Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has lofty goals, little time

[Source: Lynh Bui, The Arizona Republic]

Term-limited mayor aims to lure jobs, development

When Phil Gordon gives his final State of the City address next [this] week, he’ll have nine months to accomplish some final lofty goals.

The Phoenix mayor wants to bring 35,000 new jobs to the Valley, attract a four-year university from the East Coast to downtown, and start hiring and training police officers again after a more than three-year freeze amid shrinking budgets.

But as Gordon looks to seal his mayoral legacy, the term-limited mayor faces political and economic challenges that could put those dreams out of reach.

He’ll be leading a City Council with at least four of nine members running for re-election or to fill his seat. Consensus likely will be difficult as they start posturing for their own campaigns.

At the same time, Arizona is recovering from a deep recession, and some companies are still wary of coming to the Valley because of political controversy over the state’s anti-illegal-immigrant legislation. Economic realities make new jobs and more city spending seem less likely.

Then, there’s the obvious hurdle.

“There’s not a lot of time,” said Gordon, who turns 60 in April and was first elected in 2003 and re-elected in 2007. “It’s going to go quickly.”

Facing a time crunch

Barry Broome, president and chief executive of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, said Gordon’s legacy “is sealed as a mayor that worked hard on the city’s economy.”

With less than a year left, “it’s really important for an incumbent mayor to do what he can finish,” Broome said, whether it’s completing what he started or taking care not to launch new initiatives that can’t be completed in a limited time frame.

Gordon said he will focus on three key goals:

– New development downtown.

Gordon’s time as mayor has focused on revitalizing downtown Phoenix by bringing an ASU campus and medical school to the area.

“Downtown still reflects what Phoenix is seen as, whether it’s on TV, to visitors or to businesses,” Gordon said. “They’re always coming and seeing the heart of our community.”

He said he now is working on bringing a new county teaching hospital to downtown and developing public-private partnerships to fund Arizona State University’s law school, planned for Taylor and First streets. He said he also aims to develop a marketing district around the downtown sports venues to attract more people and retail by lighting up the streets with electronic billboards and animated signs.

The Legends Entertainment District could open as soon as July, when the Major League Baseball All-Star Game lands in Phoenix.But the hospital and other major downtown development may not come to life, said Martin Shultz, a Valley business leader who also worked as a chief of staff to several past Phoenix mayors.

“The odds are highly probable that that’s not going to happen,” Shultz said. Although there may be some announcements about new development downtown, the economy will be a major stumbling block, he said.

ASU President Michael Crow said it will be at least another year and a half before significant progress is made on the law school.

– Job creation.

Earlier this year, Gordon announced that he would work with Gov. Jan Brewer to bring more than 35,000 new jobs to the Valley.

But those efforts may be stalled. Gordon was hoping at least one-third of those jobs would come from a Chinese manufacturing company looking to bring 10,000 jobs to Phoenix. Landing the company, which Gordon declined to identify, could establish a workforce on par with what Intel or Honeywell International has in the Valley. Recently, however, talks with the company have stalled, Gordon said.

Gordon also has been increasing trade talks with foreign countries, hoping to sway companies from places such as Mexico and the Middle East to invest in Phoenix. But, he said, it will be challenging for Arizona, which is still suffering from image problems because of tough, anti-illegal-immigrant laws the state Legislature approved in recent years.

– Hiring police.

When Gordon campaigned for mayor in 2003, he vowed to make Phoenix “the safest city in America” and was a rallying force behind two public-safety taxes voters approved to expand the police force.

But because of budget cuts, reduced sales-tax revenue and a citywide hiring freeze, the city hasn’t hired recruits since 2008, leaving the Police Department with more than 500 vacancies for sworn officers.

Gordon wants to find ways to lift the hiring freeze to, at minimum, keep the vacancies from going much beyond 500 positions.

“We’ve got to stop the hemorrhaging,” Gordon said.

To pay for it, Gordon said, he is considering cutting other city programs, dipping into contingency funds or raising revenue by seeking a new public-safety tax or adding a surcharge on criminal tickets.

While police have been in a hiring freeze, city crime rates in every major category have dropped to the lowest they’ve been since the 1980s, a trend Gordon said he wants to maintain.

Proposing a public-safety tax would be politically challenging, Gordon said, but “somebody’s got to stand up and talk about this.”

“By maintaining quality of life and maintaining public safety, it makes us more competitive economically,” Gordon said.

Politicians may not have the appetite to support tax increases in the middle of an election year, especially after the city made painful cuts to shore up a $277 million budget shortfall last year.

Councilwoman Peggy Neely, who is considering running for mayor, said that Phoenix has managed to reduce crime rates despite the budget shortfalls and that it may not be the right time to consider a tax or hire officers.

She said Phoenix has done a good job of managing with the resources it has so far.

“We’ve put ourselves on a financial diet, and we have to stay on that track until we see the economy coming back to a level where we are confident our taxes are going to increase,” Neely said.

‘Keep a steady hand’

Shultz said Gordon should work on maintaining stability in the city, especially because Phoenix is poised to see a drastic shift in leadership by the end of the year.

“All he has to do is keep a steady hand on guiding Phoenix out of the Great Recession and into the next chapter of our history,” Shultz said. “If there’s not any great flare-up, he can leave office and go down as a very active mayor who focused on the development of downtown, the economy and jobs.”

Paul Barnes, head of the Neighborhood Coalition of Phoenix, said the City Council is already becoming politically fractured as some members prepare for the Aug. 30 election.

Most recently, council members were divided on whether to remove Police Chief Jack Harris from overseeing the daily operations of the Police Department. He had come under fire amid questions about the credibility of kidnapping statistics the city used to win a $1.7 million federal grant. Gordon and other council members threw their unequivocal support to Harris after news of Harris’ reassignment spread. But several other elected officials supported the city manager’s decision to oust Harris until the city and the federal government complete a probe of the numbers.

“You’re seeing the chaos now,” Barnes said. “You see it in how the affair with Harris got politicized.”

Building consensus will be important for Gordon if he wants to see his policy agenda come to life. The council will also have to reach consensus on other issues, including how to close a fiscal 2011-12 general-fund deficit estimated to range from $50 million to $80 million.

“Whatever Phil is going to be able to get done will be difficult because nine months in government is a blink of an eye,” said former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, a longtime friend of Gordon’s. “He can get his agenda done, but he has to position it in such a way that it’s helpful for the people running for mayor and council.”

But Gordon already has achieved significant success in office through conceiving the partnership with ASU and downtown and bringing it to life during his time as mayor, Johnson said.

“Phil has one of the best legacies of any mayor I know,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, he doesn’t recognize that. Now, he needs to realize that he should focus on delivering a financially well-run city and to help hand over the reins of leadership to the next mayor.

“He needs to help make the new mayor and council successful.”

SIDE BAR: Phoenix’s government

Phoenix has a council-manager form of government.

The city manager, not the mayor, is in control of administrative duties such as preparing a budget, hiring and firing department heads and running the day-to-day operations of the city.

In Phoenix, the mayor is one vote out of nine council members. The mayor and City Council’s can hire or fire only the city manager.

Some cities, such as Chicago or New York, have a strong-mayor form of government, where the mayor has much power over the city’s daily administration.

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