One joke around Phoenix involving Frank Fairbanks was that he could never retire as city manager, because then all the scandals would come out. Of course, everybody loves Frank. Except for the ones who don't. Given the lack of curiosity and resources in the local press, we'll never know how true the joke might be. I never ran into evidence that Fairbanks was anything but clean. His problems were more complicated. Since most will be offering rapturous praise as Fairbanks is apparently stepping down, a more serious assessment is necessary.
The zeitgeist of Frank Fairbanks' City Hall was to move across the waters without making waves. He was not a creative thinker or a risk-taker -- think of the guy on the Shredded Wheat ad who says, "We put the 'no' in innovation." His career spent with the city led to an unavoidable parochialism, along with perhaps a fatalism that the city's trajectory couldn't be changed, or a willingness to drink the booster Kool-Aid by the gallon. He was in an awkward spot in a systemically dysfunctional city government, mostly trying to keep the peace, even as Phoenix hit a grave turning point. All this would have profound consequences for Phoenix and its future.
Everything Fairbanks is context. Phoenix is by far the most populous city in the nation with a council-manager form of government, where the mayor is just one vote. This is an outgrowth of the reformers of the 1940s who ousted the old "corrupt" city commission (of course, history is written by the victors). While the always-winning Charter slate of candidates and at-large council representation gave way, the council-manager form survived. It was a sign of Phoenix's progressiveness in the mid-20th century -- a clean, businesslike city government. It also attracted a huge community of interests that want to see it perpetuated, from the petty princes of each council district to the many entrenched factions that profit from it.
A strong mayor government with the council as legislature isn't perfect. It tends to reflect the city it governs. But even famously corrupt places such as Chicago and Philadelphia get quite a bit of good for their corruption. Phoenix, for all its clean government image, largely drifts without effective leadership. Each council member is the "mayor" of a district more populous than a medium-sized city, and each district is huge, lacking cohesion yet demanding its share of the pie. To be fair, no other big city in America is so lacking a private sector that will make investments in the city and demand that City Hall accommodate them. No other big city in America is so lacking stewards and philanthropy -- the state's biggest endowment is based in tony Scottsdale in the tony Biltmore area. This leaves City Hall with a heavy load, too heavy for a 1950s model geared for a place the size of Tulsa.
Yet it continues: the city council "makes policy" and the city manager "implements it," including hiring and firing. It becomes very much in the manager's interest to please council, however ineffective it has become, and not to be a star. Former Deputy City Manager Sheryl Sculley was a star: smart, outward-looking, attractive, dynamic -- and female, in a city still dominated by the machismo and subtle sexism of a place dependent on construction and development. So she had to go, and San Antonio is the winner. In a stunning act of pettiness or cowardice, Phil Gordon, an old city staff rival, would never accept her as Fairbanks' replacement. And Frank stayed and stayed and stayed.
In any event, Fairbanks' staff could effectively execute clear policy. The much underestimated former Mayor Skip Rimsza was able to push through a series of important steps for the city, especially light rail, the convention center remake, a third convention hotel and the winning of TGen. Under Gordon (and don't forget Micheal Crow), the ASU campus became rooted downtown despite a hostile Legislature. All this was incredibly heavy lifting in a city that doesn't get out much, doesn't think it has anything to learn from the world. Yet these are real accomplishments. To the extent that Fairbanks allowed talented and enlightened lieutenants such as Sculley, Jack Tevlin and Ed Zuercher to move forward, he, too, deserves credit.
But where leadership is lacking, or the council princes must be mollified -- the city manager is powerless. Thus, Phoenix committed itself to putting USAA and other employers far from the city center, and thus public transit, at a time when central core employment was in freefall and a higher energy future and the cost of desert destruction and sprawl were clear. Phoenix latched onto the ill-conceived CityNorth sprawl generator -- another core killer -- that has ended up in court and threatens all public economic development projects for every city in the state.
In many ways, Fairbanks was emblematic of professional city management today: a dependence on consultants to state the obvious but give politicians cover; use of layers and layers of bureaucracy that slow down decision making and make original and innovative moves impossible; in thrall of the conventional wisdom that has made most American cities so dreary and unprepared for a future of discontinuity; little understanding of, or enthusiasm for, quality urbanism.
In some ways, he was uniquely Phoenix: keep the city employees peaceful; maintain good relations with the firefighters union -- both of these to ensure re-election of the council princes -- and stay out of the limelight so as not to threaten those same pols. He embodies the good ole boy system of City Hall, which looks after its own (the revolving door sinecure for controversial Police Chief Jack Harris being one example). Fairbanks worked for the city for 37 years, 19 of them as city manager, the longest-serving in Phoenix history. Even now, Mayor Gordon wants to look inside for a replacement (is he that afraid Sculley might return?). It is also a system that, for all the junkets and consultant reports, is dangerously inward looking.
There were consequences. Where strong mayor-council leadership was lacking, the city drifted amid endless reports and studies. Tied to the conventional wisdom, Fairbanks presided over a city government that gave incentives for civic malpractice. There's a reason why hundreds of usable buildings were torn down in the center city, draconian suburban codes made historic reuse discouragingly costly, and badly needed shade and grass disappeared from the center city where they had historically been. Efforts to address issues such as reuse have come too slowly if at all. Costly blunders such as these came from the city manager's office. (The center city blunders are particularly curious: Fairbanks as a native must remember Phoenix's magic, and he lives near Midtown).
If Fairbanks had been city manager in the 1960s or even 1970s, historians might look back at his tenure with more charity. Unfortunately he served during the pivot point when Phoenix's decline became apparent, and perhaps irreversible. It was also a time where the very measures of Phoenix's old success -- adding people, subdivisions and wide roads -- became irrelevant or even negatives.
The reality is that Phoenix is in trouble. It is not attracting the talent and capital of its rivals even in the United States. It has miles of linear slums in what were once middle-class subdivisions of tract houses. This tragic footprint is growing. Phoenix holds by far the largest percentage of the region's destitute, poor, working poor, bad schools and low-skilled, non-English-speaking immigrants. City infrastructure built on the cheap mid-century is aging badly. Much of the central core looks as if it has been carpet bombed and the debris removed.
What sweet spots of the metro economy that still exist have shifted decisively to the suburbs. For example, Wells Fargo put its huge operations center in Chandler; was Fairbanks even paying attention? The vast promise of the downtown biomedical campus has heen thrown away -- was Fairbanks rowing so gently that pushing for this prize was too impolite? With most of the Legislature against it, Phoenix was on track to see less and less state shared revenue, even without a historic recession. With the big downtown projects done, Phoenix has no forward-leaning economic-development strategy other than to try to please every council district. There is no coherent strategy to address any of these crises. There is a collapse of the council consensus that existed earlier in this decade, replaced now by bickering and uncertainty.
And these problems existed when the growth machine was going strong and the "Sun Corridor" was going to have eight million residents. Now, however much national treasure is expended in trying to restart the vast swindle of debt-and-car-based suburbia, the old unsustainable model is dead. Dead. No place will be harder hit than Phoenix, where city leaders had hoped to avoid the reckoning awhile longer by continuing to develop the land north of the 101. Now Phoenix is enduring its worst budget cuts in history and more severe measures may be unavoidable. And the hits will just keep on coming: climate change, higher energy prices, no magic solar economy, no Dubai bailout -- instead a coming tsunami of global competition that will leave the "loser" cities and states hopelessly behind.
None of the big forces are Fairbanks' fault. But how hard did he try to get the transients of the council chambers to face reality? Did he ever expend a nickel of his vaunted reputation to push hard on even one of these fronts? No. The trash was collected. The streets were paved and widened. Whiny Willo was allowed to gate itself off. Gravel was thrown down everywhere possible. Anything else is not what the city manager is expected to do in Phoenix. Frank Fairbanks did the job description to twisted perfection: To be the man who wasn't there.