Sitting at a large round table surrounded by the entire Tempe City Council, Bill Butler, a straight-talking regular at council meetings, is telling them what he thinks about a planned veterans war memorial.
"It’s ugly," he says, voice resonating throughout the nearly empty council chamber.
It’s a recent Thursday night in the basement of City Hall and local bureaucrats, zoning attorneys and lobbyists are still making their way inside.
Some of the seven council members appear interested, others seem distracted and indifferent. But that doesn’t stop Butler from saying what he came here to say. If it’s Thursday night, chances are Butler has something to say.
In an era where American involvement in local government is nearly nonexistent, Butler, 77, represents that small percentage of citizens who can’t get enough of City Hall — he’s a political gadfly.
Sometimes critical, sometimes provocative and many times annoying, the gadfly is never far from halls where local power dwells. If municipal government officials and bureaucrats were rock stars, gadflies would be the political paparazzi.
"Just because you’re annoying, it doesn’t make you wrong," said Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman. "Those are the people who show up to council meetings and pay attention."
Before winning a seat on the City Council in 1998, Hallman said many political insiders would have lumped him in with the gadflies. That could explain the apparent sympathy he shows toward them. The Tempe mayor appears to listen closely to Butler and the others who regularly attend council meetings.
However, there are others who are clearly tuning out. Like some leaders in other East Valley cities, their eyes glaze over. They begin scribbling something on a piece of paper or do anything except appear engaged.
"Some of them are outraged. Some of them want to run for council someday. Some just don’t have anything better to do," said Scottsdale City Councilman Bob Littlefield of gadflies.
Likewise, former Mayor Sam Campana said of the Scottsdale council’s public-comment protocol: "One of the best things we ever did was instate that three-minute rule."
However, Butler said he’s never concerned about what people—especially politicians — think.
"I speak my piece and sometimes we agree and sometimes we don’t," he said.
Among the politicians he sometimes disagrees with is Hallman, whom he considers a longtime friend. It was Hallman’s 1998 bid for a council seat that propelled Butler into the world of Tempe politics, something he had pretty much avoided in the past.
"People don’t get involved unless their ox is bleeding," said Butler, who was describing how he got involved with local government. For Butler, his ox was the city’s housing codes.
Butler, who owns and manages several rental properties in Tempe, has long been critical of the city’s failure to enforce its housing codes. So when Hallman pledged to shore up the city’s regulations during the 1998 campaign, Butler volunteered. Shortly after Hallman won, he was a regular at the council meetings.
However, the road from passive citizen to political activism would take decades for the self-described "old farm boy" from Minnesota. A retired insurance agent, Butler bought his first home in 1960 on the outskirts of town — then near Mill and Southern avenues.
From his house there, Butler said he could see the Mesa and Chandler water towers on the eastern and southern horizons. His daughter was afraid to walk to school because the sheep would chase her.
His first foray into Tempe politics occurred in 1961 when he successfully lobbied the city to build a sidewalk near Mill Avenue and Palmcroft Drive, to help kids get to school without getting dirty or risking their lives.
Back then, Tempe was still an agricultural community and children had to choose between walking through a muddy field or on the street to get to school.
He won and the city built the sidewalk. Since then, Butler has moved several times throughout the Valley before returning to Tempe in the early 1990s.
Now, sitting in his house, Butler is surrounded by mementos and collectables that tell the story of his life, everything from the childhood toy he cut his teeth on to the farm equipment he worked as a young man.
His front yard looks like an agricultural museum with old plows and other types of antiquated farming equipment. In the back, he keeps a collection of small John Deere lawn mowers and possibly the Valley’s largest collection of antique sausage makers.
There isn’t much on display that isn’t central to his life. And there isn’t much about his life that he forgets. He still has a sharp mind that can recall specific dates of key events, such as Nov. 11, 1940. That was the day Butler helped dig out about 2,000 half-frozen live turkeys covered by a massive blizzard that swept over his family’s farm.
While he and his family saved most of the birds before they froze to death, his neighbor lost more than 6,000 turkeys.
It is that kind of determination and persistence that drives Butler to keep returning to City Hall. Like his hero, Gen. George Patton, Butler has never been afraid of a fight.
Besides the war memorial and housing codes, he is gearing up to fight what he thinks is another serious problem in his neighborhood — pornography.
He thinks a small grocery store that sells pornographic materials — including secondhand magazines — threatens the safety of his neighborhood. Although he says he’s not good at building coalitions, Butler is trying to build opposition to force the store to stop selling pornography.
"I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, but when I’m gone, maybe Tempe will be a little better place," he said.