Friday, June 17, 2016

Phoenix Arizona: If you blinked, you missed the vote

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By Jon  C. Altmann 
Special to American Freedom by Barbara
The Phoenix City Council  met June 14th to vote in the replacement of Bill Gates, who resigned May 31st, leaving the Council District 3 seat open.  Bill Gates, a Republican, has declared his candidacy for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors District 3 seat (not to be confused with the city council district by the same number) - the county seat is coming open because Supervisor Andy Kunasek is retiring after serving 19 years.

The Council heard from nine applicants all about an hour, then took about 25 minutes of public testimony backing this or that candidate.   Four of the nine wanted to serve as interim only, five wanted to run for the seat and serve as interim.  There is a sixth candidate running who did not apply for the interim seat.

After 90 minutes of presentation and public comments made in favor of various candidates, the Council took less than three minutes to make a motion by Councilwoman Thelda Williams and then vote 6 to 1 for Debra Stark.  If you blinked, you missed the vote, with only Jim Waring saying "opposed" to Stark's appointment.

In the November 8th Presidential election, the District 3 seat will be on the ballot as a non-partisan office.  The field of candidates is wide.  Stark is one of six candidates.  The remaining term serves until 2019.  In order to win the November election, a council candidate must achieve 50% plus 1 in the election.  If no one reaches that mark, a run-off election is held within 90 days with only the top two vote getters of the November election competing.

Stark served almost three decades as a city employee, retiring as the City's planning and zoning director, a job that put her in regular contact with major developers, their lobbyists and other special interests.  Stark is a Democrat.  While city elections are non-partisan, the District 3 seat has been held by Republicans for decades.  Bill Gates was a high profiled Republican Party member, campaigning for Governor Ducey and active in the LD28 GOP.  The voter registration of the district has a prominent Republican registration lead and the voter turn-out over the last seven election cycles reviewed by this writer has been that Republicans vote more consistently than Democrats by significant double-digit average of Republicans over Democrats.

Up until a few months ago, Stark was serving as the county planning director, but resigned that job to seek the council seat.  Stark's city pension is reportedly, by some city hall insiders, greater than $90,000 annually.  The city council position pays $62,000 annually and is covered under the Arizona elected officials retirement system.  An early backer of Stark is long-time developer Wayne Howard, as acknowledged on Stark's Facebook page top photo standing on the mountain-top view porch of Howard's home with Howard's wife.

Political insiders have commented that Howard has driven an effort that has already raised about $100,000 for Stark.  Howard has stated that Stark is a long-time friend.  Howard is well known for his "breakfast club" meetings that bring development community interests together for political causes.

Phoenix City Council races have risen in price over the past decade.  The original idea behind the district system was drive down the cost of electing candidates, which was significantly high because the past method was city wide election of council members. The former system ended up with most council members coming from central Phoenix neighborhoods and not representative of the various areas.  As a comparison point, a competitive Phoenix mayor's race clocks in at more than $1 million.

The change over the past 30 years is that the city's population has grown and there has been no effort by the council or others to amend the city charter to add districts.  A typical council district today has somewhere under 200,000 voters with twice that number in total average district population.  Arguably, a council district today is the population size of a small to medium sized Valley city.

Other candidates

The field of candidates and their financial resources is wide.  All but one are Democrats, or have been Democrats turned independents.  As of this writing, there is not a current campaign report available for any candidate, so any campaign funds discussed in my report are speculative, based upon conversations with those active in city politics, Facebook or other internet postings by candidates or their campaigns, or if the candidate has directly spoken to me.

Ann Wallack is the past Maricopa County Democratic Party chairwoman.  She is best known as the owner of Runners Den sports shop.  To her credit, Ann has strong skills in organizing grass roots campaigns.  My estimate is that she will have no problem in quickly reaching $50,000 in campaign donations.  I would also estimate that there will be team work between her campaign and that of Eric Meyer, who is seeking the open State Senate Seat in District 28 (LD28).  Meyer has shown a strong door to door effort in his past four terms as a State Representative.  More than half of LD28 overlaps Council District 3 - providing an opportunity to walk for both Meyer and Wallack.

Dan Carroll is an independent.  He tried to run for city council in his early 20s many years ago when the seat in the north end was open and narrowly lost by a few hundred votes.  Carroll is well liked around city neighborhood and civic organizations, but his fund raising ability is not known.  Carroll has stated to me he is prepared to put in more than $100,000 of his own money to compete for the seat.  Carroll recently moved back into the district, living with his girl friend.  Two years ago he had an unsuccessful run in central Phoenix's District 4 race.

Attorney Chris DeRose is now the lone Republican in the race.  DeRose competed for the appointment to Council District 6 seat in 2009 when then Councilman Greg Stanton resigned to join the Arizona Attorney General's office.  Sal DiCiccio scored the appointment.  DeRose, according to his LinkedIn page, is currently employed as a senior litigator in the Arizona Attorney General's office.  He is a published author of books on 19th century American politics.  He assisted Paul Babeu as a paid political consultant in his 2012 Congressional effort.  DeRose has Phoenix council members Sal DiCiccio and Jim Waring along with County Attorney Bill Montgomery among his endorsers, according to his campaign web site.  Arguably, DeRose could put up campaign signs stating "DeRose - Republican - City Council" and capture a lot of GOP voter attention - something his opponents can't do.  DeRose is rumored to have good support among supporters of the Governor.  DeRose has a long-standing interest to serve on the city council.

Jim Mapstead recently announced he switched from long-standing Democrat voter registration to independent.  He is a small business owner in Sunnyslope and competed in the 2007 Council District 3 race, but did not make the run-off.  He has reportedly retained Javelina Consulting, which is tied closely to other Democrat efforts, plus long-time Democrat Rick DeGraw has been out pounding city hall doors and other connections for Jim. Rick and Jim are long-time friends.  Mapstead has a long history with the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and has gained some business and labor support, according to his Facebook page.  Mapstead reported on Facebook he has booked $100,000 in contributions.  Mapstead is a past city Planning & Zoning Commissioner and past service on the Paradise Valley Village Planning Committee, however, at least part of the developer community, evidenced by Wayne Howard's support of Stark, is missing from Mapstead's campaign supporters.  Mapstead is a serious candidate with a long standing dedication that he wants the job.  He is expected to be a highly competitive candidate.

Charles Hargrave, as reported by The Arizona Republic, is a sales agent for a call-center company and was a past unsuccessful California Congressional candidate.

The Contest Ahead

The field of contenders is large and most will be adequately to well-funded.  The price tag for this contest will go up.  Three of the contenders I know well or have spent some time in discussions - Mapstead, Carroll and DeRose.  These three have a deep interest in gaining the seat and I expect them to run hard.  Into the mix is there are two women candidates, so the woman's vote divides. Ann Wallack will have a strong ground effort.  Stark has no previous campaign experience.  One office holder who has worked around Stark has said she is personable, but she is a really a liberal Democrat, especially on social issues.

As for the election itself, this will be a well-financed battle and most likely there will not be a clear 50% plus 1 winner, so a run-off of the top two in March is very likely.  Stark now has the "incumbent" role, but holding on may be a lot harder.  Gates is a hard act to follow and it is highly unlikely his supporters will aid any of the Democrats or independents.

Republicans may very well focus on the city's budget and the standard suggestion by others to increase the property tax for homes and businesses.  The city has not increased property taxes in three decades.  Dead on arrival are bringing back the food sales tax and strapping an extra charge on the water bills.

Stark's quote in The Arizona Republic on the tax issue is she "needs to discuss the issue further."  Keep in mind that Stark retired as a top city official and until recently was Maricopa County's planning director.  Knowledge about the city budget and its revenue needs should be something a city hall insider and veteran like Stark should be able to quickly grasp.  What the voters will know before November is if she will vote for the new tax because the city must adopt the budget and revenue plan prior to July 1st by state law.

City issues are not as simple as the Legislature.  Cities must provide a range of daily services and respond to demands from their citizens for a variety of services not provided by the state.  Since the Great Recession, hours for libraries, resources for senior centers and senior services have been cut, along with hundreds of police officers.  About half of the fire trucks in Phoenix are nearing the end of their service life and it is not clear there was a long range plan to deal with that - keep in mind fire trucks cost about $1 million each.  Add to it, the city does its own ambulance billing and collection and is the only major U.S. city without an electronic patient reporting system - something that is mainstay in both public and private ambulance services for expeditious recovery of ambulance bills.  Most other major cities outsource the billing and collection.

Another point is that Council Districts 1, 2, 3, in the north part of the city, and Council District 6 in the Ahwatukee and Arcadia areas, have Republican voting majorities.  The costly light rail system essentially provides no service to those districts and is another fiscal sticking point.  City street maintenance demands were a priority for Councilman Gates, preferring a greater emphasis on upkeep of existing infrastructure, not building more light rail.

The starting pay for Phoenix police officers is no longer competitive with other Valley cities, ranking roughly 10th behind other cities.   The question posed by Councilman Nowakowski has been do we need more body cameras or simply use finite dollars to hire more police officers?  Police response times have been greatly impacted by a shrinking police force who is seeing more of their officers retire each month without enough replacements in the pipeline.

Property tax increase, no long range plan to reduce or retire city's debt, and the need for more police officers are some of the issues.  District 3 no longer has any large track of land for shopping malls or major business build out.  All politics are local.  Stark's remarks in front of the council mentioned more "in-fill" building on small lots and trying to do something with vacant strip mall shops.

District 3 is home to a lot of working middle income families who are highly focused on a still recovering economy and the last thing they may want to hear is their city government wants more money, while lacking a plan for the long term debt that keeps mounting.  The five ton elephant in the room (no GOP pun intended) is how are we as a city making an updated strategic look ahead to cover infrastructure, paying attention to services that make the city attractive to people and business who may wish to move to Phoenix?

More to come, it's early in the campaign.

Author disclosure:  Jon Altmann was an applicant for the interim only seat for Council District 3, pledging not to run, only to serve and assist until District 3 voters elected the replacement.  Altmann was a 2007 candidate for District 3 and received 44% of the vote in the run-off election.  Altmann was a professional journalist with the former Phoenix Gazette newspaper in 1973, later joining the circulation department.  He has been a published author in criminal justice, public safety, emergency medical services and the fire service.  He is a past contributor to American Freedom.  He has previously served as a GOP Precinct and State Committeeman in Arizona. He is an established public safety consultant and past ambulance industry senior manager and executive with 22  years service in the Navy.