For better or worse, Phoenicians with a sense of civic pride claim as their finest achievement not a magnificent city hall as in San Francisco, or a great subway system as in New York, or the breathtaking parks of Cincinnati. No, it is the efficient, professional handling of city business through the council/manager form of government.
And it all began with the charter government movement of the late 1940s. Anyone that wants to understand Phoenix City Hall today or contemplate changes such as a strong mayor, must have at least a basic understanding of how we got here.
Once upon a time, Phoenix was a wide-open town, full of vice, politics dominated by unsavory bosses, and city hall eminently bribable. Then a group of crusading young businessmen, who knew the city could not grow and prosper under this corrupt yoke, threw out the rascals and created the cleanest city government in America. They went by the name of the Charter Government Committee. The rest is history.
But history is written by the victors. And the real story of Charter is more complex...and far more interesting.
Phoenix in the late 1940s was a city that had been upended by Depression and World War II. Even in the 1930s, its population had grown almost 36 percent. Despite the war, and partly because of it, the city increased another 63 percent in the next decade. But the political system was a creaky thing.
Elected leaders sat on a four-member city commission led by a mayor, one of many Southern-flavored elements that remained in the city. Sometimes each commissioner oversaw specific city departments (rather like Bull Connor, the police commissioner in Birmingham, Ala., a very different role than the official who holds the same title in New York City).
This naturally led to a high politicization of even the basics of municipal work. There was a city manager, but he was weak under the existing city charter and was required to be a resident of Phoenix before being hired. Thus the rising field of professional city management was kept from penetrating the fortress guarded by the carved stone Phoenix birds at City Hall.
Officials came and went and often came back. Commissioners were defeated by an effervescence of "reform" and then elected again two or three years later. Efforts to piecemeal change the charter failed. This whirligig also tended to shake up city departments and result in the sacking of the hapless city manager with disturbing regularity. (That is, until James Deppe, at the end of the commission era, tried a power grab, openly defying Mayor Nicholas Udall and reinforcing the need for change).
At the least, this chaos and antagonism caused city government, built for a much smaller and less complex place, to be inefficient and slow to respond, much less anticipate the demands of the post-war years. A growing city needed more services, and not ones that ebbed and flowed with every election. There was also a growing awareness that this was bad for business and tourism.
Just how corrupt the city was is a source of ongoing debate and should receive more scholarship. More than one person has told me that some commissioners controlled the prostitution and gambling rackets. The city had been declared off limits to soldiers for a time early in World War II because of concerns about levels of venereal disease in Phoenix brothels.
Organized crime enjoyed a growing foothold in Phoenix, first with liquor distribution and bookmaking, then as a back office for Las Vegas. On the other hand, much of the "bribing" at City Hall appears to have been small-time palm-greasing or simple favoritism. Such "bosses" as existed were small-timers, notably Ward "Doc" Scheumack.
The police force was compromised. Some cops looked out for protected gamblers, pimps and mobsters. Some acted as bagmen. City commissioners tied to vice could count on most officers to look the other way or get them out of trouble.
The department was also still reeling from the 1944 murder of Patrolman David Lee "Star" Johnson, who was black, by Detective Frenchy Navarre, a white who was a loud racist. Johnson and his partner Joe Davis, both in uniform, saw Navarre run a stop sign in the Deuce. Navarre was off duty and might have been drinking. Johnson approached Navarre alone, the two argued, and Navarre shot Johnson multiple times including in the back.
Like the Southern town it still was, an all-white jury acquitted Navarre and he returned to duty. A few months later, Johnson's partner Davis came to headquarters for revenge and Frenchy, despite his two pistols and famed marksmanship, was on the losing end of the gunfight. Bullet holes from the exchange were in the station walls until it closed in the early 1970s. (After two trials, Davis was convicted of manslaughter and was paroled in 1947).
The event divided the department, and the city, like Phoenix's version of the Dreyfus Affair, and not strictly on racial lines. For example, the late Glenn Martin, a young white officer, rushed the mortally wounded Johnson to the hospital. Johnson and Davis were well-liked by merchants and citizens on their downtown walking beat. Many whites were happy the abusive Navarre was gone and approved of the leniency shown Davis. Phoenix was segregated, but most whites held a paternal brand of racism. They were proud the town never had a racial-based lynching.
Many Phoenicians also knew that Johnson and Davis were making arrests in the "hotels" (bordellos) protected by the corrupt pols and quietly owned by their wealthy patrons. These bribe-paying whorehouses — said by some to even help with city revenues — were protected by certain detectives. After Navarre was arrested and charged with murder, he was bailed out with $10,000 cash, delivered in a black suitcase (a PPD detective in 1944 made $212 a month).
Before this searing event was pushed into the collective quiet room, it was emblematic of the city's conflicts. Phoenix was a modest-sized but ambitious city chasing the modern. Yet under the skin, it remained a small town and in many ways a frontier town, vice and all. Conflict arose because some Phoenicians, notably Del Webb, had been made rich by the war. Others were struggling. Vets came home, or moved there, only to find a housing shortage and the nasty 1947 recession. Two years later, city finances also tanked, partly because of mismanagement.
People were ready for change.
Two broadly competing political visions sought to "fix things." One was more old fashioned — openly spoils-based, where the victors took care of their supporters. The other appeared modern, pushing the practices put forward by the National Municipal League and Louis Brownlow's Public Administration Service. These had been implemented successfully in Cincinnati.
In Phoenix, the visions were not clean cut, because neither were the political allegiances. The war, growth and newcomers from the Midwest scrambled the old order. And even it was not rigid. The most influential players were virtually all businessmen. Even "Boss" Scheumack was manager of Valley Paint and Supply.
The Chamber of Commerce was powerful under the formidable Charlie Bernstein, but it tended to represent the banks and bigger companies. Some small businessmen resented this and pushed for wider representation of their interests, winning the commission in an insurgent moment then splintering.
Unions still were a force in Phoenix, especially with the railroads and construction, even though paralyzing post-war strikes had left them in bad odor, even with Harry Truman. Taft-Hartley had wounded them nationally and Arizona passed a "right to work" law. Returning veterans formed a new political bloc. It was a time of ferment and ideas. Many of the disagreements would seem arcane, anachronistic and obscure to us.
Most of this took place within the Democratic Party, the GOP being the historically weaker competitor. And the battle lines were not hard. Alliances shifted and blended and broke up. By the late 1940s, most sides wanted to claim the mantle of reform, to amend or wholly remake the charter. We can only imagine the many strategy sessions and arm-twistings that went on at such smoky places as the Hotel Adams coffee shop, the Hotel Westward Ho or Tom's Tavern.
Two waves of change settled the issue. In 1948, voters approved charter changes that created a six-member city council in at-large seats; members would have no administrative duties as did the commissioners; the city manager would be strengthened, and elections would be non-partisan. Districts and a strong mayor were considered but not recommended. The next year, a solid slate of "reform" candidates selected by a 100-member Charter Government Committee won in a landslide. They included Udall, jeweler Harry Rosenzweig and department store owner Barry Goldwater.
Charter Government Committee candidates would rule City Hall for the next quarter century
The interior dynamics behind Charter's victory are as important as the many overt steps that utterly changed Phoenix government. The CGC had the strongest hand. Not only the money and influence of the Chamber of Commerce, but the most talented operators. Notable among them was Frank Snell, lawyer and quiet civic fixer who would go on to be one of the city's most effective leaders. Snell had been battling the commission since the early 1940s.
Charter also had Eugene C. Pulliam's Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette, which had been crusading for "clean government" since 1945 and reporting extensively on corruption real and exaggerated, as well as explaining ideas of progressive city management to readers.
Pulliam was 60, Snell a decade younger, and both were at the height of their abilities. (The "young reformers" part tale is not a myth: The Charter Committee had its roots in the efforts of leaders of the Young Democrats and Young Republicans joining together; much of the ground game was done by the Junior Chamber of Commerce).
The Charter members also brought great focus in a crowded election field of 1949, a focus burned bright by the Pulliam Press. The papers relentlessly pilloried the candidates backed by Scheumack and Deppe for sins real and imagined. Unfortunately for them, enough of the incompetence was real, as the financial troubles showed. Unfortunately for organized labor, it cast its lot with Scheumack and in losing began a nearly terminal decline as a private-sector force.
But the real genius was Charter's conceit of taking politics out of City Hall. It was in creating an ethic of a common good, a city-wide good, served by disinterested candidates selected on merit.
Every election cycle, the committee picked a slate of civic-minded candidates, typically from business or the professions, always with a record of civic club activities and volunteering, and ran them. They were to be free from special interests and largely political novices. With the exception of Goldwater and Jack Williams, a future mayor and governor, Charter candidates were expected to serve no more than two terms and then return to the private sector. It claimed to be — and in many ways was — the antithesis of the old commission or even today's council.
Charter was not a public relations hustle. It quickly hired a professional city manager, Ray Wilson, and established the system that endures today: The council sets policy and hires and fires the city manager. The city manager has day-to-day control over city administration, including hiring and firing city department heads. The National Municipal League model was put in place. If Phoenix didn't invent the system, it did see it to its biggest success. In 1950, Charter's reforms won the All America City award.
What became known as "Charter Government" (even though the city had been under a charter for decades) achieved much. It gained more solid control of water for the city in agreement with the Salt River Project and buying water companies. This gave Phoenix the whip hand over the little towns that would become suburbs, at least for decades. Despite its business and growth orientation, Charter councils also became very good at landing federal money for cities.
Charter elected the first woman (Margaret Kober) and the first Hispanic (Adam Diaz) to council in the early-1950s, the first African-American (Dr. Morrison Warren) in the mid-1960s. It oversaw aggressive annexation to keep Phoenix from being hemmed in. City Hall became more streamlined and efficient. A planning department was established. As seen from, say, 1980, these leaders had presided over the stunning rise of a major city with remarkably clean government.
Although the Charter leaders were rightly criticized as highly establishment, most were not reactionaries. They led, for example, saving Camelback Mountain and assembling the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. Prodded by the minority communities and more liberal Anglos, Charter embraced civil rights and anti-poverty programs. At least until the late 1960s, Charter was able to adapt to the electorate and demands of governing, be much more supple than it is remembered by critics — so much so that it was facing steady challenges from the right and the John Birchers from the late 1950s on.
Their failings came in the neglect of downtown, aside from the brutalist Civic Plaza, and an unwillingness to move beyond bureaucratic planning functions to true city building. From a mania for linear expansion without adequate transit. And yet, in the era in which most of them served, the automobile and low-rise suburbia were "the future" and Jane Jacobs was ... who? (Alas, the latter is still true for council members). Charter believed in a pragmatic "city that worked." It lacked the visionaries to build great monuments or see that the growth model would eventually destroy Phoenix. Indeed, its selection process would have filtered them out as "too ambitious."
The mob continued to do business in Phoenix. Reforming police Chief Charlie Thomas admitted he couldn't clean up the entire department, only make some headway. Years into Charter's reign, a young patrolman stopped a suspicious man with a large amount of cash he couldn't explain. Taken to police headquarters, the man waited to be questioned while the money was inventoried. After a phone call came in, a superior told the officer: Give the man his money and let him go. The young cop had unwittingly interfered with a protected bookie's runner. It was almost as if it were 1943 all over again.
Charter died with a whimper in 1975 when Margaret Hance broke with the slate and ran for mayor on her own. The other Charter candidates lost. The decline had been coming for at least six years. It was a remarkable run, but the city had grown and changed too much. Experienced politicians were needed in this more complex world, not merely well-intentioned overseers of the city manager.
The bones of the Charter Government Movement are still there: In the professional staff, the strong city manager, and council relegated, in theory, to setting broad policy. This has continued even after reforms that brought district representation. But like 1947-49 and 1975, one senses that the status quo cannot hold.
Think Phoenix has no history because the oldest thing you drive by is the abandoned big box store? Think again and browse the Phoenix 101 archives.