Ask any journalist what makes the biggest difference in covering public agencies, and they’re not likely to name the top dog.

As helpful or unhelpful as an elected official may appear, they are rarely the first stop on a reporter’s quest to get information. Instead, they turn to an organization’s front line of defense public service—the public information officer, or PIO.

That’s why it’s nice to see good folks be recognized for their work assisting the public and the Fourth Estate.

The annual Phoenix New Times “Best of Phoenix” arrived, and “Best PIO” goes to a couple of staffers at the Superior Court for Maricopa County—Vincent Funari and Karen Arra. Congratulations!

(If you’re surprised the New Times has such a wonky category, you may not have noticed that the alternative news weekly has been in court a time or three. If anyone desires a transparent and fair court process, it’s the New Times and its soon-to-be-vamoosed owners!)

I first came across the good news on the court’s own Facebook page, but there was no link to read the glowing tribute penned by the digitally-ink-stained wretches. Whazzup, I thought? I mean, if anyone knows social media and how to link up a storm, that court and these PIOs do.

So I shuffled over to the PNT’s own site, searched, located the item—and had a good chuckle at how the newspaper heaps praise along with a side of sarcasm. You can read it here.

Given how accomplished Vincent and Karen are, it’s no wonder that they decided to excerpt only the pertinent portion and leave the snarky history lesson aside.

But here at AZ Attorney, we enjoy the whole, unvarnished story!

If you come across either of these great professionals when you pass through the court, give them your best wishes; they’ve earned it.

32 days ago, a court tower heralded as a model for the nation was opened. Yesterday, the chief engineer tasked with heading that project was fired.

The speed with which his departure occurred may end up telling us a lot about a county and the storms it has weathered.

On November 11, Kenny Harris played a large role in a Maricopa County event marking the door-opening of the Superior Court’s new tower. The path getting there had been a long one, marked by controversy, lawsuits and allegations—never proven—of wrongdoing. (You can read about the building’s topping-out here.) It involved rancor by a county attorney and a county sheriff, and bruised egos and reputations. But the final result was described as a structure that would last 100 years and be envied and copied by courts across the United States.

But just a month later, the county is roiled again in a high-profile controversy, this one about staff accepting gifts from vendors who worked for the county. In fact, one of the three significant vendors Kenny Harris praised at the November 11 event—Parsons—is one of the companies named in the independent investigator’s report on staff gifts.

Maricopa County officials take delivery of the Court Tower Certificate of Occupancy (Kenny Harris, far left)

As today’s news story describes, Mr. Harris was a pivotal figure in a wide variety of public building projects. Since being hired by the county in 2007, he had spearheaded projects that ran into the many millions of dollars. And many of the results, like the Phoenix Art Museum expansion and the University of Phoenix stadium, are recognized as superior work.

You may read in the story about the grounds for which County Manager David Smith fired Harris. As always in the employment context, there may be more going on than is reported in the news. For instance, you have to get all the way to the final three paragraphs to see that there may have been other “dysfunction” in the office. But even given that, the firing took even County Supervisors by surprise.

It will be impossible to determine for sure, but it is not far-fetched to believe that the turmoil surrounding the county—and this tower—over the past few years played a role in this week’s events. After all, you need only read the court tower’s FAQ page to see the focus on accountability and transparency. If you go there expecting answers to questions like how many floors there are or what hours the building is open, you may be surprised at the posture of the questions and responses. This was—is—a county under fire.

Kenny Harris, Nov. 11, 2011

So it would be understandable that controversy would be avoided at all costs. The County Manager, having helped see his employer through years of turmoil, may have decided the new terrazzo floor and the courtroom floors above it must be free of controversy.

Of course, Harris is examining his legal options, so county residents may have yet another opportunity to see how their government works. We’ll see what’s revealed.

On Friday, Maricopa County dedicated its new court tower, officially taking ownership of the 16-story structure at Second Avenue and Madison Street in downtown Phoenix.

Though operations will not commence in the building until Arizona Centennial Day in February 2012, county staff and supervisors decided to formally mark the delivery of the certificate of occupancy.

As workers made tweaks and final adjustments, dignitaries gathered Friday morning in the building’s lobby for brief remarks by those who played a large part in the building’s completion.

“On time and under budget” was repeated by numerous speakers, clearly pleased to be able to report the fact.

Supervisor Don Stapley said that the county had saved $198 million in financing costs by building when it did—rather than delaying, as detractors had recommended. The building is now debt-free, he said.

“This building is a testament to the courage and tenacity of the board and staff in the face of their challengers,” he said. “The citizens of the county for the next 100 years will be the winners.”

Supervisor Fulton Brock said that the building’s inscription—“The first duty of society is justice”—is what the board and the county stand for.

“This building is the envy of every judicial district in the nation,” Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox said. “When Maricopa County sets its mind to something, there’s no stopping it.”

Also speaking was County Manager David Smith, who thanked all of the contractors and vendors.

“Today we celebrate the success of a great team in what will be a 100-year building.”

Smith described some of the many unique elements of the new structure, such as separate waiting areas for victims and defendants, holding cells that will accommodate more than 1,000 inmates, and a variety of courtroom designs made to address varying needs. Smith also noted that there were more than 2 million work hours on the project with no lost-time accidents.

Assistant County Manager for Public Works Kenny Harris praised the three construction and design teams that led the operation: HDR, Parsons and Arcadis.

Event attendees stood atop one of the building’s featured elements: a terrazzo tile floor depicting the flow of the Salt River.

Representing the court (for Presiding Judge Norm Davis, who was unable to attend the Veterans Day event) was Judge Eddward Ballinger. He said, “This project represents an example of the prudent and wise leadership by supervisors and county staff. Of all the bickering we see today, this is an example of efficient bipartisanship.”

Here is another story on the opening. And the Court Tower has its own web page here.

More photos are below. And more are available on the Arizona Attorney Magazine Facebook page.

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