Dead Again: Scottsdale district system supporters aim for ballot

Dead Again: Scottsdale district system supporters aim for ballot

By J. Graber

The perennial issue of districting in Scottsdale is dead again as far as city council is concerned, but it could become very much alive for voters this November.

Although council on a 5-2 vote February 15 instructed city staff not to look into the issue any further, the 3-2-One Scottsdale Political Action Committee intends to try getting an initiative on the November 8 ballot.

“Yes, we most certainly plan on going out and obtaining the signatures required to it put to a vote by the people Scottsdale,” 3-2-One Scottsdale President Paul Simonson says.

The committee will have its work cut out for them, though: The PAC will need to get 27,244 signatures to city clerk Ben Lane’s office by early July to give him time to certify them. 

Scottsdale has had at-large councilmembers since it incorporated 1951 with a population of about 2,000 living within an area of less than a square mile. With a population of almost 250,000 people in 184.4 square miles today, some feel the city has outgrown that system.

Scottsdale is the second largest city in Arizona that uses an at-large council system. The state’s three largest cities — Phoenix, Tucson and Mesa — all use a district system along with Glendale, which has a slightly smaller population than Scottsdale. Both Chandler and Scottsdale, the state’s fourth and fifth largest cities, respectively, use at-large systems.

The topic has been coming up periodically for years.

The city explored a six-district system, with the mayor elected at large, in 2003 by forming a citizens task force to research the topic. The in-depth report compared Scottsdale to similarly sized cities across the country and found that of 48 “comparably sized cities” nationwide, only nine — or 19% – had at large forms of government. 

The proposition went on the ballot in 2004 but failed with just 39% of voters supporting it.

Then-Mayor Jim Lane brought the idea of three districts to council in 2016, but the idea died there.

The two dissenting votes in support of further staff research were cast by Mayor David Ortega and Councilmember Betty Janik.

Ortega pointed out that no councilmembers live south of Indian Bend except for him. 

He likens the city council to a jury: “If this were a map of jurors in a court system … and for 10 or 12 years no juror was selected from area one, it would not fly as a jury of your peers.”

He pointed out that in the 2014 council election, 33% of possible votes were not cast. That number was 46% in 2016, 38% in 2018 and 32% in 2020.

“Either people could not relate to somebody in their area, (or) they hadn’t got the message of who they were,” Ortega says. “You know what, that’s, in my opinion, a failure of the at-large system.”

He said the at-large system makes it easier for big developers with deep pockets to come to Scottsdale and get whatever they want. 

“One of the biggest problems of this at-large system is the developers come in and they divide us into growth and no growth,” Ortega says. “No, we have revitalization, we have blight, we have security, we have so many other issues, but the big money goes for ‘Are you a pro-growth or a no-growth?’ That’s really not what the city is about. The city is much more complex.”

He also notes the 2003 task force found a district system would lead to greater local accountability, lessen costs to run for a council seat and make it less intimidating for people to run.

He says it also increased an individual member’s efficiency because he or she could spend more time with a smaller area of the city rather than traveling from one end of Scottsdale to the other.

And decreasing costs to run for council is important when it takes $200,000 to $300,000 to run a successful campaign, he said.

Janik says the city has nothing to lose by putting a proposed charter amendment creating three districts (north, central and south — each containing about 80,000 residents) on the November ballot. 

“To me, the most important thing about Scottsdale is everybody needs to feel equally represented and based on my experience, in the southern part of Scottsdale in more recent conversations I feel that part of the city believes (it is underrepresented). And historically when you go back, I think that’s kind of proven. 

Councilmember Tom Durham says it is easy for councilmembers to reach all parts of the city because of the freeway.

“During my campaign, I spent large amounts of my time in the southern end of the city because I didn’t know what was going on there as well,” Durham says.

He points to the short-term rental issue as an indicator of how councilmembers who do not live in South Scottsdale can tackle an issue that mostly affects that area. He also pointed to the city council’s recent approval of the Greenbelt 88 development in the Lucky shopping plaza near the intersection of Hayden and Osborn roads as evidence council does not ignore issues in South Scottsdale. 

“At the recent open house on that issue, every member of the council and the mayor were there, so no one is neglecting any part of the city,” he says. 

He also shot down exaggerated estimates of the cost to run for city council.

“Several people have criticized the amounts spent on campaigns, saying it takes up to $290,000 to run for city council. Well, I’m sitting here as evidence that you don’t need $290,000. I think I spent about $50,000.”

He also notes under voting can occur within districts.

“If you’re in a district of 80,000 people there’s a good possibility you might not know either or both of the candidates. … Not voting for somebody is also part of democracy,” he says. 

Durham then made a motion to direct staff not to investigate the issue any further, but withdrew it so all his colleagues had a chance to speak. 

Councilmember Kathy Littlefield says, “I do not believe that creating districts is in the best interest of Scottsdale. Two thousand years ago the Romans said it best and most succinctly, divide and conquer. They used this ploy and it worked like a charm over and over. Developers know this strategy.

“I am a native of Scottsdale,” she continues. “I went to Scottsdale schools and have lived in all parts of the city: north, south and now central. In my eight years on the council I have worked hard to represent our gorgeous, beautiful city and to have a citywide focus. Other cities throughout the state and country have used districts and it usually worked to the detriment of every city involved. In order to get projects passed in each district, councilmembers have to barter, ‘I’ll vote for yours if you vote for mine.’” 

She points to the approval of the Greenbelt 88 project as a source of the frustration people in South Scottsdale have with council.

“In fact, I share them, but dividing Scottsdale into smaller parts is not the answer,” she says. Littlefield and Ortega cast the two votes against Greenbelt.

Councilmember Solange Whitehead said a person’s residence doesn’t define whether or not he or she can represent voters. 

“I think its whether or not that person has demonstrated to the voters they understand the residents of Scottsdale and they care about their constituency and they have the skill and competency to represent the various Scottsdale residents. I am concerned that geography does not equate to representation.” 

She added that having four members on council able to affect a neighborhood without accountability to the people who live there is disconcerting. 

“As Councilman Durham said, I don’t see a groundswell interest for this particular cause,” she said.

The petition by 3-2-One Scottsdale that sparked the debate only contained 15 signatures.

Whitehead also says it’s not the cost of campaigns that keep people from running so much as it is the pay. Whitehead, Littlefield and Councilmember Linda Milhaven make $18,000 per year as councilmembers. Janik, Durham and Vice Mayor Tammy Caputi make $31,000. Ortega makes $51,000 as mayor.

“It’s not a living wage,” Whitehead says. 

School board members, meanwhile, receive no stipend.

Milhaven tried to prevent the discussion altogether by moving to direct council not to proceed with the idea just as the meeting began, but that move was shot down 4-3, with Durham, Janik, Ortega and Whitehead voting against it.   

“There are times we need to listen and there are times we need to have an informed opinion, and I think as council members, this is one of those times we need to have an informed opinion,” Milhaven said. “If we think something is a bad idea, we need to say it’s a bad idea and encourage folks to not move forward.” 

She adds, “I think we have talked about money, but if money made a difference, we would have a different mayor.”

Caputi reiterated Milhaven’s comments about telling people to only vote for one candidate “is actually a very strategic move. Democrats, Republicans and everyone in between tell their voters this. We all know this, we all utilize that strategy, so to pretend you don’t know what an undervote is seems incredibly naive to me.”

She also said, “The population of Scottsdale has only grown 10% over the last 10 years. We were the slowest-growing city of any in the Valley over the last 10 years. … So this idea of sort of excluding population that needs more representatives, the facts just don’t bear that out.”

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