Scottsdale mayoral candidates offer personal insights to the role of the special interest

Posted 5/21/20

Local voters will see a ballot of five candidates in pursuit of becoming the next mayor of The West’s Most Western Town.

The City of Scottsdale hosts a primary election Tuesday, Aug. 4 …

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Scottsdale mayoral candidates offer personal insights to the role of the special interest

From left are Scottsdale mayoral candidates: Lisa Borowsky, Bob Littlefield, Suzanne Klapp, David Ortega and Virginia Korte.
From left are Scottsdale mayoral candidates: Lisa Borowsky, Bob Littlefield, Suzanne Klapp, David Ortega and Virginia Korte.
Posted

Local voters will see a ballot of five candidates in pursuit of becoming the next mayor of The West’s Most Western Town.

The City of Scottsdale hosts a primary election Tuesday, Aug. 4 meanwhile a general election could be held if needed, which would be Tuesday, Nov. 3. To be elected at the primary election, a candidate must receive a majority of all of the legal votes cast.

Leading up to the Aug. 4 election, the Scottsdale Independent in partnership with the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce, Scottsdale Coalition for Today and Tomorrow (SCOTT), Scottsdale leadership and the City of Scottsdale will host a May 27 virtual mayoral candidate debate that will be televised on local cable access and streamed online.

The field of mayoral candidates includes two current incumbents but none are strangers to the political limelight. They are:

  • Incumbents Suzanne Klapp and Virginia Korte.
  • Challengers: Lisa Borowsky, Bob Littlefield and David Ortega.

Independent Newsmedia reached out to each mayoral candidate to better understand how each candidate seeking the mayor’s seat views the special interest and how those special-interest groups have an impact on the day-to-day operations at City Hall.

This is what they had to say:

David Ortega

•From your perspective, what is a special-interest group and are they all bad?

I oppose any private project, individual, or special-interest which would interfere siphon, or otherwise redirect city resources or compromise our quality of life. Collection and spending of taxes and fees are a sacred trust. In 2010, voters passed a Charter amendment to stop monetary “gifts” because some developers requested and got cash subsidies. City taxpayer cash subsidies saddled our citizens with over $150 million in debt.

Today subsidies and bailouts come in the form of excessive project entitlements, which over-burden our infrastructure and harm the Scottsdale brand. Southbridge Two was a special-interest enrichment debacle, which would have destroyed adjoining small businesses. Whether they be service, retail, crafting, manufacturing or financial entities; Scottsdale derives its character, one small business at a time. Our city must nurture small businesses, not do harm.

Local government should be the best government-to-constituent relationship. Mayor and council actions fractured that relationship in favor of special interests, by up-zoning projects in Old Town and near neighborhoods. The proliferation of short-term rentals has converted residential neighborhoods into commercial properties. The council must do more with city allies at the legislature to reclaim local control.

•Are special-interest groups running City Hall?

Yes. Worst case, a dispensary for medical marijuana (MMJ) was proposed only 250-feet from a school in Old Town, where zoning prohibits MMJ. State law requires a 500-foot distance from a school and on-site parking for medical patients. Scottsdale ordinance requires a 1500-foot separation, yet the case went before the council.

The entire medical marijuana industry, the Arizona Department of Health Services and Arizona statutes regulate location parameters. Yet, Councilwomen Korte and Milhaven were vocal supporters of the MMJ dispensary at that location. The mayor was willing to vote on the issue, provided the school was put out of business.

I support medical marijuana, as prescribed, but opposed the absurd location, and the applicant eventually withdrew the case. The council should not enable a special interest to displace a school.

•At some point in the last five years, a general distrust of government has become much more commonplace than recent memory. Where does this political unrest come from?

There has been an erosion of trust in City Hall. Distrust stems directly from appointments of Planning Commissioners who swoon over massive projects, up-zonings and high density. The Development Review Board frequently recommends amended standards and often disregards view corridors. Such concessions conflict with many aspects of the General Plan 2001.

These bodies should filter and align projects with Scottsdale’s design aesthetic before projects get to council. Instead, projects are placed at the lap of City Council for negotiations behind closed doors. Political unrest boils over from split 4-3 council votes, which eventually exposes major problems with those projects.

•If elected mayor, how will you balance developer desires with resident perspectives?

Scottsdale is at the intersection of talented entrepreneurs and capital investment. I support quality development. Throughout my architectural career I have worked with developers and walked away from others. Worst case, SouthBridge Two (SB2) that was approved by Councilwomen Klapp, Korte and Milhaven and Mayor Lane. SB2 sailed through Planning Commission and Development Review Board without scrutiny, but there were many fatal flaws.

At Planning Commission, I pointed out SB2 would eliminate public parking at the Rose Garden. SB2 proposed excavation of Fifth Avenue for private underground parking. SB2 would narrow the canal “Convergence” experience in favor of bedrooms and balconies. And 150-foot tall buildings violated setbacks along the canal.

At council, I pointed out that the SB2 developer defaulted in a development agreement with the city in 2015. On Fifth Avenue near Scottsdale Road, SB2 would build 21 condos over a convenience market with no on-site parking. I warned that excavation of Fifth Avenue would disrupt adjoining businesses and cause gridlock. Adjoining property owners would get crushed.

But council majority would not listen and approved SB2. In response, 17,000 voters signed the referendum petition to overturn the decision. On April 7, four months after approval, the mayor and councilwomen reversed their vote and terminated SouthBridge Two. The council majority also denied 17,000 petitioners the right to vote down SB2. Most developers consider SB2 a lesson on what not to do. As mayor, I will support downtown compatible development, but the Scottsdale brand should not be cast aside by speculators.

• In the council-manager form of municipal government, what role do you believe the mayor of the community has the duty of fulfilling?

As mayor, I would expect Charter officers to maintain the highest standards, communicate clearly, and be absolutely accountable. I am setting aside my architectural practice to serve the people as a full-time mayor in this COVID-19 era. As mayor, I will work with the new council to align level-of-service with taxpayer funds, as revenues come back.

My work ethic throughout my Scottsdale architect career, experience as city councilman and commitment as mayor, is steadfast. I will get involved early, expect all team members to participate and respect everyone. I will ask tough questions and give everyone a fair shake.

I have a keen eye, asking, “Show me how this program, service, investment, or project will benefit our community.” Most of all, I will listen to residents, businesses, developers, churches, school districts and all stakeholders, so that working together we build a vibrant community

Bob Littlefield

• From your perspective, what is a special-interest group and are they all bad?

A special interest is any person or entity which will profit financially from a City Council decision. This would include developers who want to increase the value of a property via zoning concessions, vendors seeking contracts with the city (especially sole-source, no-bid contracts), and people looking to buy or sell property to the city. It certainly includes any person or entity seeking a subsidy from the city! They are bad if they are allowed to influence City Council decisions by contributing to the campaigns of candidates.

•Are special-interest groups running City Hall?

If you examine the campaign finance reports of Korte, Klapp, Lane and Milhaven you can see clear direct links between the contributions they receive and the items they vote for.

•At some point in the last five years, a general distrust of government has become much more commonplace than recent memory. Where does this political unrest come from?

Where does this political unrest come from? At the local level this started with the attempt by some special interests to place a commercial development inside the Preserve, the Desert Edge/DDC. Despite the overwhelming opposition of Scottsdale residents, the majority of the City Council supported this idea! I think the overwhelming victories of 420, Kathy Littlefield, Solange Whitehead prove this point.

•If elected mayor, how will you balance developer desires with resident perspectives?

The citizens should control how they want their city to look and they communicate that vision through the voter-approved General Plan. The council should then require developers to develop in accordance with that General Plan. The current voter-approved General Plan, if followed, would have allowed Scottsdale to grow and evolve while maintaining our special character and high quality of life.

Sadly the current City Council majority, including my two major opponents in the race for mayor, have routinely approved development that is incompatible with this General Plan and have refused to put a resident-friendly update to this plan on the ballot for the voters to consider. As mayor I would make putting a resident-friendly General Plan update before the voters one of my highest priorities.

• In the council-manager form of municipal government, what role do you believe the mayor of the community has the duty of fulfilling?

Although the mayor gets the same one vote as any other councilmember, he/she is expected to exhibit leadership, especially in times of crisis such as now. I am convinced with bold action and out-of-the-box thinking we can go beyond merely surviving this pandemic-induced economic downturn --- we can emerge better equipped to make our city finances more robust and sustainable, now and into the future. My training and experience in business and municipal finance, plus my willingness to stand up to special interests, make me the candidate for mayor who is best prepared to make that happen.

Virginia Korte

• From your perspective, what is a special-interest group and are they all bad?

We are all part of special-interest groups. Any time any of us agree on a subject, we become a special-interest group. In fact, each of us are probably part of different special-interest groups on different issues finding ourselves agreeing and disagreeing with the same people depending on the issue. Many different groups weigh in on things that come before the City Council. Some groups come together for a short time on a single issue, like neighbors weighing in on a zoning project in their neighborhoods. Others may be more permanent and comment on many issues that impact their group, like the tourism community. All of their voices are important and play a role in informing the decisions of the City Council.

•Are special-interest groups running City Hall?

It is important the City Council listen to all opinions. Frequently, special-interest groups have an expertise that helps City Council members have a better understanding of the issues and options and helps to craft a better solution. Frequently, for every group with an opinion there is another group with a different opinion. As council members, we need to listen to all groups and make decisions that serve the greatest good. The decisions made must be in the best interest of all of Scottsdale. In the end, the special-interest group that runs City Hall is the citizens who vote.

•At some point in the last five years, a general distrust of government has become much more commonplace than recent memory. Where does this political unrest come from?

We create trust when we discuss facts and respectfully disagree. When we take the time to listen and understand what is important to each other, we find a compromise that creates a better solution. Alternatively, when people engage in personal attacks and question each other’s motives, we make disagreements a win-or-lose scenario. We erode trust and, frankly, don’t find the best solutions.

We need to stop thinking that we can win discussions by attacking people who disagree with us and make issues as a win-or-lose conversation. Disagreeing doesn’t make someone untrustworthy. We simply have a different point of view.

I have done my part to try to bridge this gap by reaching out to citizen’s who disagree with me. I invite them to join me for a cup of coffee (I buy!) to simply have a conversation and better understand their perspective and, hopefully, they better understand my perspective.

The Internet and social media contribute to the trust and distrust of the government. Information on any issue is at the touch of our fingers and we have the responsibility to determine facts from fiction. This is not always easy and can lead to misconceptions and false concepts which then become truths in social media blogs.

•If elected mayor, how will you balance developer desires with resident perspectives?

I have always worked to balance developer desires with resident perspectives. I meet early with developers and give them feedback on the things I think they need to do to make their projects better. I attend open houses to listen to residents and work with developers to address resident concerns.
I also meet with residents one-on-one to better understand their perspectives and often become a liaison between the residents and the developer. It’s important when making decisions that impact many people, that those decisions are made based on what is best for all of Scottsdale.

• In the council-manager form of municipal government, what role do you believe the mayor of the community has the duty of fulfilling?

I believe leadership matters. I will take the role of mayor of Scottsdale seriously and I completely understand that I represent every citizen with every action or decision. The mayor of any city or town must be able to collaborate and cooperate with the neighboring municipalities. There are many county-wide issues such as transportation, shared revenues, public safety and more that require a collaborative hand.

The mayor must be a visionary and leader. They must be able to develop trust within the community to lead it to greater aspirations and resiliency.

In order to accomplish this, I plan on initiating a community-wide visioning process: “Scottsdale conversations 2050.” This program will be open to any and all citizens who wish to participate. We will model it after the process established in the 1960s when the city invited citizens to participate in the 1964-65 Scottsdale town enrichment program (STEP) forums. The STEP committee recommended bold measures to retain and enhance Scottsdale’s character: banning billboards, and the creation of a multi-use recreational greenbelt --- today known as the Indian Bend Greenbelt (and not a concrete channel for flood control).

And subsequent visioning processes in the ‘70s and ‘80s identified the protection of the Sonoran Desert and the environment as a guiding principle for the future of Scottsdale. And look at what we have accomplished with the 30,000-acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve. It’s time for Scottsdale citizens to come together and create a long-term vision for our city that will shape our community for the next three decades.

Suzanne Klapp

• From your perspective, what is a special-interest group and are they all bad?

There are many special interest groups, made up of groups of individuals, each with their shared interests --- residents, businesses, non-profit organizations, trade associations, worker associations, and political organizations. All these groups represent varied common interests that seek a voice in the political discourse. They are not bad; they represent the constitutional freedoms for individuals to assemble and speak their collective views to government.

•Are special-interest groups running City Hall?

Author Jonathan Rauch has observed that “today everyone is organized, and everyone is part of an interest group.” That premise indicates that special interest groups collectively represent all the people in Scottsdale. The City of Scottsdale serves all the special interest groups by serving all residents, businesses, tourists, and organizations as a whole.

•At some point in the last five years, a general distrust of government has become much more commonplace than recent memory. Where does this political unrest come from?

Distrust and frustration of federal or “big government” have grown nationwide and in parts of the world in recent years, spurred by gridlock in Washington and a concern about government transparency --- a premise on which I often agree. I do not see the inherent distrust of local governments or in Scottsdale in particular.

Local governments are working on grassroots problems such as public safety, repair of streets, water management, and picking up trash. Receiving these critical services is of great concern for Scottsdale’s residents. In surveys, city residents express their overwhelming satisfaction with city government. These residents do not reflect the hardline political rhetoric we hear at the national level. Some fear-mongers would have you believe that our residents do not trust us. Instead, people in Scottsdale are positive, caring, connected, educated and reasonably affluent.

They care that we celebrate our heritage and culture; they care about the beauty and cleanliness of the city, and they care about all the great economic development and tourism opportunities that fund so many great services and programs and keep our taxes low.

•If elected mayor, how will you balance developer desires with resident perspectives?

Over my nearly 12 years as a councilwoman, I have listened and responded in many ways to all the groups I mentioned in the first question, and they have supported me. My positions on City Council issues have weighed these interests and reflect my concern for a balanced view that represents all 255,000 residents. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the only special interest group I answer to is “we the people” of Scottsdale.

• In the council-manager form of municipal government, what role do you believe the mayor of the community has the duty of fulfilling?

The mayor and City Council are similar to a board of directors and establish policies for governing the city, while the city manager and other city Charter officers administer the city’s policies. As mayor, I will work to ensure that the city remains vibrant and economically strong. I will be a forceful advocate for supporting activities to help strengthen our businesses and to encourage activities to instill a desire among tourists to return to the city. I will seek common ground and unity among the council members to work out solutions for the benefit of everyone in Scottsdale.

I will be transparent in my own performance and I will ask for transparency from all in city government. I have demonstrated many times over the years my ability to help unite and gain consensus. I will be as involved as possible as a full-time mayor in working toward consensus on the General Plan update. I have never been a lone wolf, a rubber stamp, or a detractor. I will continue to listen to and respect my council colleagues. As mayor, I will work collaboratively with the community to ensure that everyone is represented, including our most vulnerable residents.

Lisa Borowsky

• From your perspective, what is a special-interest group and are they all bad?

Of course, they are not all bad. Community groups, neighborhood groups, volunteer organizations and others whose objective is to benefit part, or all, of our community play an important and positive role. The problem occurs when corporate interests or organizations, with a narrow focus that does not benefit Scottsdale citizens, exert influence on the council, many times in the form of campaign contributions. A recent example of this was the Southbridge II towers project, which was negotiated during closed-door executive sessions. Scottsdale citizens had to stand up and reject the plan themselves through the referendum process. These types of bad decisions are divisive to our community and can be avoided by the council getting more in touch with what is in the citizens’ best interest rather than the developers

•Are special-interest groups running City Hall?

No, but they sometimes have an unreasonable influence which is detrimental to Scottsdale’s character and our residents’ wishes. I will strongly support complete transparency --- anyone lobbying City Hall for interests other than their own should register as a lobbyist and fully disclose any money spent for that effort. Our citizens deserve to know who is trying to influence City Hall. Shining light on the process will help reduce the behind-the-scenes influence or the impression that it is happening.

•At some point in the last five years, a general distrust of government has become much more commonplace than recent memory. Where does this political unrest come from?

I left the council in 2012. Since then, the City Council has become more and more out of touch. There is less transparency and accountability. A prime example was the Southbridge II approval. Before approving it, the council held more than six secret meetings according to Mayor Lane: “With no less than six executive sessions the council worked with the city manager to incorporate the terms, conditions and stipulations necessary to address any and all the issues important to the city, the neighboring businesses, and to the redevelopment of this very important site.” See Scottsdale Independent, December 30, 2019.

The citizens’ reaction to that bad decision underscores the distrust and dissatisfaction with City Hall. As Mayor Drinkwater profoundly said: “One of the reasons that Scottsdale is such a special place is our citizens --- caring, involved people who take an active part in the development of our city.” I pledge to adopt Mayor Drinkwater’s philosophy and rely upon our talented and passionate citizens to serve and hold city government accountable by providing them with opportunities to serve on task forces, citizen-based boards and commissions. It’s time to restore power with citizens.

•If elected mayor, how will you balance developer desires with resident perspectives?

Our residents have always been the heart and soul of our city. Their perspective, which has been, at times, of secondary importance with the current council, is paramount. I believe in development. However, new development must respect

Scottsdale’s unique character, add value to our residents and to our city’s future. We’ve become too dependent on development revenues resulting in the approval of substandard, cookie-cutter projects that do not add value and will not stand the test of time. Our first priority must be our residents.

• In the council-manager form of municipal government, what role do you believe the mayor of the community has the duty of fulfilling?

I will be a mayor who insists upon full transparency and accountability, puts our residents first, reaches out to citizens to participate on panels and commissions, works cooperatively with the council and city government, and reconnects Scottsdale with our great residents. Working together for common goals has long been what Scottsdale does best and what we’ve lost recently. As mayor, I will always remember I work for the people of Scottsdale to protect their interests and quality of life.

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