Shortly before the Phoenix City Council postponed a vote on spending $150 million to upgrade Talking Stick Resort Arena this week, Greta Rogers captured the heart of America.
The 90-year-old political gadfly tore into the council for negotiating this public expenditure with Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver behind closed doors. Regarding Sarver, she said, “He’s so tight, he squeaks when he walks, and you have been negotiating with this kind of person. Shame on each and every one of you.”
Phoenix New Times caught up with Rogers shortly after the Council voted to delay the Suns deal. She was sitting on a bench chatting with Phoenix Police Assistant Chief Michael Kurtenbach. As the Suns CEO Jason Rowley was speaking with a gaggle of reporters, we asked for Rogers’ phone number to chat later. She obliged, but she held out her cane and suggested — in view of Kurtenbach — that she would harm us if we gave her number to anyone else.
We called Rogers at her home Friday morning and spoke for about an hour. She expanded her thoughts on the Suns arena (“an inconsequential piece of crap”), told us about her long relationship with her district’s council member, Sal DiCiccio (“an ego that is just boundless, and without any mental or moral dedication and substantiation to support it”), and filled us in on two recent falls that have affected her stamina (“It was God’s way of telling me, ‘You’re no longer a teenager, Greta.'”).
An edited version of our conversation follows:
Phoenix New Times: Did you know you’re famous now?
Greta Rogers: I’ve been infamous in this city for 30 years now.
Did you know you’re nationally famou—
I’ve been active in the City of Phoenix, at their original invitation, for 22 years. And I’ve lived here for 45.
What was your role with the City of Phoenix?
Well the first thing was after an invitation — if you can believe this — from my then and evidently eternal councilman Sal DiCiccio. He met me at a Village Planning Commission meeting out here in Ahwatukee out in ’97. Subsequently he called me in ’98 to ask if I would serve on the Housing and Neighborhood Commission for the city of Phoenix.
I said I don’t know what you’re talking about, so he gave me a quick explanation, and I said I’m not qualified, Sal. I have never worked for or within any challenged neighborhoods at all. I’ve never lived in one. And I’ve never done any worker outreach in one. I don’t have any qualification to be serving on such a group. I don’t know how often or infrequently you’ve heard Sal DiCiccio expound.
A few times.
Well, he has a very liquid tongue, and he’s more noise than substance. And he said, “Oh you’re qualified.” I said, “Based on what?” He said, “You’re a Realtor.” I said, “So what? I’ve never worked in neighborhoods that are challenged or with people who face serious economic safe living or educational challenges. I never have. I’ve never been a social worker.” He said, “Well, you’ll just be fine.” I said, “I’ll give you this. I’ll give you three months, and if I don’t think I can make a substantial difference on the work of this group of people for the City of Phoenix, I shall resign.” He said, “Okay. That’s fair enough.”
The first meeting I attended was in June of ’97. [The topic of the meeting was an infill.]
One guy who had been on the commission longer than I had, and I was the newbie, said, “Greta, I think it’s 32nd Street to 67th or 75th avenue and north of the Baseline.” I said, “Could you please repeat that and I’ll write it down? I don’t have my Thomas Book of Maps with me,” but I would guess that’s at least 25 percent of the total square miles of the City of Phoenix. And when I got home and I referenced my Thomas Book, it was one-third of the city. And nobody at any level of government puts a project on a program within the government for improvement of anything within one-third of the total square miles of the area. And they had no time frame for completion. And they had no specific goals that were to be met. It was some pie-in-the-sky idea that I guess the council and our then-City Manager Frank Fairbanks, who I call Fantasy Frank, put out to make people feel good and particularly those people who might have some improvements to their neighborhoods and lives by this pie-in-the-sky commission.
That’s how I started.
So you were saying you’ve been involved in city politics for more than 20 years now.
For more than 20 years. I don’t go to all council meetings, and I go to very few now because I had a couple falls from fainting within the last couple years, and what it did to me is it told me, “Greta, you really are a senior citizen, and we’re going to make you act like one.” So I got a cane and just for stability when I’m out walking in any place.
Did you know right now, there are stories about you in USA Today, in the Washington Post, Fox News, some other websites?
No, I don’t know any of that. I doubt there’s anything in the Times. I have my Friday Times that I haven’t opened yet. I just finished reading the editorial section of the Republic.
It doesn’t matter. I don’t do it for publicity. I don’t. I do it because I believe somebody has to question, offer suggestions and/or alternatives, and hold their feet to the fire.
What they did this week, keeping this inconsequential piece of crap as sacred is despicable. It’s totally outside the democratic operation of government in this country. And within the charter of the City of Phoenix, it’s outside what it requires. Who cares if we had known throughout their deliberation on this — and I don’t know when [Suns owner] Robert Sarver first broached the subject with [City Manager] Ed Zuercher. That hasn’t been disclosed. All I know is allegedly earlier this week, he sat with each council member to gain their support.
Bob Sarver is a very dislikeable man, and I’ve never met the man. But I’ve known two guys who have known him for a long time, and these aren’t petty men. These are men who in their own lives and careers have been successful in business, and they haven’t come to the city and asked for a quarter. This is a private business, as I’ve said, and if he wants a new stadium — basically, that’s what’s he’s asking for — then he can either buy the stadium or build one and move to another location. That’s what the Cardinals did. When they first moved up here from St. Louis, they played at ASU football stadium, and people sat on metal planks — no backs, no arms, just bleachers. It was a bleacher-style stadium. Maybe it still is. I haven’t been to it since they did millions of dollars of renovations.
I’ll tell you the common thread through both these men, Bidwell Sr. and Sarver. It’s banking. That’s the root business for both of them. Sarver’s father started a savings and loans in Tucson, which is where he grew up. That’s his background.
I’ll tell you something in common with principals in the banking business. They are almost uniformly not thrifty, but cheap and tight. They are. If they could split a penny, they’d do it. That’s different from being frugal, in my opinion. That’s being stingy, and Sarver is stingy. He bought the Suns. He knew where they played when he bought them. The Suns have been a failure as long as he’s owned them, because he won’t invest in two or three top-grade players because that costs money, real money. As long as he runs this teams the way he’s run it, it will be a failure.
What you said during the City Council meeting on Wednesday really captured the feelings of a lot of Phoenix residents and Suns fans in a way that hadn’t been said before. I feel like you put words to a lot of people’s thoughts, and that’s why you’re getting attention right now.
If that’s true, I accept it. My main reason for speaking was to bring to light, once again, and it isn’t the first time in the 22 years I’ve been a practicing citizen, is we have an open and public, democratic form of government…
We don’t have $150 million or any figure above that flopping around in a miscellaneous account wanting or wishing to be used before it goes obsolete and goes into a big slush fund for anything. We have infrastructural problems in this city, primarily streets. We did a major sewer replacement on Southern Avenue a couple years ago, from the Tempe line and then north. We have water line issues coming up. The original part of this city, which is probably where you’re sitting now. Are you not at your office?
I’ve seen this village grow from what it began as to what it has become, and there isn’t much land anymore to build on because it has been built out to its farthest southwestern extent, which is Pecos Road to 27th avenue, and beyond that’s Indian reservations. I’ve seen it grown, and it’s a good community, and we don’t have serious street problems here because we’re too young. But we have street, and sewer, and water line problems in the city of Phoenix, and that is infrastructure and that has to be made safely, operable, and deliverable, period. And that’s a requirement in the charter.
You’re saying there are better uses of $150 million.
They are mandatory uses. It isn’t better. It’s mandatory.
You said you hadn’t been to City Hall in a while, that you maybe couldn’t remember the last time you were at City Hall.
The last time I was at City Hall, to the best of my recollection, was probably two or three months ago. I’m just not as ambulatory with confidence as I used to be. I had two fainting spells about a year and a year and a half apart and it wasn’t because I was sick. I wasn’t drunk. I don’t drink liquor. I just fainted, and I fell backward and hit my head, first on the bathroom floor and then on the kitchen floor, and neither one of those is carpeted. I suffered a contusion on the left side of my head and one on the right, so at least they evened out.
There was no damage to my brain. I went through all the MRIs and PSQs and whatever, and there’s no damage, so part of it was my age. I was 88 the first time. I was 89 the second time. I began my 90th year in October. Except for stamina and walking long distances, I’m fine.
When I went down there a couple days ago, that was the most distance walking I had done in a long time. That was just a half-a-block, from Crazy Jim’s to the corner of 3rd and Washington, then across the street and down and around to the council chambers, and then back again to the parking lot. Chief Kurtenbach walked with me back to the parking lot. I said, “You don’t have to do this.” I’ve known him for a long time. He’s an ace. He really is. He did the courteous and public safety responsible thing, and for that I’m grateful. I just don’t have the stamina I used to have. It was God’s way of telling me, “You’re no longer a teenager, Greta.”
You know how DiCiccio rarely shows up at the meetings?
The last meeting I attended, which was probably a month or a half ago. I laced him from head-to-toe and from side-to-side. I’ve known him for 22 years, as I’ve told you.
Why’d you lace him?
The man has no dedication to service. He says things because he knows it’ll get him in the paper. He does nothing constructive for the City of Phoenix… He has an ego that is just boundless and without any mental or moral dedication and substantiation to support it. He’s a headline-grabber, that’s all he is.
I castigated him for not attending meetings in person. He has no reason not to. He’s married. He has two little girls. They’re now in mid-grade school, and his wife has her own business, a consulting business. She’s a very nice lady. And in all the years I’ve known him, he has never been gainfully employed. It’s been council salary and city benefits. Public salary and benefits. And he hasn’t done one memorable advancement for this district in the city in the many years he’s been on the council. He’s a user and abuser of privilege. And I called him on it, no-holds-barred at the meeting in late October or the first meeting in November. He showed up at that meeting. I congratulated him. I said, “Congratulations Sal. You found the energy to get down here. I said, “I live two miles further from this location than you do, and I’ve got 30 years on you.” And then I went at him, hammer-and-tong.
The statement you gave during your public comments on Wednesday that got everyone’s attention was saying Robert Sarver is so tight that he squeaks when he walks. I’m noticing in our conversation right now that you have a lot of clever turns of phrases. I’m wondering where that all comes from.
Probably from my heritage. My father, who was eminently successful in business, was in the advertising business. He was a great linguist, and had a great creative mind. You have to have that to be successful in that business, because you’re promoting a product or service for whomever your client is. If it’s a product, it’s going to be published. The advertising is published, as you well now know. If it’s a service, it can also be published depending on the service. Most legitimate doctors and lawyers and even accountants don’t advertise. They develop their book of business and their reputation is mainly gained by satisfied clients who talk about them and recommend them to others. It’s really from my father that I get the gene that enables me to express myself without redundancy.
Is there anything else you want to say to our readers or anyone else who discovered you on the internet?
All I can say is, I would urge citizens to be more aware, whether by accessing the internet — and they can read newspapers on the internet, can they not?
Yeah, they can.
Okay. Accessing the internet or becoming a practicing citizen in your neighborhood, which means more than saying hello and have a good day to the people you encounter in a normal day. It means being aware of what the community is experiencing as a part of a city government. And being active and going down to a council meeting or subcommittee meeting. The subcommittees meet once a month at City Hall. There’s a calendar scheduled that’s consistent throughout the year. So if it’s water issues or transportation issues or financial issues or neighborhood or housing issues, those are all designated subjects that are addressed by four mayoral-appointed council members. And they’re open to the public. And the calendar schedule is available to anyone, probably on the internet.
I don’t access it that way. I have a thing about everybody just clicking and entering in order to get through life without reading; [it] isn’t the way to become knowledgeable and intelligent about an issue, in my opinion. My breed is short-lived here, and the internet is the manner of communication and I accept that. Just because I don’t use it doesn’t mean I don’t understand that it’s here to stay.
People need to get out of their own little cocoon of comfort, but that won’t happen.