Q&AZ: Who Is Jeff Barton And Why Do Phoenix Leaders Listen To Him?
When COVID-19 hit, the city of Phoenix was preparing to pass a new budget. The pandemic and recession created major uncertainty. Would services to residents have to be cut? Would city workers have to be laid off?
The person guiding much of the conversation during the first critical months was then-Budget Director Jeff Barton. Through KJZZ's Q&AZ reporting project, a listener who was impressed with Barton’s performance at a public meeting asked to know more about his background.
Less than a month into the pandemic, Barton told Phoenix council members: “We’re flying a little bit blind.”
In early April all he knew was a $28 million surplus had just disappeared. What remained unknown: How big a deficit Phoenix would face going into a new fiscal year starting July 1.
“I’m going to give an honest answer,” Barton told KJZZ. “That may not be the politically correct answer, it may not always be the right answer that they want to hear but I’m going to give the honest answer.”
Speak the truth. It was a lesson Barton learned living in Pennsylvania with his grandmother, Rachel Barton.
“She’s my shining star, she’s my angel. She passed two years ago,” Barton said. “My grandmother only had like a sixth-grade education, my grandfather was pretty much totally illiterate but they understood the importance of education.”
And history. Barton says he is a direct descendant of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. And he can trace family members who served in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the Union Army’s first African American regiment in the Civil War.
Visiting battlefields from the Civil and Revolutionary Wars is a passion Barton and his wife share with their three children.
“You’re on this hallowed ground where people gave their life fighting for a cause, right? It’s kind of sacred,” he said.
Barton compares visiting battlefields to visiting the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.
“It’s kind of the same feeling, that something just kind of comes over you,” he said. “But it’s almost like you’re paying tribute, paying respect to these people that, one way or another, they paved a way, especially for African Americans when you talk about the Civil War. Had that war not been fought and had it not turned out the way it did, had big industry not been in the North, theoretically there could still be slavery today.”
Around City Hall, Barton is known for seeing the big picture and nailing the details without having to shuffle through a bunch of papers. At one meeting, Mayor Kate Gallego complimented Barton's "impressive recall" after he quoted several figures in response to a question.
Before the pandemic, he helped Phoenix launch an online tool that allows residents to review the $1.4 billion general fund operating budget, create their own budgets and submit them to city leaders.
Last June, as leaders prepared to vote on a budget, Councilman Sal DiCiccio called Barton the best budget director Phoenix has ever had.
“I mean your numbers are insanely correct,” DiCiccio said. “They’re within just a matter of just a few percentage points and that doesn’t happen anywhere in the country. I mean anywhere.”
To appreciate the praise, you need to understand that, as budget director, Barton got support from a council made up of fiscal conservatives, moderates and progressives.
"I'm an honest broker, I try not to play politics," he said. “I’m comfortable with, you know, from people with lesser means to people that are filthy rich. I think I can span a lot of ground.”
"I'm an honest broker, I try not to play politics."
— Jeff Barton
His personal story impacts his professional life every day. Like when the council approved federal coronavirus relief funds to provide tablet computers and internet access for kids living in the city’s public housing developments.
“I particularly enjoy this,” he said during a meeting when the plan was announced. “Because I grew up in public housing for 18 years of my life so this is something that I find really exciting.”
Growing up without a father in his life, Barton decided early in his career to put family first.
“I made sure to take time to be a father, go to school events and things like that. But in doing that I was able to kind of nurture my career," he said. "You know, it’s like when you’re cooking, if you rush your cooking it’s not going to have proper seasoning, so I feel like my career is kind of similar to cooking. I took the time to deliberately season my career.”
In 1999, he started as an internal auditor for Phoenix. In July 2015, Barton became director of the city’s Budget and Research Department. He credits current City Manager Ed Zuercher and former city employees, including Alton Washington, Ceil Pettle, Randy Spenia, Bob Wingenroth and Cathy Gleason for supporting him over the last two decades.
Earlier this year, 47-year-old Barton was promoted to deputy city manager. He no longer crafts the budget. Now he oversees the budget department, along with several others. And he’s responsible for making sure Phoenix properly spends $293 million in federal coronavirus funds. When the pandemic ends, Barton predicts people will look to Phoenix as an example.
“I think we’ll be one of the cities that looks as a kind of a beacon and a shining star at the end of all this,” he said. “We did things the right way.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Frederick Douglass's name.
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