Land Mine Victim

Honest, Hard-Working E. Gordon Rodgers Was Hired As Arizona's Top Land Planner. Oops -- What Were They Thinking?

IN 1997, THE Auditor General of Arizona issued a report highly critical of the state Land Department's handling of the 9.3 million acres of state trust lands. Among the report's findings:

· For the previous four years, most sales and long-term commercial leases of trust lands had only one bidder.

· That, and the fact that the Land Department relied on private developers to plan urban properties, among other problems, contributed to the state's low sales and lease returns.

The Auditor General's report said that by adopting a more proactive approach to planning its vast holdings, especially those in urban areas, the Land Department could generate higher revenue for schools and other trust beneficiaries.

At first, Land Department officials seemed to take those criticisms seriously. They formed an in-house team to review the report. Later that same year, the team came up with a list of recommendations -- including hiring three planners in a newly created Asset Management Division and investing roughly $5 million in the beefed-up division's operations over the next five years.

State Land Commissioner Dennis Wells, and his successor, Michael E. Anable, appeared to be moving to implement those in-house recommendations.

But nobody, from the Auditor General on down, seemed to have considered for a moment the possible consequences of tinkering with the main engine powering Arizona's political machine in the modern era.

The political process runs on money. One politician who understood this stark reality better than anyone was U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. It's well documented that he rose to power in Washington in the 1930s in part because he found a way to control a burgeoning river of Texas oil money, funneling it to his friends and allies in the halls of Congress.

Arizona, of course, has no vast supplies of oil. In territorial days as well as the early statehood era, mining interests enjoyed relatively unchecked political clout. But today, with a much more diverse and rapidly expanding economy, a major source of political money is large-scale growth and development. And it's an industry whose fortunes ultimately depend on who controls the state's vast tracts of available land.

By placing new emphasis on land-use planning, then, the Auditor General's report was, in reality, also proposing a sort of helmet law for a Hell's Angels horde of politicians, lobbyists and large-scale developers long accustomed to riding fast and loose across Arizona on their growth-fueled power machines.

IT'S OBVIOUS, AT least in hindsight, that barring widespread public outrage against uncontrolled growth and/or politics as usual, the proposed changes were doomed to remain nothing more than good intentions. Earl Gordon Rodgers' detour through professional planning hell, Arizona-style, was initially paved with those good intentions. Rodgers' own good intentions, as he attempted to get a handle on the state's unwritten policies promoting unrestrained growth, drew him even deeper into the fires of conflict.

State Land Commissioner Michael Anable hired Rodgers, a Canadian and member of the prestigious Canadian Institute of Planners, after a nearly three-month selection process.

"Gordon brings an abundance of experience that will be needed to get the new Asset Management Division up and running. The new Division will certainly benefit from his background," Anable wrote in a June 2 general press release.

Three-and-a-half months later, Anable unceremoniously booted the hard-working, ethical Rodgers out of Land Department headquarters, 1616 W. Adams, in Phoenix.

Anable also immediately rescinded the job offers Rodgers had just made to two other highly qualified planners, both of whom had been recommended by an in-house panel of judges.

So much for the Auditor General's recommendations. And so much for good intentions. The Tucson Weekly mentioned Rodgers' plight in a story detailing recent insider wheeling and dealing at the Land Department. (See "Scum of the Earth," November 4.) At the time, Rodgers declined to be interviewed about his situation.

But times change.

Rodgers has decided to speak publicly only after reading a transcript of The Weekly's interview with Michael Anable. Rodgers says Anable laced his comments with lies and half-truths.

Anable, 34, is an appointee of Republican Governor Jane Dee Hull. He's spent the last dozen years -- most of his adult, working life -- in one capacity or another at the Land Department.

Anable claims Rodgers was terminated over "personnel matters that were fairly substantial." Although he ostensibly declined to discuss these "personnel matters" further, Anable says of his chief planner, "I was having difficulty getting Gordon Rodgers to do what I wanted him to do."

If by that Anable means he wanted Rodgers to shut up and play dead, or simply to go along with business as usual in the corrupt state Land Department, he was certainly messing with the wrong Dudley Do-Right.

Rodgers says the only "personnel issue" he's aware of was the fact that he refused to fulfill Anable's request to appoint the wife of Anable's former boss to a higher-ranking planning job within the Land Department.

"In this matter," Rodgers says, "he told me on at least two separate occasions, of which my two managers were aware, that I should promote, without true competition, an existing departmental employee into one of the two available Professional Planner 3 positions."

Although the Land Department's planner shortage was -- and still is -- acute, Rodgers maintains Anable's pet candidate for the job "did not have the proper professional planning educational qualifications, nor the certifiable professional planning experience. I did not have time to act as a university and train this person for two years on the job."

Rodgers adds it would have been wrong to hire a non-professional planner to undertake the supervisory responsibilities that came with the job. "Think about the potential litigation or other potential claim costs to the state if this person made errors in professional judgement on land development matters," he says.

"Mr. Anable could have directly hired this person himself at any time during the nearly two-month period he was pressuring me," Rodgers says. "But instead he chose to try to compromise me by attempting to coerce me into breaking my professional standards and code of conduct."

From May 24, when he first set foot in the Land Department, to September 9, when Anable fired him, Rodgers labored long hours to set up the new Asset Management Division. He recalls working 16-hour days supervising staffing, conducting meetings, doing various chores, and at the same time cranking up some "sensible" planing.

First, Rodgers recalls, he had to put his management skills to work to break down internal staff barriers and get the department's engineering and planning units to work together as a team.

He conducted meetings to discuss the role of each employee in the new division, a well as the division's role in the Land Department. Based on the information gathered from these meetings, he encouraged staffers to undertake projects they seemed to enjoy.

"The questions I posed to all my staff were actually adopted by Mr. Anable himself in an effort to develop the basis for a strategic planning exercise for the whole department," Rodgers says.

Despite what Rodgers terms "an onerous and slow state staffing process," his staffers managed to hire a secretary of engineering; a water resource engineer; a manager of planning; a geologist; a secretary of planning; and, the day before he was fired, two Planner 3s (whose hirings Anable rescinded).

"The new Division was fully staffed prior to my departure," Rodgers says with a certain amount of pride. During this time, he was also reaching out to planners and officials in communities around Arizona.

"I realized fairly quickly that the state and the towns and cities did not seem to be communicating," Rodgers says. "So I wanted to get around the state as much as possible. This was while I was staffing up, and while I was having meetings and all of the usual things that you have in that situation."

During his brief months as Arizona's top planner, Rodgers visited Tucson half a dozen times, as well as Oro Valley, Bullhead City, Lake Havasu City, Flagstaff, Peoria, Scottsdale and Apache Junction, among others.

"I met with all the directors of planning and told them I wanted to work with them as one professional planner to another."

Rodgers says he wanted to make sure the state's and the cities' planning efforts could be properly coordinated and integrated. "Under the Growing Smarter Act they're supposed to be integrated. And I was looking forward to working with them on integrating the concept plans, the master plans for the state, versus city general plans."

His overtures to city planning offices were "all very well received," Rodgers recalls. "As a matter of fact, most people told me this willingness to cooperate had never come from the state before."

Of course, there's a reason for that glaringly widespread lack of communication -- the powers that be like it that way. But Rodgers, in his innocent enthusiasm to do his work thoroughly and well, apparently didn't stop to ponder such matters.

His overtures to the City of Phoenix met with a very positive response among city officials. Rodgers and Phoenix planning officials were organizing a joint effort to do conceptual planning for north Phoenix -- an idea Rodgers says Anable initially seemed to favor.

"Mr. Anable told me at one point that he'd had a meeting with [Phoenix] Mayor [Skip] Rimsza, and they had agreed that we should be partnering," Rodgers recalls.

Rodgers says he set up a system that he'd used before elsewhere. A management committee, composed of equal numbers of state and Phoenix officials, would ensure that various subcommittees did the nuts-and-bolts planning work. All approvals would go through the management committee.

In addition, Rodgers and Phoenix planners were trying to set up a downtown building for the cooperative project, a location that would encourage ordinary citizens to come in, review the plans in progress and make critiques, which would then be considered by the planners.

Apparently Rodgers has the cockamamie idea that people who live in a community should have some say in what it becomes, rather than allowing developers to build whatever they want on every available square inch. When it came time to put up or shut up, Anable was seeing things differently.

"He said, 'Well, you can't do that,' " Rodgers recalls. "I said what do you mean, can't do that? I said, look, Michael, I've done hundreds of millions of dollars of partnerships before, and I know what can work."

Anable told him state money had to be spent through the Land Department's own procurement process, and couldn't be mingled with community monies. Phoenix and state planners eventually wound up spending their own money on their own projects, with some coordination, nowhere near the full partnership Rodgers had envisioned.

BEFORE HIS PHOENIX partnership idea was shot down, Rodgers had prepared a draft report detailing suggestions for what might be done with state lands in the rapidly growing urban area of north Maricopa County. Land Department sources have said -- and Rodgers confirms -- the draft report was meant primarily to stimulate in-house discussions.

Anable, however, reportedly went ballistic.

"He basically called me into his office and proceeded to berate me for 45 minutes," Rodgers complains. "His whole concern was that I wrote a report and it was public information, and therefore someone could come in off the street and demand it."

Anable says Rodgers was never authorized to prepare such a report, which, he's quick to add, is "not an official document of the state Land Department. It was garbage, and it wasn't worth the paper it was written on," Anable says of Rodgers' report.

One can understand Anable's horror. As the governor's political appointee to keep the engine humming at the Land Department, he must have felt a stab of panic when he read the report's recommendations against leapfrog development and against the sale of rural state trust lands near areas such as Surprise, Arizona.

This recommendation directly countered the Del E. Webb Corporation's then-unannounced plans for the 16,000-acre White Tank Mountains parcel of state land 25 miles west of Phoenix, and not far from Surprise.

But why should the state Land Commissioner, an official supposedly dedicated to good planning and orderly growth, balk at such a recommendation?

As The Weekly has already reported, Phillip Dion, Del E. Webb's CEO, chaired Gov. Hull's election campaign and is her close advisor. Webb also donated thousands of dollars to Hull's run for the top state office.

Anable subsequently approved Webb's request to conceptually plan the White Tank parcel.

Instead of dealing off the rural lands, Rodgers' report advocated marketing and selling the existing 12,500 acres of urban trust lands in Maricopa County -- lands which, he says, represent at least 10 years of inventory, based on previous year sales by the state Land Department.

"In my opinion, Mr. Anable made his statements against the report because it opposed his viewpoints for selling land," Rodgers says.

But Anable doesn't stop at criticizing the report. He also tells The Weekly: "The guy [Rodgers] comes down from Canada. He's been in this country, what, a month? I beg your pardon, but I wouldn't pay anybody a nickel who'd only been here a month to do that kind of work for me."

In the first place, Rodgers points out, "the planning analysis report was based on research and data that exists and is documented, and we should look at all such data. The report is not based on Mr. Anable's political opinions, nor is it based on where I've lived."

Furthermore, says Rodgers, a professional planner for roughly 25 years, "I've traveled nearly every state in the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii, many times, and I probably know the U.S. much better than Mr. Anable himself."

In the second place, Rodgers says, Anable had very clearly spelled out that preparing such reports was well within his job description. Anable did so in a May 11 letter to him, stating his job was to, among other things:

· Coordinate assimilation of data, categorization of land and advise on policy formulation;

· Develop planning databases/plans;

· Categorize land uses and values;

· Prepare management policies and operating procedures for planning land development and real estate disposition.

"Therefore," Rodgers argues, "Mr. Anable requested this report by his hiring of me to perform the approved job descriptions and mandates for the Land Department's Asset Management [planning and engineering] Division."

In the third place, Rodgers contends Anable's apparent cavalier, shoot-from-the-hip Canadian-bashing is a violation of his civil rights, for which Rodgers has filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Under federal law, Rodgers points out, it's illegal to discriminate against a person based on his place of origin. So while Rodgers looks for another job -- perhaps in a bureaucracy more receptive to the principles and practices of good planning -- it appears to be business as usual at the corrupt state Land Department.

But before he rides off into the bloody Arizona sunset, Rodgers, who appears to be without anger over what's been done to him, fires off one shot into the air:

"In my professional opinion," he says, "the Land Department, as it currently operates, is driven by real-estate and land sales, without due regard for any of the other functions essential to proper planning and land development. Hence, the value of state land sales is being diminished, rather than enhanced."

In the end, he echoes the prediction of critics who say all Arizonans will have been cheated, potentially out of a billion dollars of future land values.

"That's where the real crime is, in my opinion," Rodgers says. "All of these state lands are now being sold cheap to today's developers, when a few years from now they could be sold for hundreds of millions more."

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