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August 31, 2009

Host: Ted Simons

County Issues

  |   Video
  • Former Tribune reporter and reporter for the Goldwater Institute, Mark Flatten, talks about issues impacting the county, including disagreements between the county manager and seven elected officials.
  • Mark Flatten - Reporter, The Goldwater Institute
Category: Government

View Transcript

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. A wildfire causing problems north of Payson. The water wheel fire is now at over 500 acres, and it's forced the evacuation of 500 homes in two Payson-area subdivisions. The fire is 10% contained with no word as yet on when those evacuated from their homes will be allowed back. For now, those displaced by the fire are staying at a Red Cross center at Payson High School. Countywide elected officials in Maricopa County want the board of supervisors to rein in county manager David Smith. The seven elected officials say that Smith does not show them proper respect and they accuse Smith of a power grab. Here to talk about all of this is Mark Flatten, who covered county issues extensively for "The East Valley Tribune" before becoming an investigative reporter the Goldwater Institute. Good to have you on the show. Good to see you again, too.

Mark Flatten: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Sheriff, county assessor. School chief, who --

Mark Flatten: The most descript, non-political --

Ted Simons: All of these people say that the county manager is not doing things right. What's going on here?

Mark Flatten: I think what's happening is there's been a huge struggle for power going on within Maricopa County for a number of years now. Wherein, you've got the board of supervisors, the five-member board, each elected by their own district and seven independently elected county officials, the sheriff, etc., who have their own responsibilities, statutory duties and there's a conflict over what runs what. If you're a sheriff, the county recorder, you have a statutory obligation to fulfill certain duties which the board really is not responsible for. At the same time, the board of supervisors is the sort of umbrella, all-encompassing elected body in Maricopa County. In days past, what they did was adopt an annual budget and approve zoning for chicken coops in unincorporated parts of Maricopa County. What we've seen in the last few years is an attempt to solidify overall spending, and this came to a head with the indictment of the school superintendent, and that was largely over control of federal money and he ended up pleading to a misdemeanor and we've seen it come to an apex with the indictment of Don Stapley, the Maricopa County supervisor, by an investigation conducted by the sheriff's office.

Ted Simons: I want to get back to that, because of collateral information there. But back to the feud. Not showing us proper respect. And for the power grab, as they're trying to say. Is what the elected officials are saying of county manager David Smith, has he been doing this to these individuals all along? Has something changed?

Mark Flatten: I think the tensions have just grown worse and worse as budget gets tighter and tighter. If I'm recorder and responsible for conducting elections, that's well and good if I have the money to do it. Plush times, there's not a big dispute. But when things get real lean as they are now and the board says we're not going to give you as much money as we used to, that's how you translate this lack of respect. The independently elected officials are saying, yes, the board has overall responsibility for the budget, but they're not allocating enough money for us do our statutory jobs.

Ted Simons: Now, we have a treasurer suing for -- he wants more money or saying that again, as you are saying, the board is not allowing him to do his job as he sees fit. He's arguing that he's not given adequate funds. And a dispute over the computer system. Smith, the county manager says we're going to bring all of these computer functions into one unit under my control, and that's created problems, and particularly with the county attorney and the sheriff's office, a criminal computer that you have to be law enforcement to be able to access it. From their perspective, you can't let the county manager be running a secured computer that has restricted access. From Smith's perspective, there's no reason we should have all of these various different computer departments and if we bring into one department, we can save a pile of money.

Ted Simons: Does it all happen if the economy is going great guns?

Mark Flatten: I think you'd still have that power struggle. Maybe not with the peripheral offices. But the ones who are the three major players in this. The most high-profile and again, this came to a head with the indictment of Stapley. Where you've got on the one hand, you've got the sheriff and the county attorney saying we have a job to investigate crimes in the county. On the other hand, you've got the board saying, you guys can't -- for instance, the county attorney, you can't sit and provide us legal advice and then conduct criminal investigations of us and prosecute us.

Ted Simons: And the court ruling seemed to uphold that. That we can't use county attorney for civil cases when he's representing us as well. Talk about that decision.

Mark Flatten: This goes back to parallel arguments that came up in the criminal case. After Stapley was indicted, the board of supervisors created their own civil litigation unit and said we've had so many conflicts with Andy Thomas, the county attorney, we can't rely on him for legal advice. Because he has a conflict of interest in so many cases so they created their own county litigation department and they were sued and said, look, it's in the constitution, we're the civil representative of the county. That got to a judge and the judge said, no, the county attorney is bound by the same ethical rules as lawyers and if he's got a conflict, a criminal indictment, the board doesn't need to rely on him for civil advice and upheld the decision to create their own litigation unit.

Ted Simons: Who looks after the board of supervisors? Who watches what's going on over there and can the county attorney constantly ship these cases out to other counties?

Mark Flatten: You've got two questions there. You've got this from two perspectives. Can the county attorney be the civil representative at the same time it's prosecuting a member of the board and can he be while -- it looked at the civil side and said if you're prosecuting him, that's sort of the ball that this is wrapped up in. If you've got conflict of interest, the board is within its power to create a separate unit. The more intriguing question is can the county attorney prosecute a member the board. This is similar with the case in the '80s that's sort of unresolved and I've got to think this is going to wind up at the Supreme Court because it comes down to the fundamental roles of various elected officials. The board of supervisors says we can't trust the legal advice we're getting from someone who is prosecuting one of our own. In other words, if you -- basically, there's nobody to watch -- nobody watching the store.

Ted Simons: And the judge's decision, should say, decision, also referred to public records policy as well and this could have far-reaching ramifications.

Mark Flatten: It could be very, very troublesome in the future if, one, if the decision stands and two, if it's applied broadly. Basically what happened is again as part of this ongoing dispute, the sheriff's office was trying to obtain public records -- records from the public records request. Which is quicker than going through subpoenas. The county created their own mechanism, basically you've got to go through the city manager's office. The policy applies to county agencies but the judge's ruling says the law really allows government agencies to set up their own mechanism for delivering public records so that could probably be taken to the next step of any public agency saying, well, you know, our policy is you've got to wait a year.

Ted Simons: Right.

Mark Flatten: That's extreme, but finding that middle ground, assuming this decision stands, which I don't know if it will or not, but that could create a cumbersome process that would allow it to be cumbersome when they don't want to allow public records.

Ted Simons: You've got a bunch of other things happening with that particular set of players, may make sense or you're attacking certain issues in certain ways, but these players aren't going to be around forever. What's going on in regard to future policies governing the county?

Mark Flatten: When it finally plays itself out, is what we're going to be left with? Because there are court decisions being made. We talked about a couple of them. In this particular set of circumstances, whether you agree with the decision or not may or may not make sense, but when you start taking sort of these bad scenarios and taking them to court and getting court precedent for this, these are decisions and policies that people are going to have to live with long into the future, long after these players are gone.

Ted Simons: Last question, right now, you've got the future to worry about, let's worry about right now. How is county government being compromised by this fussing and fighting?

Mark Flatten: You could make the argument and it's been made on both sides that this is extremely expensive proposition. We've got a couple million in legal bills, and side issues -- for instance, the sheriff's office used outside funds to buy the bus. The board of supervisors said even though you've bought it, since you didn't go through us, we're not going to let you drive them, sitting in the garage somewhere, over the board of supervisors saying you didn't check with us first. It's got real ramifications in terms of budget and spending and complicated legal precedents.

Ted Simons: And it's not over yet. Good stuff. Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

Superstition Vistas

  |   Video
  • Public hearings will be held soon on how to manage the growth of an area in Pinal County that could be home to up to a million people. Learn more about Superstition Vistas as Dr. Jim Holway of the Sonoran Institute and Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club discuss the massive project.
  • Dr. Jim Holway - Sonoran Institute
  • Sandy Bahr - Sierre Club
Category: Business/Economy   |   Keywords: pinal county,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Up to one million people could be living in a 175,000-acre area known as Superstition Vistas, located in Pinal county, east of Phoenix and north of Florence. The land is currently owned by the state land department. An 18-month effort to plan for the growth of the parcel culminates in two public hearings tomorrow and Wednesday. Those attending the meetings will get to give feedback on which of four scenarios they like best for the development of the project. Each of the scenarios will include information about economic development potential, housing and liveability profiles, and environmental impacts. Here to talk about Superstition Vistas is Sandy Bahr of the grand canyon chapter of the Sierra Club. Also here is Dr. Jim Holway, who is the director of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Sonoran Institute Joint Venture. Thank you both for joining us on "Horizon."

Sandy Bahr and Jim Holway: Thank you.

Ted Simoms: Why is this a good idea?

Jim Holway: It comes down to how are we going to grow? What's the future of Phoenix and central Arizona going to be? We've been a state for almost 100 years now. What is it going to look like? Most projections say it's going to be maybe triple with what we have now and what's important about the Superstition Vistas is it's an effort to envision and label for the public one idea of how we can handle the growth in a fairly well planned way and get the dialogue going.

Ted Simons: Why is this not the best of ideas?

Sandy Bahr: It's all about location and the first thing is to question some of the assumptions. We assume because it's always been a particular way, it always will be. This idea that Phoenix and Tucson are going to grow together, is that the preferred method? In the documents relative to Superstition Vistas, you hear them talk about a blank slate. Well, do we need a blank slate to do things right? How about looking inward at the communities we already have and looking how we can accommodate growth there, where there's already infrastructure. Where we already have pretty much bulldozed over the desert. Think about how we can make those communities more livable and deal with urban heat island effect and make them more sustainable and energy efficient. This proposal seems like we're going to abandon that and we have this area we're going to do over.

Ted Simons: Why this particular area?

Jim Holway: A couple of reasons. And maybe two responses. The first thing I'd say I'd agree with what Sandy says about what we need do with our communities. We need to strengthen them, we need to try to revitalize them where they have issues. But if you look at how an area is going to grow, we're going to add five or six million people in the next few years to central Arizona, maybe a quarter of them, maybe 40% might move back into existing areas. Where are the rest going to go? And this is the idea of by building a new -- it'd be a city. Phoenix will be a city, Mesa, and Superstition Vistas will be another part. When you look at the whole corridor, it does sit in the middle of it. The idea of a high-speed rail line from Phoenix to Tucson would run through Superstition Vistas. The other unique thing about it, it's a single piece of land all owned by the state land department and we have to remember what it means to be trust land. Trust land is not intended to be open space. It's intended to be land from which we'll take the revenues to support our education system. That creates an interesting mix here. Those are two reasons for why that piece of land.

Ted Simons: That piece of land is trust land and we can talk a little bit later about reforming trust land laws, but is it not wise, instead of leapfrogging that you get now, to go ahead and, say, 50 years from now, we can picture what's going to go there instead of wonder what's going to go there.

Sandy Bahr: I would hardly advocate leapfrog development although that's not all related to state trust land. We've seen it happen. And part of the reason is because there are massive subsidies for what's occurring. If we take the resources that would go into planning and developing Superstition Vistas and again, looked at what we have and how we can improve it, maybe we should see if we can make things work in a more sustainable way in the communities we already have instead of planning a brand new city. And there's great opportunity in Phoenix and Mesa and Chandler to look at promoting a more sustainable way of living in the Sonoran desert. Before going out and saying we've got a brand new area we're going to develop. Yes, state trust lands are to generate revenues for the beneficiaries and the primary one is the public schools but that doesn't mean everything has to be developed quickly, and many of us think that trying to conserve some of those lands would make sense for the schools not to just continue the same old same old.

Jim Holway: A couple thoughts I'd add. One would be -- there's multiple partners. Pinal county, state land department. They own the land and most of the surrounding communities. And then the unique one is the one I represent, the Lincoln institute land policy and we're in it because we care about how this region is developed. But also to Sandy's other point, one of the key issues, we need to develop better models. Deal with heat island and energy and water use. For us, the resources being put into thinking about how we would build a whole new city from scratch in the desert would be building tools and we'll take what we learn and try to do that in downtown Phoenix too.

Ted Simons: We have video of the first scenario which is the least dense of the ideas for what's going on out here. We're taking a look at it right now. This is something that probably would make sense to most Arizonans to what they see now, correct? Not too much in the way of density.

Jim Holway: This looks similar to our current development pattern. The overall density is 20% higher. This looks a lot like we look today.

Ted Simons: I know the idea is they're going to come out here. The question is what are we going to do when they get here. But does it make sense for that huge parcel of beautiful desert out there to go ahead and be transformed into what we just saw so that people can live so far away from the core, the center core of the valley. Does that make sense?

Jim Holway: I personally like the much more dense development scenarios. But what does this region want to be 50 years from now? For me -- I have a 16-year-old son. Where will my grandson buy their first house in 2040? That's what we're talking about. In my mind, we create a whole new city and live and work there and we design it to be built at the density where it becomes an independent city that interacts with the rest of the community.

Ted Simons: The idea of an independent community interacting, even if you did all infill in the valley, you probably need room for folks who want to come out here. Why not go ahead and prepare for it?

Sandy Bahr: We're not advocating for not doing planning. Obviously, we have to plan. But we're questioning whether this is appropriate. Whether we should plan for Phoenix and Tucson to grow together. That's an assumption that's been made for a long time. We're questioning it. We should be questioning the growth rate. Are they sustainable? I think what has happened in the last couple years indicates probably not. An economy so based on residential development, an economy that's sustainable? Not at all. Many of the ideas that are associated with this proposal are good ones. We should have more efficient housing. We should accommodate more mass transit and should have more community parks and think about, you know, where we don't develop, things like washes and important wildlife areas shouldn't be developed. But to say, you know, we -- I guess the bottom line is, it's like giving up. It's like we're giving up on the communities we already have and that we're helping to make some of those predictions about those communities true. We've heard a lot of discussion about the suburbs becoming the slums of tomorrow. That's something that we've heard repeatedly. Maybe we shouldn't let that happen. Maybe we should look first at focusing on improving the livability in the communities we have.

Ted Simons: We have the other scenario is the most dense of the four scenarios, and this is one in which -- we're talking density on a par with Miami and Chicago.

Jim Holway: Right.

Ted Simons: The question hits you. Will people want to live out by the superstition mountains in an environment like we're seeing right now, in terms of density that we don't even have in Phoenix? Look at these high-rises. Is that a realistic scenario?

Jim Holway: I think it can be. What do we want? Clearly cities like Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, are highly desirable to the people who live there and we're not saying everybody in Arizona would want to live here. We're talking about 50 years from now when we're a region with 10, 12, 13 million people. Will one million want to live this way? I think there's a good chance they will. There's demographics saying we're going to smaller households and immigrant populations that want an urban lifestyle. And no one is saying this is the only model but it's another model that could appeal to our population.

Ted Simons: Could this not be an example, not only other areas of Arizona, of the world, on how to prepare for those heading this way?

Sandy Bahr: It would be a great example if we did it in Phoenix. And I think one of our concerns is we're more likely to see scenario A than D. One, what is going to make scenario D happen out there? And the other thing is again, we have light rail system, we have a bus system, we have increasing density in some of the urban core but there's so much vacant land still. There's ways to incorporate it into our existing neighborhoods and show how it can work. To demonstrate with cool roofs and less pavement and more trees how we can be more livable communities. I think it's important to prepare for the people coming, but we really need to think about the people who already live here. Let's think about the quality of life of the people who are already here, their children and their children.

Ted Simons: We're going to have to stop it right there. We have a couple of meetings coming up in a couple days.

Jim Holway: Gold canyon and then Florence on Wednesday evening and there's a website that people can go to find out. And it's If you google Superstition Vistas, you'll find it.

Ted Simons: Thank you for joining us.

Sandy Bahr and Jim Holway: Thank you.