Anonymity, the political bully and the rise of the Scottsdale divide

A view of the pristine desert oasis that is the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

As the hotly contested election season inches toward closure, the city of Scottsdale has become a one-issue town: either you are against Proposition 420 or you are a proponent for it.

For many who call “The West’s Most Western Town” home, the answer to that political question is drawing a line in the sand between those who were once political allies, professional acquaintances and community neighbors.

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written and countless accusations — both legal and otherwise — have been made and now descriptions of a community divided reverberate in every corner of the municipality.

This sign encourages Preserve patrons to be aware of their surroundings and to not let certain behavior provide an opportunity for them to be victimized. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

But as political tactics become more refined and digital concerns emerge around cyber-bullying, purposeful misinformation dissemination and anonymous electric transmissions, many on both sides of the political divide remain steadfast the other faction is the one at fault.

Community activists behind both the Protect Our Preserve and NoDDC campaigns provided Scottsdale City Hall more than 37,000 signatures forcing Prop.420 onto the upcoming Nov. 6 ballot.

The proposition, if approved, will require voter approval for any construction and use of earmarked conservation dollars within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Proponents say the proposition, and subsequent signature-gathering effort, is one born through the idea that all Scottsdale residents should have a say in what occurs within the boundaries of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Those Preserve lands — made possible by residents first agreeing to a dedicated sales tax in 1995 for the purchase of conservation lands — encompass 30,000 acres of land within the rough boundaries of the Pima Road alignment to the west, McDowell Mountain Regional Park to the east, Stagecoach Road to the north and Via Linda Road alignment to the south.

While the ballot question does not mention by name the Scottsdale Desert EDGE project, proponents of the signature-gathering effort say the proposal and subsequent municipal moves are what sparked the fuel to stop the project by any means necessary.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale unveiled its plan for a proposed desert-appreciation venue last July. The effort is spearheaded by Sam Campana, former mayor of Scottsdale, who is serving as executive director of the nonprofit charged with developing the Desert EDGE proposal.

Located on less than six acres just south of the established Gateway trailhead, the center includes a series of “pavilions” and might cost somewhere between $61.2 and $68.2 million to build.

At issue: advocates of the Desert EDGE say the Preserve itself is not enough for visitors to appreciate the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Detractors say the proposed facility — a desert-appreciation venue and research center — is nothing more than a pet project for a handful of the community’s elite.

Both sides have different views of the importance of the Desert EDGE — but both sides agree on one point: they dislike the perceptions created by cyber-bullying and the anonymous blogosphere.

Opponents of Proposition 420 say the issue is one born from the idea of those surrounding the Preserve just don’t want any kind of project in their backyard — especially and solely the Desert EDGE proposal. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The anonymous and the accused

Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte has been accused of lying, running anonymous efforts that include email newsletters and twitter feeds. She contends she is a victim, too, of being bullied simply because she has a different opinion than others regarding how the McDowell Sonoran Preserve ought to be managed.

Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte at the 2018 Experience Scottsdale Annual Report event, which was held Sept. 27 at The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch.  (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

She did admit Sept. 25 to Scottsdale resident Emily Austin that she shared a political satire on social media meant to poke fun at the title of the Preserve proposition number. The number — 420 — is synonymous with enthusiasm for marijuana indulgence.

“I have publicly said that it was a poor joke,” Ms. Korte said to the Independent. “It was up on my Twitter feed and Facebook account for 24 to 36 hours. “We all make mistakes.”

Ms. Korte has been accused of being behind the curtain of anonymous Twitter and Facebook accounts and more significant efforts including:

  • The Voice of Scottsdale — an anonymous newsletter emailed with regular frequency.
  • The Scottsdale Edge — an anonymous newsletter emailed with regular frequency.

Ms. Korte denied any association with either anonymous effort.

“Not anonymous,” Ms. Korte said pointing out she operates three Facebook accounts and subsequent Twitter feeds: Scottsdale Conversations, Korte Scottsdale and her personal account.

“I know I have been tagged by the opposition for these anonymous blogs, but I do not operate those — and I do not pay for those. I do an email blog and I have my own email blog but I put my name to it. Those are my outlets and there it is completely disclosed where it is coming from. I own my words and I walk my words.”

Ms. Korte says members of the Scottsdale City Council have endured a “digital assault” the past two years.

“Some of us have been exposed and been part of this whole NoDDC activity for two years now,” she explained. “They started by bullying and being mean-spirited and starting to speak untruths, false statements and accusing people of things that are not true.”

Ms. Korte explains she has been called terrible things — words like “pig,” “bitch,” “liar,” and “creepy” — all because she would like to see a desert-appreciation venue at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

“They get enough signatures and now it is time to stand tall and that is why I am actively and publicly against Prop. 420,” she said. “I will state that my opposition has nothing to do with furthering or not the Desert Discovery Center or EDGE. That is not the issue. This issue is the proposition and it is poorly conceived and bad government — it is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

Ms. Korte says Scottsdale politics have become personal and partisan and are beginning to resemble the divisive nature found in the national political discourse.

“What a sad day in Scottsdale when someone cannot state their position on an issue without being criticized on the internet or bullied or whatever you want to call it. And, it is all over social media.”

Larry Kush

Scottsdale Planning Commissioner Larry Kush says he, too, has felt a shift in how political perceptions are interpreted.

“I always go and check things out as my role on the Commission and I came to the conclusion this is a world-class project, on a world-class piece of land to be designed by a world-class architect,” he said of his first impression of what was then known as the Desert Discovery Center.

“I was booed and everything else. After, I made that statement, I was accosted in the parking lot and then there were five ethics complaints filed against me. Luckily, the city attorney sent them back as they had no merit. Having an opinion is not an ethics violation.”

Mr. Kush, who serves a member of the seven-member Scottsdale Planning Commission, is the first to admit he shoots from the hip, but always speaks what he believes.

“I have a reputation for drawing my own conclusions, but I don’t have a hidden agenda, I just call it like I see it,” he said. “I think this project is a great way to educate people on the Sonoran Desert. I saw this as a place people can learn, and in the long run I think it can help our desert.”

Mr. Kush says controversy surrounding the Desert EDGE project and now Prop. 420 has at times pitted neighbor against neighbor.

“I am on the Planning Commission where it is my job to offer my opinion,” he pointed out. “I stand by the fact that the DDC is a good idea. I have lived in Scottsdale for a long time as I have lived in Arizona for 45 years. I have seen a lot of issues come down the pike, but nothing comes close to this.”

A view of Scottsdale residents in early 2017 came out to a get a first glimpse at the proposed desert-appreciation venue within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (File photo)

From anonymity to political proclivity

Sometime in late 2016 Scottsdale resident Jason Alexander became emboldened against the proposal for a desert-appreciation venue.

But what was once a Facebook page is now a bonafide political movement with two at the helm: Mr. Alexander and Mike Norton, both of whom call north Scottsdale home.

Jason Alexander

Both say they are merely parts of the larger political efforts behind the Protect Your Preserve and NoDDC movements.

“That is laughable. I’m a volunteer running a Facebook page,” said Mr. Alexander when asked if he and his cohorts are bullies.

“I have no elected position, no power, and a shoestring budget. Our opponents are Scottsdale power-brokers including Councilpersons Milhaven, Smith and Korte. Our opponents illegally lobbied City Council for two years, received $2.2 million in taxpayer dollars, had the full support of the city machinery, and are conducting a completely anonymous campaign based around confusion and disinformation.”

Mr. Alexander says legacy stakeholders over Scottsdale politics have taken off the gloves.

“They have no online presence, do not speak publicly, have almost no volunteer support, spread factually inaccurate advertising intended to create fear, and have made multiple personal attacks on me and my children,” he pointed out. “Their goal is to overturn 15 years of precedent and use their political influence to deny citizens a vote over our Preserve and our taxes. Who is the bully?”

Editor’s note: It has been brought to our attention a paraphrase of a quote has been misconstrued as a direct quote from Mr. Alexander. It was not. The sentence should have read: “At the end of the day, Mr. Alexander contends, the political issues surrounding the McDowell Sonoran Preserve come down to the idea a simple majority vote of City Council can no longer control the dealings of the municipality in the Preserve.” We appologize for any confusion this may have caused.

“Thousands upon thousands of us are the victims of having our voices stolen,” he said pointing out the power of the 21st Century.

“Social media is an inherently democratic medium. Instead of listening to the many citizens expressing frustration at not being included, our opponents complain about bullying. If you don’t like negative feedback, don’t abuse the citizens.”

But Mr. Alexander’s tactics haven’t always been so virtuous. In the early days of the anonymous campaign, names were called and accusations were hurled.

“At inception, we were a noisy and somewhat immature group, with many different voices, setting out in the middle of the contentious 2016 City Council election. That was over two years ago,” he said. “Fortunately for us, we realized that we had overwhelming popular support and the winning message. This earned us the loyalty and contributions of hundreds of fellow citizen volunteers.”

Mr Alexander and his cohorts have since changed their tune.

“We made a conscious effort to focus on issues, back up everything we say with documentation and video, and be visible and accessible to feedback. We talk about facts and actions, but we don’t make personal attacks, he said.

“We don’t talk about looks, size, shape, color, families, religion, or sexual preference. We are unapologetically aggressive in disputing what people do and say, as long as its relevant to their positions on Prop. 420 and the DDC.”

Paula Sturgeon

For Scottsdale resident Paula Sturgeon, however, political perspectives are reshaping the Scottsdale she has called home for the majority of her adult life.

“In my experience people who are upset, are upset with anyone who disagrees with them about the prospect to amend the Charter of our city,” she said. “It has risen to a level of mass-hysteria. Life as we know it has come to an end — it is beyond bizarre.”

On Sept. 17 Kory Langhofer, who is managing attorney at Statecraft, filed campaign finance complaints with the city of Scottsdale against the nonprofit entities of NoDDC and Protect our Preserve, and the political action committee also called Protect Our Preserve.

The legal filing was made on behalf of “Paula Sturgeon-Mortensen,” citing several financial disclosure mistakes over the last several months.

Scottsdale City Clerk Carolyn Jagger as of Tuesday, Oct. 1 has received responses from both parties and has yet to determine what, if any, penalties will be assessed.

“Our lawyers will be addressing the complaint,” Mr. Alexander said.

“We think its the most insincere campaign tactic yet. All those volunteers who gave $20 each will have their funds going to legal fees instead of campaign material. Paula Sturgeon, the woman who filed the complaint, acknowledges she did not pay for it, but refuses to reveal who paid her lawyer.”

Although Ms. Sturgeon would not go on the record as to how the campaign finance complaint was devised, she did want to talk about her neighborhood.

“For me, it is the ad hominem personal attacks,” she said. “I have been called every name in the book. I have been called names that I have to laugh about. I will tell you this much, I have been in this community for 55 years. And, I have never seen this community act this way.”

For Ms. Sturgeon, intellectual debate on critical local issues may be a thing of the past.

“It makes me want to back away; but no, I am fighting for the Scottsdale I grew up in. You may disagree, I remember my parents, disagreeing on the election and when (the argument) was over. It was over. That is not the way it is now,” she said.

“I have had my professional reputation called into question. I have had my faith picked on, but at the end of the day, I am not going to let that stop me.”

Scottsdale City Council members Suzanne Klapp, Mayor Jim Lane and Virginia Korte. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Political powers hang in the balance

No Scottsdale resident has been more involved in local politics — both out front and behind computer keystrokes — than Mike Norton.

Mike Norton

Sometime between 2012 and 2013 Mr. Norton and a collection of concerned parents began an anonymous Facebook page coined, “Respect our Scottsdale Students,” which he says was born out of necessity.

He says the “ROSS page,” which is the preferred local nomenclature, was created to corral the tenuous inner-workings of the local school district and its Governing Board.

Mr. Norton is an advocate for fair play — but feels voters and public officials aren’t always operating on a level playing field.

“The word bullying has a really straightforward meeting,” he said. “For me, it means a person who has a higher level of authority or control and abuses that power or authority over someone or people who are unable to protect themselves.”

Mr. Norton contends a lack of vote to determine what happens within the bounds of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is form of bullying.

“People who cannot vote should be angry. People not being able to vote is a form of bullying,” he said. He points out how certain perspectives are shifting. “When you start calling the opponents derogatory names and not showing a mutual respect it becomes bullying, but then you have 38,000 people standing behind you, you also become an agent of power. And, we can be as bad as the others. You can’t fire a volunteer, right?”

A solution can only be found if both parties are willing to come to terms — from matters of household chores to how a billion-dollar community asset ought to be maintained, Mr. Norton explains.

Scottsdale resident Pat Shaler at signature training event held in north Scottsdale that resulted in Prop. 420 appearing on the November ballot. (Submitted photo)

“The problem that has existed from the beginning is one side said, ‘we are not interested in hearing your opinions and eventually you get to a point that you are at a loggerhead,” he explained of his perception. “I think one of the greatest problems we will have coming out of the DDC issue is the voting bloc in Scottsdale has lost all confidence in its City Council and I don’t think that will change for a long time.”

For Mr. Norton, he contends the issue is about democracy.

“We don’t want to ban anything in the Preserve — we simply want the right for the public to vote,” he said. “If we can get past the part when we are yelling at each other, and if we remain active that will be a good thing for the city. I love the notion that a group of individuals in a community can band together and get something done.”

Ms. Korte has a different perspective.

“I think an inherent flaw with this proposition is it empowers and creates a Preserve commission to police decisions regarding the Preserve and usurps the power of the council,” she said. “I think that is just poor policy. To empower an unelected body to make decisions regarding a city-owned amenity worth a billion dollars is bad governance.”

Beyond poor policy, Ms. Korte also points to flaws in the practical application of the legal effort.

“The language around the proposition talks about maintaining the natural state, (which creates) a problem managing the Preserve,” she said, pointing out basic maintenance of existing facilities could turn into public votes. “That’s where this language becomes real fuzzy and real sloppy. What is a major capital improvement? What does natural state mean? Are we going to have to go the voters to build a new trailhead? I guess so. And, every time we do, it will cost $500,000 every time. That is why I go back to this is bad government.”

Here is the proposed site plan for the proposed Desert EDGE development within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (Submitted graphic)

The debate heard ‘round Scottsdale

McDowell Sonoran Preserve and Desert EDGE advocate Lynne Lagarde, a retired zoning attorney who serves on the Desert Discovery Scottsdale Inc. Board of Directors, says Prop. 420, on its face, disregards the wishes of residents who came before the proponents of the effort.

“Requiring another vote entirely disregards and overturns the prior public vote in 2004 in which the citizens of Scottsdale living primarily in the southern area of the city taxed themselves to pay for improvements to facilitate access to the Preserve for everyone, not just hikers and bikers,” she said.

“A nature education center was planned from the beginning of the Preserve as one of those improvements as described in the ballot arguments in favor of the tax.”

Ms. Lagarde says Prop. 420 is not about the Preserve, but rather the neighborhood abutting the Preserve.

“Now a disinformation campaign for yet another public vote, primarily by those who subsequently moved nearby, threatens to take away an improvement that all residents could enjoy and that many have long expected to be part of the Preserve,” she said.

Mr. Alexander disagrees.

“(The) YES (to 420 campaign) adheres to 15 years of precedent and keeps development in the Preserve in the hands of the citizens,” he said. “(Meanwhile the) NO (to 420 campaign) cedes control of the Preserve to the politicians and special interests behind the DDC/EDGE.”

Proponents on both sides of the Prop. 420 debate contend they are being bullied one way or another.

“The bullying involved in the NODDC/POP campaign has taken many forms: shouting down presenters of information about the project; urging boycotts of Scottsdale resorts, banks and other businesses and now Scottsdale itself; posting false negative reviews online about Scottsdale resorts who support the project; creating fake Facebook and Twitter accounts; posting ugly and false personal attacks about project supporters; contacting employers to threaten supporters’ job status or get them fired,” Ms. Lagarde said.

But the prospect of a community debate on the matter prior to the November election remains elusive.

“We still believe Scottsdale citizens can have a respectful debate and (we) proposed a very civil format without the participation of anyone who announced their intentions to run for political office,” she said. “Jason Alexander, who has announced his intent to run for office, rejected that proposal and insisted on being a participant. It is regrettable that Prop. 420 proponents refused to participate in an informational forum that would have benefited voters.”

Mr. Alexander says he does intend to enter into local politics, but that fact alone shouldn’t preclude his attendance at a public debate.

“We are eager to talk about ‘YES to 420’ with anyone, anywhere, anytime. Our opponents’ entire campaign is based on obfuscation, evasion and disinformation,” he said. “They are terrified to face the public. They have nothing beyond fear and flashy marketing. Their scare tactics are easily disproved when you read our ballot language, their marketing crumbles when you analyze their business plan. I would wipe the floor with them in a debate.”

Debate or not, Ms. Lagarde says passage of Prop. 420 will set a bad legal precedent.

“The passage of Prop. 420 undermines stable city government by creating the dangerous precedent of using the lengthy and costly Charter amendment process every time people disagree on a controversial issue,” she said.

“Amendments to the City Charter should not be politicized this way. This amendment is written with overly broad language that will require interpretation and lead to unintended consequences.”

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Executive Director Sam Campana delivers a presentation to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission, the Tourism Development Commission and residents at City Hall in August 2017. (Indpendent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

How we got here

Scottsdale City Council first approved the idea to construct an interpretive desert-appreciation venue at the Gateway to the Upper Sonoran Desert in January 2016. The measure was approved with three caveats and included a budget transfer of $1.69 million to create the initial proposal.

John Sather of Swaback Partners

That measure passed 6 to 1 with only Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield voting against the measure. Ms. Littlefield felt any changes to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve zoning restrictions ought to be voted on by the general public.

That resolution, among other things, enabled a dedicated municipal funding source for the creation and operation of a desert-appreciation venue. In addition, the resolution required the proposed operator of the facility — Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale — to raise 10 percent of the capital cost of the venue.

In summer 2017, Scottsdale City Council approved a $521,090 contract with Scottsdale-based architectural firm, Swaback Partners. The contract allows Swaback to provide programming and schematic design services for the planned facility.

Swaback Partners is the same architectural firm Scottsdale City Council awarded a design services contract for $432,000 in January 2010 for the first iteration of what the desert-appreciation venue would be. Beyond the hiring of the architectural firm, the DDCS has tapped New York City-based Thinc Design to create exhibitions at a rate of $278,840, plus $30,000 in expenses.

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.