The big, big Phoenix story is the resignation of City Manager David Cavazos, who is leaving to accept the same position in Santa Ana, Calif. Everyone is pleading surprise. This is almost certainly not true. Cavazos put out a prepared statement that was both graciously restrained and yet also appeared to be highly lawyered. There may prove to be much more to this than meets the eye.
With the local paper continuing to lay off people and institutional knowledge fading, here are a few pieces of important background. The council/manager form of government is one of Phoenix's proudest achievements, having done away with the corruption not only of cities "back East" but also old Phoenix. The council sets policy and the manager implements it, running the city from day-to-day. The mayor is a relatively weak position and one vote on council. Once a person assumes the purple of the city manager, he is expected to serve for many years. Frank Fairbanks, who Cavazos succeeded in 2009, served for two decades. One simply doesn't walk away, and certainly not to little Santa Ana (pop. 329,427). So this is a bombshell even if there's nothing more to it. If there is, it's explosive, including for Mayor Greg Stanton.
There was a stupidly nasty fight over giving Cavazos a raise to bring his pay up to $315,000. The next largest city with a council/manager form, San Antonio, pays a base $355,000 to Sheryl Sculley, the capable former deputy city manager in Phoenix who was shown the glass ceiling by Phil Gordon and the firefighters union (over an old grudge). The council is more divided and kooky now, more small ball. A sense of stagnation is felt, although the light rail extension is happening (WBIYB). The Legislature has made life even more difficult for cities. Phoenix is struggling relative to the prosperous suburbs. The Phoenix polity is much more limited compared with the other most populous cities. Any of these — or the blowback from previous controversies — could have driven Cavazos to leave at the prime of his professional life. Also, he was caught up in the minor expense-account scandal in the mid-2000s. I always wondered if Cavazos had the chops for the job, not to mention the quiet, genial ruthlessness of Frank Fairbanks.
He will be going to a city that is a fraction of Phoenix's size. It is relatively poor and the only majority Hispanic city in Orange County, of which it is the county seat. OC is rich and California has much more robust help for its cities as well as a gigantic economy, its publicized troubles notwithstanding. It is no secret that I supported David Krietor or Ed Zuercher to take over for Fairbanks, or that I thought Sculley would have made one of the best city managers in America (as, indeed, she has done). But Cavazos served well in difficult situations and is a genuinely decent man. So happiness is the best revenge – unless there's more to the story. It is also an open question whether Phoenix has outgrown council/manager and needs a strong mayor government. But that is a column for another day.
Next round of drinks, please...
If you need more ammo, check out Arizona's Continuing Crisis.