The Independent Interview: John Washington

John Washington

John Washington

United States Air Force veteran and Scottsdale resident John Washington is a man with community activism in his blood.

Mr. Washington is a founding member of the Coalition of Greater Scottsdale and has served the city of Scottsdale through his membership of both the CityCable Channel 11 Programming and Airport Advisory commissions.

But community service didn’t stop for Mr. Washington after serving in the military or his local municipality as he manages two community websites meant to inform his fellow residents of both his perspective on top issues and the political fallout that typically accompanies that sort of thing.

“My blog ScottsdaleTrails.com is focused on the natural beauty of Scottsdale and our quality of life,” he explained of his online efforts.

“The sister blog, ScottsdaleCitizen.com, focuses more on maintaining that quality of life through citizen awareness of civic issues, and effective engagement of citizens in their local government. I’ve written over 1,000 articles on Scottsdale.”

Mr. Washington makes a living in automotive design and medical device engineering and development.

“My wife is a Scottsdale native,” he points out. “Her great-grandmother had a cotton farm at 68th Street and Thomas Road. We live in downtown Scottsdale with our middle-school daughter.”

Mr. Washington says the south Scottsdale neighborhood he calls home is reminiscent of American suburbia often only found in the mind’s eye.

“We put a lot of thought into where we chose to live,” he explained.

“Our neighborhood is a little slice of suburban heaven, yet is walking distance to the amenities of downtown, and adjacent to the Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt. For me, that juxtaposition is representative of the magic of Scottsdale.”

To better understand the man behind the political gadfly, Mr. Washington was asked a variety of questions to help Independent readers better understand the person they frequently hear about.

This is what he had to say:

•What inherent beliefs do you have that help guide you through your life and its challenges?
1. Oftentimes it doesn’t take a lot of effort to help someone else, and I should help when I can.
2. Advancing one’s interests shouldn’t be at the expense of others.
3. Rules exist for a reason. If we are going to have them we should follow them — applying them equally to all, and abiding by them ourselves.

•What was the biggest mistake you ever made and how did that experience help shape the person you are today?
I’ve made so many it would be tough to identify the biggest. But they all taught me valuable lessons. Most of my bigger mistakes involved misplaced trust in others. Naturally, I’m more cautious now! One of my more entertaining and enlightening mistakes was allowing myself to be recruited into mediating a dispute between two neighbors, neither of whom has spoken to me much subsequently.

•What is the purpose of the Scottsdale Citizen website and what prompted you to first start a government watchdog site?
It started as a sort of notepad to help me record thoughts, observations, and facts for future reference for me and my fellow community advocates, and for publicly-accessible reference for all citizens.

•Where does this strong desire to critique news organizations come from?
Critiquing the media is only incidental. Mostly I just want to have an accurate, factual record of events. Many times they are glossed over so shallowly as to create a completely false historical record. But I take some satisfaction in telling myself that my critiques have had a positive effect on the quality of mainstream journalism as practiced in Scottsdale.

•How did your experience on the Scottsdale Airport Advisory Commission several years ago shape the government watchdog you are today?
I had been advocating on several issues for many years before being appointed to, and subsequently fired — the first sitting commissioner fired by the mayor and council in the history of Scottsdale — from the Airport Advisory Commission on a matter of principle. So I wasn’t exactly a rookie prior to that appointment, but you never really have an opportunity to know what’s going on behind the curtain until you’ve participated in government as an appointee.

And, sadly, many appointees won’t ever gain a deeper understanding of how their experience can be manipulated by executive staffers trying to stay in the good graces of Charter officers, who in-turn serve at the pleasure of their elected bosses on the city council. Likewise, serving as a city employee or as an elected official is undoubtedly an eye-opening experience, too.

•What do you think is your worst quality?
Again, too many to choose just one! A strong sense of justice can be a double-edged sword. Every minute I spend involved in civic matters is pro bono. Worse, it takes away from my personal life and my business activities. I’ve worked hard to become more efficient in my advocacy, and to help empower others who may have different energies, interests, and skill sets.

Ironically, many times I’m too nice and too diplomatic in my approach to issues. Then when someone lies to me, is disrespectful, or tries to take advantage, they are shocked and offended by my willingness to meet them toe to toe. So, I’m trying to be less diplomatic these days, since it seems to be an underappreciated and inefficient quality, which wastes a lot of time.

I’ve adopted a philosophy espoused to me by a friend a few years ago: “I won’t sacrifice clarity on the altar of diplomacy.” I have found that it helps me to spend less time sorting out friends from enemies, and helps me to be more effective (to the extent that I am) against the evil doers.

•In your view, how has Scottsdale politics evolved over the last few election cycles?
The evil siblings of resident apathy and money have always plagued Scottsdale. No one ever moved here thinking Scottsdale was broken and they were going to help fix it. Quite the opposite: we all paid a small premium for our homes compared to home prices in neighboring communities, thinking we would be secure in a better quality of life. So, more than in most communities, people tend to move here and not give a second thought to civic matters.

However, as Plato said, “The price good men pay for inattention to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”

Few Scottsdale residents are engaged in government beyond whatever issues occasionally affect their own neighborhoods directly. Thus, at election time, the candidates with the most money dominate the process, more so in Scottsdale than many other places. And in Scottsdale, the special interests most willing to invest money in the electoral process — developers and the liquor industry — get the government they buy. Lack of in-depth media coverage has exacerbated that effect.

The business community is focused on the next quarter’s results. Government ought to be focused on the next quarter-century’s quality of life. These conflicting windows of focus are further complicated by state government preempting local ordinances. One big example is forcing cities to hold elections in the fall rather than the spring. Voting participation is boosted.

But fewer of those voters are aware of local issues, focusing instead on partisan affiliation. Thus, our city council has shifted from a partisan balance to 100 percent so-called “Republicans.” Additional table-tilting by the Arizona Legislature has preempted local ordinances on political signs, and vastly increasing campaign contribution amounts.

•In your entire life what accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
My accomplishments have mostly been small and esoteric…a handful of academic and professional accomplishments and accolades. However, having—on balance—a positive effect on my family gives me hope for the future.

But if I had to pick one particular satisfaction beyond those, it is hearing language I’ve helped to evolve being used in the political and civic discourse of our city. These issues are complex and can be hard for an inexperienced observer to fully grasp. Language helps provide a handle with which to grasp them.

•What has been your biggest challenge professionally and how did you overcome?
As the chief cook and bottle washer in several, very diverse personal and business activities, focus, time management, and self-motivation are always tough. I’ll let you know when I figure them out!

•What do you believe to be the biggest issue facing the city of Scottsdale?
All the issues in which I’m involved are interrelated. Therefore, it’s difficult to pick just one. But I think the biggest long-term problem in Scottsdale is fiscal malfeasance.

Mayor Lane has led the charge for his entire term on council and as mayor to provide taxpayer-funded subsidies to business friends; to “balance” the resulting budget squeeze by continually deferring infrastructure maintenance; and to borrow money (via bonding) to pay for costs that should have been budgeted from General Fund tax revenues.

Subsequently, Scottsdale has over a billion dollars in municipal debt, the highest per capita of any city in the Valley. And by my estimate, we have over a billion dollars in deferred infrastructure maintenance. You can find the debt and structural deficit numbers in city reports, because they are hard to obfuscate. However, the infrastructure budget issues are more complex, and no one in mainstream media has done any significant research on that issue.

When you couple the deferred infrastructure with zoning issues — specifically zoning concessions for developers and bar owners — there are two major effects that have eroded our ability to address infrastructure issues.

The first is that the ultimate customers of over-development and the liquor industry are not Scottsdale’s traditional, more affluent, tourists and residents. The millennials, which is the term the developers and our city council have used to rationalize their decisions, simply do not provide the same real, positive economic impact. And there’s a higher cost involved in catering to them, particularly in public safety.
The second effect is that Mayor Lane and the city council majority have made irrevocable changes to the traditional low-scale, low-density physical character that has historically set Scottsdale apart from its neighbors. Our traditional tourists will tend to take their money to other destinations that are more like what Scottsdale used to be.

On-balance, Scottsdale is still and will be for some time to come a great place to live. We are just going to have to work extra hard to overcome the legacy of the recent past, and to try to prevent it from continuing.

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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