The power of perception atop the Scottsdale Planning Commission

The Scottsdale Planning Commission is an advisory board,
which makes recommendations on land use and zoning matters to the Scottsdale City Council. (File photo)

Aside from City Council, a municipality’s Planning Commission could be considered one of the more important governing bodies shaping any given city.

In Scottsdale, the Planning Commission reviews, evaluates and approves myriad requests including rezoning, General Plan amendments, use permits, abandonments and municipal use master site plans. Ultimately, the seven-member Commission acts as an advisory board to the City Council on land use and zoning matters, with the council having the final ruling.

These agenda items can range from a request for a zoning map amendment for the purpose of constructing a mixed-use development with 282 residential units, to a conditional use permit for a wireless communication tower being disguised as a 60-foot artificial palm tree.

Each regular Scottsdale City Council meeting — generally happening once to twice a month — has several requests up for approval, many of which have made their way through the Planning Commission process. These requests can land on the consent agenda, which is a single vote approving numerous requests or amendments.

Larger projects are reserved for the regular agenda, with a staff presentation on the topic and generally garnering discussion amongst council members prior to a vote.

While the Planning Commission does not have the final say on any given matter, the issue of conflict of interest matters arising at the dais is taken seriously as some appointed volunteers are a part of the professional field in which their board is evaluating.

When recusing oneself, the commissioner can choose to declare a conflict of interest for two reasons: Having a substantial interest in the decision, or having a perceived perception of undue influence or impropriety.

While no legal wrong doings are being alleged of the Commissioners, the Scottsdale City Council earlier this year did ask city staff to return to a future meeting with an ordinance adding a provision to city code that any board or commission member having more than a 25 percent annual recusal rate based on total meetings, may be removed from that board or commission.

For the Planning Commission specifically, Councilwoman Solange Whitehead says having non-development professionals on the board may open up a wider-spectrum of discussion of projects.

Solange Whitehead

“When you bring in laypeople, people who don’t have blinders on about what is and what isn’t done in the development field, you do get very valuable input. You will bring more voices, more trust to the Commission, and finally will get more use out of that Commission,” Ms. Whitehead said at a Feb. 12 work study session.

“Last year we had 33 recusals from that Commission, 16 of those recusals were one commissioner. So I appreciate these people saying, ‘I need to step out and not vote’ but the problem is we’re losing this valuable opportunity to have another voice discussing issues that will effect our community forever. Development issues effect our community forever.”

Close community ties

The current Scottsdale Planning Commission is comprised of Paul Alessio, Kevin Bollinger, Ali Fakih, Larry Kush, Christian Serena and Prescott Smith.

Mr. Alessio is in real estate; his firm UrbanREaz, specializes in a residential and commercial real estate. Mr. Bollinger, is an architect and is president of Bollinger Consulting Architects.

Larry Kush

Mr. Fakih is an engineer, serving as principal and project manager at SEG — Sustainable Engineering Group. Mr. Kush is senior vice president with Orion Investment Real Estate.

Mr. Serena is a Senior Financial Advisor with Chin-Williams & Associates, a part of the Merrill Lynch family. Mr. Smith is vice president of Technical Solutions, a communications firm specializing in public outreach and fulfillment services for development projects.

When a project for the Planning Commission to review works its way through the municipal process, the members of the Commission are required to recuse themselves. Commissioners must abide by the state conflict of interest laws, and the city’s code of ethical behavior. Additionally, Arizona law prohibits local governments from imposing different conflict of interest laws than state laws, the city’s code states.

Scottsdale Revised Code states:

“A conflict of interests arises when a city official, a relative of that official, or an entity in which a city official has a substantial interest is actively engaged in an activity that involves the city’s decision-making processes. ‘Decision-making processes’ is broader than just voting and includes being involved with any aspects of any decisions the city makes, such as contracting, sales, purchases, permitting, and zoning.”

And, “During a public meeting when an agenda item in which a city official has a conflict of interests comes up for consideration, the city official shall state publicly that he or she has a conflict, recuse himself or herself, and leave the room while the matter is being discussed and acted upon by others on the public body.”

According to a March public records request, the Planning Commissioners between 2017-19 have recused themselves:

  • Larry Kush: 5
  • Kevin Bollinger: 1
  • Prescott Smith: 27
  • Ali Fakih: 21
  • Paul Alessio: 1
  • Kelsey Young: 2

Ms. Young has recently resigned from the Commission as she is no longer a resident of Scottsdale.

Mr. Smith serves as Planning Commission vice chair, and was on the Development Review Board prior to being appointed to the planning group.

Prescott Smith

“I think the City Council obviously appoints citizens based on their personal and professional experience to serve on boards and commissions in Scottsdale,” Mr. Smith explained of his role on the Commission.

“Given my experience and what we do, my background helps understand community input and making sure everyone’s voices are heard. There are hundreds of zoning issues every year, the recusal process is there to ensure there isn’t any impropriety.”

While Mr. Smith does have to recuse himself due to his work with local projects, the role of Planning Commission, Mr. Smith points out, is in an advisory capacity and does not have a final say on any project.

“Whether we approve or deny a case, it goes on to council regardless,” he said. “My portion and involvement in Scottsdale revolves around community input and making sure people’s voices are heard along the way.”

Within the records request, Mr. Smith’s handwriting is sprawled across 27 different declaration of conflict of interest or personal interest forms. Most state, in some variation or another, “I have done work on this project.”

He has recused himself on projects including:

  • Scottsdale Heights
  • Scottsdale Fashion Square
  • Villages at Troon North
  • Rose Lane Commercial Parcel
  • The Outpost
  • Wolff Scottsdale Senior Living
  • Winfield Hotel
  • Valley View Homes
  • Sereno Canyon
  • Spectrum Camelback
  • Don & Charlie’s
  • Canopy by Hilton
  • JLB – the McDowell
  • Safari Phase II

“I very much enjoy my service on the boards and commissions of Scottsdale,” Mr. Smith said.

“I do think it’s important, given the uniqueness of what my company does for work — understanding the importance of input on these projects — I think it’s important to have someone with that voice on these boards to ensure everyone’s voices are heard.”

To Mr. Smith’s point, the topic of public outreach and having resident involvement and communication in projects is often vocalized by residents. In the recent Papago Plaza application, Councilwoman Virginia Korte’s stipulation of increased resident outreach and input was a factor in the south Scottsdale project moving forward.

Scottsdale City Council meets at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd. (File photo)

A recommending body

Councilwoman Korte says when it comes to the operation of Planning Commission, she believes the system is working correctly.

“I don’t think our process is broken, we have done business in this manner for decades and never had a problem — I don’t think we have a problem now,” she said.

“The council reviewed this issue a couple of months ago — we changed some policy, we broached that subject — and I believe that took care of any perceived issue with that. I don’t personally see it as an issue.”

According to Mayor Jim Lane, the Planning Commission is the only committee in the city required by state statute.

“There really is no specific guidelines. It is required that we have citizens, there isn’t any criteria or added background,” Mr. Lane said. “I think some people look to people who know the process and that are in-tune with that. Has that created a situation where someone is involved in projects? Several weeks ago we reviewed the boards and commissions and the kinds of things creating some difficulty — this is one of them.”

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane (File photo)

Mr. Lane says the city, about six or seven years ago, looked at all of the boards and commissions and created some guidelines, including tardiness and attendance. He estimates the city will look at the proposal to stipulate board and commission recusal frequency after their summer break.

“There’s been a call to exclude certain people — we don’t generally exclude people because of their background. We do include people who have positive knowledge and background, such as EQAB (Environmental Quality Advisory Board) or transportation,” Mr. Lane said.

“They have to be able to recuse themselves. I don’t think we’ve seen the number of recusals we have with these two individuals.”

A municipal board member or commissioner not recusing themselves could be seen, to some, as a betrayal of public trust.

“The idea of recusing yourself is more numerous now than ever before,” Mr. Lane said.

“Part of the situation we deal with, when we are elected by the public, the balance of things that make a city run — different ideologies, principles, different approaches to how that gets accomplished — when we’re elected the people we appoint are generally reflective of our point of view. We think we’re serving the community with our point of view.”

The rules of Scottsdale, Mr. Lane says, is that anyone with a conflict of interest does need to recuse themselves. However, the commissioners’ only power is to send a recommendation to City Council.

“That’s where it ends, it sits with us to decide whether the decision is consistent with what we believe is legal and in the best interest of the city,” Mr. Lane said. “If they’re not there, they’re not making the recommendations we appointed them to make.”

A request for comment from Commissioner Fakih was not answered by press time.

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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