Norton & Henninger: Understanding the fickle nature of the Scottsdale voter


Deciding the future of Southbridge II means a lot more than just approving or disapproving a developer’s project. It also tells us where our City Council is headed and whether we can or should trust the process of local governance.

If our City Council follows its own rules, observes its own standards and guidelines and explains its decision re: SB2 logically and with factual basis, then whether each member of council votes, ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ voters gain confidence.

If instead the SB2 decision breaks down into emotional and impulsive responses to arguments that are lightly supported by hard data --- or, even worse, contradicted by the data really available --- then voters will be told that Scottsdale’s own City Council can’t follow its own rules and process.

Who can trust a City Council that can’t govern by its own rules and recent unanimous decisions?

The last four years showed us two ways to deal with civic issues.

The Wrong Way: DDC/Prop420 conflict grew directly from a poor decision of City Council to ignore voter rights after being less than forthcoming about their intent with respect to the Preserve. We all know how that turned out. Very few of us enjoyed the process or the outcome. It was painful, but lessons were learned.

The Right Way: The bond process followed the lessons learned from prior mistakes. The city sought input, made decisions that followed the messages voters and residents sent.

The bond process was diametrically opposite of the DDC matters.

The vast majority of voters responded positively to the city’s actions throughout the bond process. Confidence and trust were rebuilt. Two formal surveys in 2019 and the November election all told us that by a 7:3 margin “the city is headed in the right direction” (that question was part of two formal voters surveys).

Now bring those lessons to the current Southbridge II proposal.

Does the city have a process and well-thought-out standards for making this decision? Yes.

Twice in the last two years, City Council voted unanimously to approve well-thought-out standards for the future of Old Town and downtown. Height and density limits were set first.

Architectural guidelines were set next. In each case lengthy discussions, public input and a lot of compromise led to 7-0 votes.

Rather than carefully applying our own plans and guidelines, some City Council members have now wandered off into the mire of rhetoric and anecdotal-based decision making. The debate over Southbridge II has deteriorated to discussions about what Fred Unger would have done in 2005, as if the Great Recession, the passage of more than a decade and changes in city plans and guidelines had no meaning.

We hear passionate arguments to save quaint buildings while some of them are hardly quaint. We hear passionate arguments for more parking while some parking lots sit empty every day.

What we don’t hear from a couple of City Council members is whether the city can or will follow its own rules and observe its own process.

As we have for the last four years --- voters are watching. Closely.

Govern logically and follow the process and voters will continue to have faith in the direction of Scottsdale. Let this break down into a battle of who can tell the most emotional story and you will lose the respect you’ve fought hard to gain.

As co-authors of this column, and in the spirit of full candor, we have disagreed in the past and we have also found ways to agree with each other. One of us supported SB2 from its inception.

One of us chose to support it only after becoming more educated about the city’s architectural guidelines and believing that Unger had worked hard to meet them in both spirit and letter of the law.

Both of us, however, have always agreed on one thing. We believe deeply in respecting the process of good governance. Hopefully, all of our city council members consider first whether their decisions are fact-based or emotionally based.

And, whether their decision will instill more voter faith that our city council can be trusted to govern by its own established rules and guidelines.

Editor’s note: Mr. Norton founding chairman of the For the Best Scottsdale Political Action Committee & Mr. Henninger is the director of the Scottsdale Coalition of Today & Tomorrow