This guy is a riot, thinks this is his little kingdom.
Lancaster's flamboyant mayor putting town on map
By John Rogers, Associated Press
Posted: 07/17/2010 05:59:04 PM PDT
Updated: 07/17/2010 06:01:52 PM PDT
LANCASTER - Never mind being mayor. If he could just be appointed king for a year, jokes Mayor R. Rex Parris, he could really turn this wind-swept, sagebrush-dotted corner of the sun-baked Mojave Desert into an oasis of comfort and modernity.
Crime? Forget about it. There would be a military-style surveillance plane flying overhead. There would be a steady revenue stream from flashing billboards and musical roads placed all over town.
Problem is, say the mayor's critics, he already acts like he's king, bullying others until he gets his way, sometimes proposing silly ideas that trample on people's civil rights and sometimes getting the city sued, as he did earlier this year when he championed a successful ballot initiative directing the City Council to open its meetings with a prayer.
"People either love him or hate him, and a lot of people hate him," said Arnold Rodio, a local plumbing contractor who, like Parris, grew up in the area when it was little more than a rural outback on a desert highway to nowhere.
Still, even Parris' fiercest critics acknowledge he often gets things done for this city 70 miles north of Los Angeles.
Parris was the guy, after all, who kept hundreds of members of the notorious Mongols motorcycle gang out of town last year by using a back-tax issue to padlock a run-down hotel the gang had booked for its annual summer blowout.
The mayor, 58, promoted an anti-crime campaign, fueled in part by threatening to throw poor people
out of subsidized housing if their children didn't behave. Crime dropped more than 30 percent in two years. And he pushed through a law giving the city the right to cut the testicles off pit bulls after he decided the dogs were being used by street gangs to intimidate people.
"No gang-banger wants a pit bull that doesn't have dangling parts," Parris says, laughing heartily.
Parris, a wealthy litigation attorney easily re-elected to a second two-year term last April, insists most people like what he's doing. He does acknowledge, however, that his hard-charging approach doesn't endear him to everyone.
Some proposals have drawn harsh criticism, including a plan to reduce the homeless population by giving them bus tickets out of this city of 145,000 people.
Parris has no plans to change his style.
He's pushing hard to win support for a "sky sentinel" program in which a surveillance plane would track criminal activity all over town. Critics say it would also invade privacy.
An experimental musical road that played a snippet of "The William Tell Overture" every time a car drove over it drew some noise complaints, but when he has time, the mayor wants to put in more roads and have them play commercial jingles for local businesses.
While other cities are taking billboards down, Parris wants to put more up, saying his law firm's business quadrupled when he began using them.
He's also busy wooing Chinese companies, including the behemoth battery and electric-car maker BYD, which announced earlier this week it had partnered with the city on a solar-powered house the mayor believes will be the prototype for future home construction.
That partnership speaks directly to Parris' recent edict that all city officials, including himself, learn Mandarin.
Overall, it's an ambitious agenda, but Parris says this is no time to waver.
"Because eventually," he adds with a laugh, "they have to get tired of me."
Despite his reputation for flamboyance, Parris is surprisingly soft-spoken in person. He can hold court on any number of topics, however, from management strategies to race relations, philosophy to high-end cars, displaying not only a broad, eclectic knowledge but also a quick wit and an often self-deprecating sense of humor.
Greeting visitors at the mayor's office on a sunny afternoon when the desert temperature has already risen above 90, Parris is smartly dressed in a well-tailored dark suit, crisp white shirt, dark tie and black cowboy boots. Parris acknowledges the flashy footwear is part of a deliberate effort to set himself apart from the crowd.
"You could get the same thing by adding a bow tie," he notes with a chuckle. "But I choose boots."
Talk to almost anybody on the city's main drag, Lancaster Boulevard, and they have an opinion on him.
"He's brought vision and leadership together and it's improving our quality of life," Tim Christoson said as he had lunch with his family at a new upscale restaurant near City Hall.
Elsewhere in the Antelope Valley, Parris' name is plastered on giant billboards promoting his law firm and on R. Rex Parris High School in neighboring Palmdale.
Although modest about his accomplishments, Parris expresses some pride in having a school named after him. He notes it's a continuation school, the kind of place they send troublemakers to, the kind of place they sent him to 40-some years ago before he got his act together.
A judge was about to put him in jail for nearly two dozen speeding tickets - "I like to drive fast," the mayor says sheepishly - until his mother persuaded him to give her son one more chance.
"I pretty much decided then I had to figure out a way to get on this side of the bar because that's where the power is," he said.