for public safety. The new tax would have been equivalent to one third of the total gross revenues of the average dispensary or grow house – or about $50 million a year. Hundreds of citizens showed up to protest the tax. Cancer patients. Children in wheelchairs. To say that effort went up in smoke is misnomer. It was vaped. In the end, even the Mayor couldn’t support her own proposal. It lost unanimously.
Then this week saw the Council reject another massive tax increase, this time on our water bills, meant to fund the well sites and pumping stations needed for Phoenix to supply groundwater to the Northern half of our City in the (likely) event that within the next few years we no longer have access to Colorado River water. At the same meeting, the City Manager had to pull a proposed deal to renovate the City-owned Talking Stick Arena, home of the Phoenix Suns. That deal, now rescheduled for a vote in late January, remains on life support, with strong backing from only two Council members.
Underpinning all of this has been an endless series of raucous protests aimed at the Phoenix Police Department by extremist progressive groups determined to undermine confidence and support for our men and women in law enforcement – an extension of the nationwide effort by radical leftists to throw out the rule of law in favor of identity politics and payouts. So, what’s going on?
Interim Mayor Williams is an old hand. As in, been here as long as the building. But times are changing. Conservatives and liberals alike get mad when I point this out; but the Tea Party, Occupy Movement, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump are basically all a result of the same forces in our society. Get past the screaming hysteria of the left for a minute, if you can, and listen to what the people out protesting in the streets are actually saying. They think they’re upset at capitalism, but their angst is actually with cronyism and insider dealing. They think that Republicans who refuse to vote to increase funding for failing programs are heartless, but the heartlessness really resides in the ever-expanding government bureaucracies that siphon off most of the money meant for our citizens before anyone outside the halls of government ever has a chance to benefit from them. They’re mad, whether they realize it or not, at government insiders. And in Phoenix, the government insiders have reigned supreme.
Not anymore. Those days are over. Look at what’s going on in France. In Germany. In Italy. Look at what has gone on in this country. Citizens are waking up to the fact that our governments, at all levels, are far more concerned with building their own empires than serving citizens. That billions upon trillions of dollars entrusted to bureaucrats worldwide haven’t merely been wasted, they’ve been used to enslave us to an unaccountable, unelected master class of government employees.
Personally, I like Thelda a great deal, as does my boss, Councilman DiCiccio. Mayor Williams is a decent and honorable person, who tries to do the right thing as she sees it. But the fact of the matter is that the Mayor is not connected to the pulse of the people. Her contacts and associates have been culled from her decades of government service. A few months ago, the one staffer in her office who was the most closely tied to the people resigned. No one left in her inner circle has that connection. And it’s showing.
Re-directing light rail expansion funds to street and infrastructure repair is hugely unpopular at City Hall, where dozens of jobs of billions of dollars in contracts for insiders are at stake. But outside of City Hall, the only group that actually opposes this plan is a small cadre of white progressive railbirds – everyone else understands that Phoenix’s geography alone is a basically insurmountable barrier to ever making a train system work: too big, too spread out, no easy routes.
The marijuana tax, which was conceived by the Mayor entirely outside of normal channels in collaboration with the Phoenix Firefighters Association and an outside law firm, was starker example. Until a few days before the vote was called, no one else at City Hall even knew the plan existed. Not City Staff. Not the Budget Department. Not even the other Council members. The Mayor and her team though the tax would sail through, opening the door for the Firefighters Association to spearhead the implementation of similar taxes throughout the rest of Arizona. There’s no win when you’re going up against cancer patients and kids in wheelchairs. But the Mayor and her team didn’t know that. They had no idea what they were up against. None. And they took a beating because of it.
Then came the water tax and stadium renovations, and the results were the same. That’s the recurring theme in all of this: A Mayor who, for all of her many good qualities, is no longer attuned to the pulse of the people, and no longer has the insider majority on the City Council that Greg Stanton and past Mayors have been able to rely on. Stanton and Valenzuela, along with Williams and Councilwoman Debra Stark constituted a fairly reliable voting bloc for these kinds of deals. They only ever needed one extra vote from the remaining five members of the Council to move their agenda.
That means that to get anything done, Williams and City Manager Ed Zuercher need to pull in at least 3 votes in almost every situation. That’s a whole different challenge than roping in one additional vote, and the lack of insight into the pulse of our community makes it almost impossible. Further, Williams doesn’t have a Whip – someone who walks the floor, talks with other offices, and counts votes ahead of time; and, as a result, keeps getting blindsided when these deals fall apart. That only adds to the perception of dysfunction.
Now, for conservatives, by-and-large, that works. Government unrestrained by gridlock will invariably grow itself, so a government that can’t get anything done is far from the worst thing in the world. But we do have real challenges – water resources are an issue, so are crumbling roads and bridges, and an exploding homeless population – and those challenges won’t be addressed in any meaningful way so long as the dysfunction continues, which won’t happen as long as City Hall and the Mayor’s office remain isolated from the people on the street.