The pace of news in Washington since Inauguration Day, say the old hands, has never been faster.
And in the Flagstaff region, it seems time to put out a Half-Year in Review – that’s how much news 2017 has already generated.
The difference is that the news coming out of the factional strife in Washington seems almost surreal against the backdrop of local news on the Colorado Plateau. There are no doubt a difference in values underlying the debates over wages, housing, coal-fired power and the stand-your-ground defense. But at least the parties here agree more or less on a set of underlying facts and are still talking with each other, not subpoenaing them
But more later on reality vs ideology inside and outside the Beltway. As the summer solstice approaches, let’s review the top local stories of 2017, even if there are six months left in the year.
WAGES IN LIMBO
--Fallout from the Flagstaff minimum wage hike. The proposition on the Flagstaff ballot in November phased in the raise to $15 an hour over five years. But when a state pay hike also passed, a clause in the Flagstaff measure bumped up minimum pay in the city to $12 starting July 1 -- $2 more than the state rate. That was more than state-funded nonprofit caregivers said they could afford. Opponents qualified a ballot measure to essentially repeal the $15 raise and reset it to the new state minimum. A council majority countered by eliminating the $2 escalator clause through 2021 and put the repeal initiative on the November 2018. The caregivers elected to stay open, at least for now.
Key takeaway: While various sides differ sharply over the impact of the wage hike on jobs and prices, as well as whether government should be so deeply involved in the labor market, nobody has sued and no one has questioned the sincerity and motives of the other side. It’s a message to state lawmakers that when allowed to work out their differences, cities with home rule powers are just as capable as the Legislature – if not more so.
--The Hub court ruling: Developers and opponents of this 591-bed, five-story student housing project in low-rise, low-density Southside finally got their day in court. The Board of Adjustments had approved it 3-2, and the visiting judge conceded there were conflicting passages in the “transect” zoning code over height and density in that location. But he said the Hub developers had the right to rely on the sections with greater development rights, sending opponents away disappointed but determined to stay engaged with student housing issues and, in particular, the transect zoning code.
Key takeaway: New Urbanists who looked to mixed-use, multi-generational projects to revitalize neighborhoods have learned that details in the code matter. But city planning staff have taken the general unhappiness with the Hub to heart and are revising standards for both high-occupancy and transect zoning. And with only a few exceptions, the finger-pointing has subsided and all sides are rolling up their sleeves to revise the code.
NO TIME TO COMPLAIN
--NGS closure announcement: Despite new pollution control rules, most everyone expected the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station to operate through at least 2041, albeit without one of three units shut down. So the announcement by four out of five owners that they were getting out and shutting down the plant as early as this year hit employees and the city of Page hard. But unlike the debate in Washington that blames the decline of coal on overregulation, the NGS owners said theirs was a financial decision: coal couldn’t compete with cheaper oil and natural gas and, in the near future, solar and wind. The Navajo Nation, which holds the land lease, is negotiating a two-year lease extension in the hope that a partial plant operation can be sustained. But Page and county officials already are boosting investment in value-added tourism and an amenity-based economy.
Key takeaway: Whatever animus the Trump voters in Page have toward Democrats and the Clean Power Act hasn’t distracted them from taking a constructive approach to the NGS shutdown. And the plant’s owners have also avoided finger-pointing in favor of straight talk about the electric power industry – a refreshing change from the grandstanding in Washington.
REAL NEWS, TOUGH CHOICES
--Steven Jones nonverdict: This was the trial that for stand-your-ground advocates was going to settle the question in favor of the threatened shooter. But after the jury couldn’t come to a unanimous decision on not only first-degree murder but several lesser charges, there wasn’t the usual outcry that justice had or hadn’t been served. Testimony at the trial showed just how difficult it would be for jurors to determine Jones’ state of mind and how it meshed with evidence of his actions. A new trial is pending in October, which leaves four months for both sides to weigh what it will take to get a different verdict out of a different jury.
Key takeaway: When it comes to real vs. “fake” news, trial coverage doesn’t get much more real. Citizens who want to make judgments about our criminal justice system and the laws it enforces don’t have any better window on how that system works or doesn’t. And unlike the hyperpolarized adversaries in Washington and their black-and-white view of the world, they need only look to trials like that of Steven Jones to realize that life is a lot more complicated than 141-character tweets. We’d hate to think that it will come down to the various Beltway players being forced to testify under oath. But when partisan ideology threatens to overwhelm reality, that may be the only choice left.