From bundt cakes to gala tables and VIP ticket packages, members of Scottsdale City Council have accepted $32,572 in gifts over the last three years, a public records request reveals.
The pendulum of acceptance swings widely at City Hall as Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane has accepted a total of $16,000 worth of gifts over the last three years while Councilman David Smith has only accepted $200 worth of gifts over the same period.
The Scottsdale Independent pursued the records of both gifts accepted and personal reimbursement requests made by members of Scottsdale City Council over the last three calendar years.
The personal reimbursement requests were nominal in nature over the last three years, records show.
An overview of the records shows with the exception of Councilman Smith — who pays his own way at the same events others members attend — all members of council are accepting gifts to events they say they couldn’t afford to attend otherwise.
The Barrett-Jackson auto auction, the annual ARTrageous Gala and myriad chamber and public safety charity dinners are among events members of the council have attended for free over the last three years.
Members of city council area allowed to accept gifts defined as “entertainment, hospitality, transportation and token mementos directly associated with events that an official is attending as a representative of the city,” Scottsdale Ordinance No. 3675 states.
The ordinance clarifies that all gifts permissible that exceed a value of $25 must be declared while any gift that could potentially enrich the beneficiary or a relative of that beneficiary is prohibited.
Some say accepting tickets to events of community significance is part of the job of being an elected leader. Still others question if those gifts could influence policy decisions made on the local dais.
The total number of gifts reported over the last three calendar years include former councilmen Dennis Robbins — $1,065 in 2014 — and Bob Littlefield — $560 in 2014.
Too close for comfort?
Scottsdale Councilman Guy Phillips, a vocal critic of special interests at City Hall, says attending public events is part of the job.
“I turn down way more than I accept because a lot of these events come with strings attached, invisible or not,” he said in a Jan. 10 statement. “However, I do accept some that I feel are good relations for community and I frequently bring along residents who would otherwise not have a chance to participate.”
Over the last three years Mr. Phillips has accepted $3,995 worth of free tickets to events with that — a total of $1,840 — accepted in calendar year 2015.
Notable events include the annual Arizona Tourism Unity Dinner ($240), with tickets provide by Experience Scottsdale CEO Rachel Sacco; Annual Firefighters Association Charity Dinner and Silent Auction ($300), with tickets provided by the Scottsdale Firefighters Association; and the ARTrageous Gala ($1,000) with tickets provided by the Scottsdale Cultural Council.
“Representing Scottsdale to the business community is part of the job,” he said. “We are all ambassadors of Scottsdale and although sometimes I don’t feel the need to attend I go anyway because it would appear almost rude not to.”
Councilman Phillips points out city council allocates about $4 million to Scottsdale Arts — formerly the Cultural Council — thus tickets to its annual fundrasier should be free to members of council.
“I agree that we should be able to attend without having to pay since the city already gives them $4 million a year. That being said, it is important to me that we support the arts in Scottsdale as it is as much a tourism draw as other venues in Scottsdale,” he explained.
But does attending an event potentially play into special interests, or could it influence a councilman’s vote?
“Good question but I don’t feel its the same thing. Giving money to a private group to support their lifestyle and their dreams (DDC) isn’t the same as giving money to entities (PGS), which in turn bring millions in tourism dollars to our city,” says Councilman Phillips.
“The money we invest in certain groups brings back many times more money in terms of tourism dollars. The CVB, for example,has proven that for every dollar Scottsdale gives them, they return $43! That’s a better return than you could ever hope to get in the stock market.”
Ambassadors of Scottsdale
Both Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane and Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp contend attending local events provides an opportunity for members of council to be ambassadors for the city.
“It is good for us as representatives us to be out at fundraisers as it’s a positive for the community and the effort,” Mayor Lane said in Jan. 10 phone interview.
“It’s just seen as a positive. We could hunker down and appear on different street corners from time to time, I suppose. It has always been an accepted as a responsibility of the mayor to represent the city and mingle with groups who are working on a variety of different things within the community.”
Over the last three years, Mayor Lane accepted the most gifts in calender year 2014 totaling $9,770, records show.
Notable events he attended include ChildHelp’s Drive the Dream Gala ($2,000), with tickets provided by Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Feddersen; the Scottsdale Healthcare Honor Ball ($1,500); and Fiesta Bowl parking and tickets ($1,500) with tickets provided by Michael Bidwell.
Mayor Lane says a free ticket is not influencing his decisions.
“If someone is influenced by that, that is a real weakness and if that is how we need to separate ourselves from the city much less major events like fundraising events. This is seen as a positive and no one is complaining to me about it.”
Councilwoman Klapp echoes a similar sentiment.
“This are usually events where they want council to go,” she said in a Jan. 11 phone interview. “We don’t all speak at those events. But since you are not paying to go then it is a gift.”
A recent gift that popped up on her gifts report was a holiday bundt cake ($30) provided by John and Marsha Rowley of International Cruise and Excursions in December 2016.
“It was the nicest bundt cake I have ever seen,” she said. “It was a bundt cake and it was nice. Seriously, it was one of the most elaborately Christmas-decorated bundt cake I have ever seen.”
Councilwoman Klapp has accepted a total of $4,075 in gifts, with the highest amount accepted in 2016 totaling $4,075, records show.
Notable events include the ARTrageous Gala ($1,000), with tickets provided by the Scottsdale Cultural Council; the McDowell Sonoran Preserve 25th Anniversary Celebration ($400) with tickets provided by Katie Predergast of Arizona Public Service; and the annual Firefighter’s Association Charity Dinner and Silent Auction ($300) with tickets provided by the Scottsdale FireFighters Association.
Councilwoman Klapp points out the pricier events she attends while representing the city of Scottsdale would price her out if she were just a private citizen.
“If I were to be invited to go but had to buy a ticket, I couldn’t afford it,” she said. “I couldn’t pay $1,000 for two people to go to ARTrageous. It is not as if we are getting great perks as a member of council. It is part of doing the job, we report them as gifts because we want to make sure we are reporting everything we are doing.”
Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield says she has accepted gifts — primarily free tickets to keynote events — as a way to explore the events and organizations that host them.
“The things I go to are the things I am invited to. They (the organizers) have various reasons they want you to go,” she said. “I think it adds some status to the event but it also gives the council member an opportunity to get into the community and gives you a chance to hear what people want to discuss.”
Over the last two years, Councilwoman Littlefield has accepted a total of $3,701 in gifts with the highest amount totaling $2,961 in calendar year 2015.
Notable events include the ARTrageous Gala ($1,000) with tickets provided by the Scottsdale Cultural Council; the Fiesta STARS event ($500) with tickets provided by Scottsdale Training and Rehabilitation Services; and Street Art Moves Inside Art Show ($400) with tickets provided by the Scottsdale Cultural Council.
Councilwoman Littlefield says folks want to bend the ear of elected leaders in Scottsdale.
“It can be anything from new development … there is a lot of stuff that is relevant to what we are trying to do, which is represent the citizens and city of Scottsdale. I am not saying they are not fun, because they are.”
Councilwoman Littlefield contends attendance at the event doesn’t shape how she votes.
“It is in the best interest of Scottsdale but it does not affect my vote if I have a ticket to the event or not,” she said. “But I can make a better estimation if it is the right place to put money if I know what it is.”
Both Councilwomen Linda Milhaven and Virginia Korte accepted similar amounts of gifts with Councilwoman Milhaven accepting $1,746 in gifts over the last three years and Councilwoman Korte accepting $2,855 during the same period, records show.
Councilwoman Milhaven accepted the most in calendar year 2015, totaling $646, while Councilwoman Korte accepted the most in calendar year 2016 totaling $1,500, records show.
A different approach
Councilman Smith says he can pay his own way.
“Generally, I follow the practice of, in a sense, paying my own way,” he said in a Jan. 10 phone interview. “I know the citizens pay us a salary for serving on council, It is not a lot, but I guess, in my mind, if I am going to go to an event I should use the income I am generating from the citizens to pay for the ticket.”
Councilman Smith is a fixture at many of the same events his colleagues attend.
“If my spouse joins, I pay her way as well,” he said, noting she serves on the board of directors of the Scottsdale Arts formerly known as the Cultural Council.
“In my mind, it appears less of any conflict given her role for an event like ARTrageous. This is not a judgment on what others are doing, but this is my philosophy.”
But if the city is footing the bill, council members ought to be in attendance to show a united front, Councilman Smith alluded.
“The Cultural Council itself receives funding from the city and because of that relationship council members should be afforded the opportunity to attend,” he said. “But I do think it is a cleaner appearance if one can pay their own way.”
Records show a $100 cash donation made to Councilman Smith in 2015, which he donated to the Vista Del Camino food bank while he did attend the St. Jude and Warren Moon Hall of Fame dinner with tickets provided by Paul Stack of Sports One Marketing.
North Valley News Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at 623-445-2774 or at firstname.lastname@example.org