Mesa's outgoing mayor reflects on service - East Valley Tribune: News

Mesa's outgoing mayor reflects on service

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Posted: Saturday, May 31, 2008 7:00 pm | Updated: 9:51 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Keno Hawker has spent his political career preaching smaller government. The outgoing Mesa mayor pitches his personal philosophy as being a small "L" libertarian, rooted in the belief that government should not use its power to trounce the rights of private citizens or take on tasks that are best handled by the private sector or charities.

Yet during Hawker's eight years as mayor, Mesa became a national symbol of heavy-handed government muscling in on the private property rights of the little guy. The city has approved tens of millions of dollars in tax incentives to private developers in an attempt to lure their massive projects into Mesa.

Taxes have gone up. Spending has gone up. And, according to Hawker's critics, government meddling has gone up.

Hawker, who leaves office Monday, says he has tried to stay true to his small-government ideals. But he adds he has had to temper his philosophical beliefs with the practical realities of running the nation's 38th largest city.

"I will look at not just the philosophical, but the practical aspect of what's the cheapest, best impact for the individual and the community," Hawker, 61, said in reflecting on his tenure as mayor. "So I don't get locked on the (philosophical) and never undertake any of those programs that may be cost-effective."

Hawker has been a fixture in Mesa politics for more than 20 years. As the co-owner of a Mesa paving-supply business, Hawker got into politics in part because he was annoyed about a fee the city charged for a sales tax license. He was first elected to the council in 1986. After eight years on the council, he took a four-year hiatus because of term limits, and ran again for a two-year term in 1998.

Since being elected mayor in 2000, Hawker has led the city in the creation of a master development plan that will chart Mesa's growth until it is built out. He lists that as his most significant accomplishment, saying the master plan for the city was critical to ensure its long-term financial stability and to attract billions of dollars to pay for freeways and other transportation needs.

Throughout his political career, Hawker says he has tried to balance his belief that government should be limited with the realization that cities do have the responsibility to protect public safety and set rules for development. He also says his philosophical distaste for big government does not dictate that he rejects practical solutions to problems facing the community.

That's an attitude that troubles Councilman Tom Rawles, who like Hawker is a self-described advocate of limited government. Rawles said he has often found himself as the lone vote on the council against increases in city regulation of private businesses and increases in city spending. The mayor has been hit-and-miss in bringing the philosophy to council votes, Rawles said.

"I think he believes in limited government," Rawles said of Hawker. "But he also gets sucked into the current mind-set that government's got to be in everybody's face. He sets the philosophy aside when he sees the clamor for some type of government regulation or spending.

"Keno lost the passion for telling people 'get government out of the way,' but I cannot tell you why."

POWER STRUGGLES

No action Hawker has taken as mayor better illustrates the divide between his small-government philosophy and support of big-government power than the city's attempt to condemn Bailey Brake Service at the northwest corner of Main Street and Country Club Drive.

The city had created a redevelopment district for the downtown area, giving it the power to use eminent domain to seize private property. But the district originally ended at Country Club.

Hawker opposed expanding the district's boundaries to take in the land owned by Randy Bailey. But he lost that vote, and subsequently supported city actions to use eminent domain to take the property so it could be sold to the owner of a nearby hardware store.

Backed by the Institute for Justice, a conservative legal group, Bailey sued the city in 2002, challenging its power to use eminent domain to take his land for private development. In 2003, the Arizona Court of Appeals sided with Bailey, ruling the city had abused its power and voiding the council's efforts. The council voted unanimously not to appeal the ruling.

Mesa voters later approved a ballot proposition limiting the city's power to use eminent domain, a response to the Bailey case. State law also was changed to codify the appeals court's decision.

Before the courts settled the case, Bailey's fight against the city was the subject of a report on the national news program "60 Minutes." That broadcast brought a deluge of angry comments from across the nation condemning the city for such a blatant abuse of power.

Hawker says his votes in favor of condemning Bailey's property were a mistake. He stresses that he initially opposed the use of eminent domain against Bailey. But once he lost that vote, Hawker says he had to decide whether to continue opposing any city action, or to participate in the subsequent council efforts to choose the best of the three redevelopment plans for the property that were submitted to the city.

"I made a mistake," Hawker said. "I never felt comfortable internally after I made that decision.

"If I was to do that over, I would have been consistent with my original vote, which was we have no business doing this, shouldn't have done it, and I should not have gotten suckered into trying to help figure out which of the three proposals was the best."

Bailey said he was surprised Hawker sided with the council in its condemnation efforts. When he was on the council, Hawker earned the reputation of an outsider who was willing to buck city efforts to impose restrictions on private businesses, Bailey said.

But as mayor, Hawker seemed to buckle to the pressure of his fellow council members, Bailey said.

"I used to have a lot of respect for him as a council member," Bailey said. "But as a mayor I just thought he was part of the problem of Mesa."

SPECIAL INTERESTS

With Hawker at the helm, the city has also engaged in special deals with private developers that make other advocates of limited government cringe. The most notable is the $80 million sales tax incentive package approved for the Riverview shopping center at Dobson Road and the Red Mountain Freeway leg of Loop 202, as well as the $30 million land sale for the nearby Waveyard recreational park planned in the same area, part of which will be paid back to the city through sales tax incentives.

Hawker repeatedly declared a conflict of interest and did not vote on Riverview because his house is in the neighborhood. But he supported the Waveyard package, which ultimately was approved by voters.

Tax incentives are a bad idea, Hawker said. But the reality in the case of both Riverview and Waveyard was that if the city did not offer the tax incentives, the developers would have taken their projects elsewhere, he said.

"I am not comfortable with sales tax incentives," he said. "But at the same time, I'm saying I'm not going to be excluded from the game of economic development. That is the game we are playing. Should you be in the game and receive some? Or should you exclude yourself from all of those discussions and let it go someplace else?"

Hawker's toughest days in office came after the Sept. 15, 2001, murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh convenience store owner who was gunned down in Mesa four days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The killing gained international attention, and Hawker said he worked closely with the Sodhi family and the Valley's faith-based community to make it clear that that type of hate crime was not reflective of attitudes in the city.

FUTURE IN SIGHT

His greatest accomplishment, he says, was the adoption in 2002 of the master plan for the city's long-term growth. That process exposed an imbalance between an abundance of planned residential properties and inadequate industrial and commercial development that would create jobs and make Mesa a sustainable community, Hawker said.

Having the long-term plan in place also made it possible for Mesa to get its $1.9 billion share of future transportation dollars approved as part of a countywide sales tax to pay for future freeways and mass transit, he said.

"That's what I'd like to be known for is the one that put Mesa in the ability to predict the decisions today that will result in what consequences and financial decisions tomorrow," Hawker said.

Hawker said he has no ambitions to run for higher office, where partisan politics come into play. He is engaged to Penny Wolfswinkel and plans to travel and help run his family business.

It will be up to incoming Mayor Scott Smith to stake out Mesa's place in the Valley, Hawker said.

"We need to hype this place and have everybody look at it kind of like a Scottsdale or a Phoenix, a city in its own right," Hawker said. "Let's be the 38th largest city in the United States - here's why and we're a force to be reckoned with."

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