Robert Robb Arizona Republic
(CNT) City News And Talk
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When, and why, did the position of mayor of Phoenix become so inconsequential?
The mayor’s seat is on the ballot this November. Incumbent Kate Gallego has at least nominal opposition. Yet, in a season suffused with politics, the race is being treated with remarkable indifference.
This was not always the case. When Margaret Hance was Phoenix mayor in the 1970s, she not only called the shots within the city, she had considerable influence throughout the state. Arguably, in terms of clout within the state, she was exceeded only by the governor and the state’s two U.S. senators.
Terry Goddard’s election as Phoenix mayor in the early 1980s was a transformative event, for both the city and the state. Goddard was the catalyst and personification of a diffusion of political power, a consequence of a growing body politic and an increasingly transient business leadership.
In the 1990s, Skip Rimsza didn’t have much influence outside the city. But within it, he was a dynamo, driving the agenda and making things happen.
Although these powerful Phoenix mayors sometimes had somnolent re-election races, their continuation in office wasn’t met with a shrug of the shoulders by the body politic. Their re-election, even if a breeze, was considered a consequential event.
Gallego is not Phoenix’s most powerful
Gallego undoubtedly has her ardent supporters. She seems bright and diligent, with a touch of policy wonkiness to her.
Yet, it would be hard to argue that her re-election would be a consequential event. She doesn’t have statewide, or even much Valleywide, clout. She isn’t driving the agenda for the City of Phoenix.
In fact, it is not even clear that she is the most influential member of the Phoenix City Council. She went head to head with Councilman Carlos Garcia, an anti-police activist, over a police oversight board. It was Gallego who blinked.
The Phoenix mayor’s position is weak institutionally, as are virtually all mayoral positions in Arizona. Arizona eschews the strong-mayor system of government, in which city departments report directly to a mayor who exercises executive authority, like a president or governor.
Instead a council-manager form of government prevails here. City departments report to a city manager, who reports not to the mayor but the entire city council.
In such a system, the mayor is really just the chairman of the city council. The only institutional power within the office is the ability to set the city council agenda. But a supermajority of the council can absorb even that authority.
Despite the institutional weakness of the post, previous mayors were nonetheless able to achieve command of events. After Rimsza, the influence of the position began to wane to match its institutional weakness.
Mayor’s race needs a wake-up call
At some point, there needs to be a mayor’s race in Phoenix that serves as a wake-up call.
Quality municipal government is one of the unheralded assets of the greater metro area. For the most part, municipal governments in the Valley deliver reliable public services at a reasonable price. Regulatory decisions are made reasonably promptly without favoritism.
One of the underdiscussed American issues is how poorly most big cities are governed, overwhelmingly by liberal Democrats. Phoenix seems to be headed down that road.
City leaders are always pleading poverty and inventing ways to nickel and dime captive customers, through utility surcharges and uncompetitive garbage fees. But every four years, there’s a truth test, when the city has to make the case for its home rule option to the state’s spending limits.
This is one of those years, with Proposition 444 being on the ballot. That reveals that the city is spending a third more than would be necessary to maintain city government programs as they existed in 1980, adjusted for population growth and inflation.
Despite this large increase in spending, the city’s pension program is only 61% funded. What the city owes the state for pensions for its cops and firefighters is even more under water.
Insular politics are hurting the city
Favoritism, particularly for unions, is making its way into council decision-making.
Except for the police union. There is an anti-cop plurality on the council, which might get strengthened this election.
A powerful voice and skilled operator in the mayor’s office might be able to put the brakes on this disturbing trend. One of Gallego’s challengers, Merissa Hamilton, is trying to make an issue of undermining law enforcement. But she doesn’t have the resources to make an effective, or broader, case.
Phoenix city politics have become sleepy and insular. Since Goddard in the 1980s, every mayor has previously served on the city council.
Sleepy and insular politics are creating a drift in an unhealthy direction.