In a modern American political arena too often defined by ineffective partisan bickering, local government races provide us some relief, or at least they could. If only we were paying attention.
It is at our city council meetings and on our county commissions where corruption and ineptitude often goes most unnoticed. Republicans and Democrats, while often well intentioned, mutually find themselves sucked into the allure of dishing out corporate welfare through tax subsidies, violating due process, and enjoying lavish travel and entertainment budgets. Outside of these perks and the six-figure salaries for council members in major cities, many local part-time posts can garner less than $10,000 a year.
Given all of this, perhaps it's no surprise that Surprise, Arizona has caught itself in quite a mess. Just a decade ago, the northern Phoenix suburb sleepy town had a population of just 30,000. It's the kind of place where retirees ride their golf carts down the street on the way from their patio homes to one of the many local golf courses. Then everything changed. By 2010, the city's population had exploded to 115,000, a byproduct of the nation's housing boom fueled by easy access to tax revenue and consumer credit.
The good days didn't last long, however. Recently, Surprise took top honors as the nation's foreclosure capital. The taxpayer funds that had been used to build a state-of-the-art city building are now nowhere to be found. Half-built neighborhoods, including that of my sister, Joy Grainger, and her family, are now the norm. More than 1,000 homes across the city now stand vacant due to foreclosure.
As second in command for the city's lobbying team, Joy was on the inside when the city's budget began to crumble under the weight of its sudden economic woes. Last March, the city manager was canned. By December, city leaders were forced to admit they'd misappropriated $73 million, funds for which they cannot account today.
Despite pressure from the Arizona Republic and local activists, the city is now refusing to release a report chronicling specifics about the missing money.
Concerned about possible misuse of funds in her own department, Joy spoke up, advising city leadership and the HR Director that she'd witnessed significant overcharges in reimbursement requests and alleged improper action on city contracts. For blowing the whistle, she was belittled and transferred to another department. The city didn't appreciate Joy's tenacity or honesty.
Joy could have packed up and left town. Others certainly did, walking away from mortgages with the ease of investors who'd bought homes sight unseen. But she didn't. She dug in her heels and braced for impact. She ran for her neighborhood's Homeowners' Association. She won. Her leadership mantra: HOAs and local government shouldn't be about telling how people to live their lives, but rather about holding people accountable to their communal and financial obligations. She sought out other work opportunities and was quickly snapped up by a respected national non-profit organization.
If the Surprise City Council took this step as some sort of admission of defeat, they were wrong. At what was supposed to be an ordinary City Council meeting a few weeks ago, Joy took to the microphone as the council discussed a proposed whistleblower ordinance presented as a way to protect employees like Joy in the future.
"I was a whistle-blower and you all let me down," she told council members as she looked them in the eye. As reported by a newspaper reporter in attendance, she also said the city was regularly made aware of the "tremendously horrible" position she was in.
Joy walked out of the meeting with her pride, and shortly after was inundated with supportive emails from her former co-workers glad that someone had finally spoken up publicly. She then announced her candidacy for city council.
This is a pursuit full of risks. But Joy gets it. There must have been something in the water in the house where I grew up. While our childhood experience was far from that of the Kennedy or Bush political dynasties, two of the four kids who grew up in my home would go onto run for political office. It is now my big sister leading the charge to hold local governments--too often forgotten in our national debate about government corruption and spending--accountable to taxpayers who too often now don't have a penny to spare.
While my own 2004 bid for Colorado Senate, which I launched at the age of 25, fell just short of taking down a two-term incumbent, prospects for my big sister now look good. Regardless of whether she prevails in her own election, she has an opportunity to mobilize citizens of all ideological persuasions to take a second look at the city hall closest to home.
As Joy's ongoing crusade shows, our current economic crisis is not just about shining a spotlight on Washington's wasteful spending. It's about following the trail of every taxpayer dollar that lands in the checking accounts of thousands of American cities across our nation.
Jessica P. Corry is a Denver attorney and political strategist. She serves as Special Counsel to Hoban & Feola, LLC, as a policy analyst with the Independence Institute, and is currently completing a book titled Victim Nation under the Phillips Foundation's Robert Novak Fellowship.