Stark focused on combating homelessness, closing blighted alleys and filling vacant shopping centers
More than a month after winning the special City Council election in north Phoenix, Councilwoman Debra Stark is adjusting to City Hall’s political divisions and taking on her district’s concerns, from homelessness to vacant retail centers.
Stark was sworn in after beating attorney Chris DeRose in the contentious March 14 runoff election for council in District 3. The district is home to about 180,000 residents and encompasses the Sunnyslope and Moon Valley neighborhoods, along with parts of northeast Phoenix.
She previously was appointed to the council on an interim basis last summer to fill the seat vacated by now-Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates.
Stark will now serve the remainder of Gates’ term through 2019, when she will face re-election.
A former city and county planning director, Stark comes to the council after a lengthy career in city government. She worked 33 years for local municipalities and Maricopa County.
Stark sat down with The Arizona Republic this week to talk about her plans for the district and thoughts on entering politics after a career in civil service. Some responses have been condensed for brevity and clarity.
Question: You came into this position after a long career in city government, as a city planner. How has it felt being on the other side on the council dais?
Answer: It’s definitely different. I guess I get to be more inquisitive. When I was city planner, I got more direction and questions about processes, but now I get to kind of explore the policy end of it, and I find that fascinating. Also, I thought I knew everything about city government until I became an elected official.
Q: It’s been about a month since your election and since you became the permanent councilwoman and not just the interim. What have you worked on so far?
A: A lot of constituent inquiries. Probably the Number 1 question I get is road repair. “When’s my street going to get paved? We’ve got potholes. What are we going to do?” So we’ve been working very closely with Street Transportation. The other issue, obviously, is public safety, a lot on inquiries with regards to the homeless and transient issues. One of the things that (Councilman Daniel Valenzuela) and I are trying to do is a pilot project for alley closures in Royal Palm (a neighborhood in north central Phoenix). Part of that is their public outcry because of all the crime and the loitering and the littering in their alleys. … But we want to provide a program where we just close the alleys with gates. Granted it’s not going to solve crime, but hopefully it will be a deterrent towards crime and littering.
Q: You mentioned road repairs. That was a focus of yours during the campaign. Are there any specific road projects that are going to be your focus right away?
A: Obviously, Thunderbird (Road), which I inherited from Councilman Gates. That is one of the more problem roads, especially around the high school, around 19th Avenue and Thunderbird. Gratefully, Mr. Gates got it pushed up and so it should be coming to fruition by the end of this year or early next year.
Q: What have your relationships with other council members been like? Is the body more divided than you expected it to be?
A: Well, I get along with all of them. I guess I’m not that political of a creature. You know, I guess I’m a politician now. But I’m still kind of a local-government, let’s-get-things-done person at heart.
Q: Has it been difficult adjusting to that political world? I mean, your race was negative at times, with your opponent attacking you and a “dark money” group going after your opponent. Was that tough getting used to?
A: Yeah, it was. It’s just not me. I don’t really like negative campaigning to begin with. I know during my campaign, it probably drove my campaign manager crazy, I just didn’t want to go negative. It just isn’t a part of me. But it was tough getting a lot of that negative literature. It got to the point where my husband just would trash it. And we got all the literature because my husband is a Republican and I’m a Democrat and my kids are still registered at home, even though they don’t live with us, and they’re independents. So we got it all. It was pretty entertaining.
Q: The City Council seems to have become more partisan and there have been a lot of wedge issues facing the council in recent years. Do you find it concerning?
A: I really do because I think it gets in the way of getting some things done. Again, I think a lot of what we do really isn’t a partisan issue. And we get hung up on whether we’re a Democrat or a Republican and we can’t address our constituents’ questions.
Q: Do you think it’s important to have more gender diversity on the council? With your election, there are exactly four women and four men on the council, not including Mayor Greg Stanton.
A: I kind of like it. I think it’s a good thing. Diversity is a good thing. You know, half the population is female, so I think now they’ve got some good representation on the council.
Q: Switching to the city budget, you’ve just finished your first year of city-budget hearings. You had the most hearings of any council member this year. What kind of messages did you hear from residents?
A: A lot of what I heard I used to hear when I was a city staffer. There’s always the group that comes out in support of the libraries, the group that comes out in support of the arts. But what I think we heard more than before were the issues that dealt with homelessness and the transient population, public safety. The great news this year in our budget we actually are going to commit some money to … partner with non-profits that really know how to deal with the issues of homelessness.
Q: Do you think the city is doing enough to address that growing concern about homelessness?
A: Yeah, because we’re also (creating a main phone number that people can call with concerns and have their issue directed to the right city department). They’re going to probably roll it out in the fall.
Q: What about police hiring? The city has a plan to grow its force to 3,125 officers by 2018. Should the city be doing more or is that solving the problem? (Phoenix currently has about 2,860 officers, far less than its pre-recession peak of 3,375 sworn employees before a hiring freeze.)
A: Well, (I) think we need to get to that number and see where we’re at. Crime is down, but I know the police officers are overtaxed. So I think we need to worry about the future. But let’s see where we are when we get up to 3,100-plus.
Q: What else should residents expect from you in the next year? What are the big things on your agenda?
A: I do want to work on our Trades Depot. We passed an initiative with the idea of supplementing our College Depot (a library program that helps youths prepare for college entry) to show kids coming out of high school there’s other opportunities besides going to college. … I hope we can emphasize and show kids coming out of high school that you can go a different direction. You can do an apprentice, be a journeyman, become a master plumber, and actually probably make darn good money.
I also want to really focus in on economic development and reuse of some of these commercial strip centers that sit vacant or underutilized. That’s pretty important. One that I point to most recently is at Seventh Street and Bell (Road), the Fry’s that left to build a bigger, newer Fry’s down the street. Now, we have this huge, empty commercial at a real viable intersection. And we need to move on it quickly before that area starts to deteriorate.
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