Save Our Preserve Dickinson Wright

The Scottsdale City Council on April 15 will consider increasing its contract with law firm Dickinson Wright to a maximum of $490,000 to defend the city in lawsuits brought by resident Mark Stuart and Save Our Preserve in 2017 and 2018.

The City of Scottsdale continues to rack up legal bills related to a civil suit filed by a resident that dates back to the early days of the dispute over the Desert Discovery Center and the future of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

At its next meeting on April 15, the City Council will consider increasing a contract with law firm Dickinson Wright by $200,000 for representation in lawsuits filed by resident Mark Stuart and the Save Our Preserve PAC currently pending in federal court.

The council had already approved a contract worth up to $290,000 with Dickinson Wright for representation in the cases and the new approval would bring the total maximum value of the contract to $490,000.

Stuart and Save Our Preserve Inc. originally filed suit against the city, city staffers and the City Council in June 2017 after Stuart claimed city agents – including Mayor Jim Lane, City Attorney Bruce Washburn and Scottsdale Police Department – unlawfully stifled his attempts to gather signatures and promote a potential city ballot initiative that would have restricted development on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

That initiative was similar to the one that would be known as Proposition 420 and was approved by Scottsdale voters in November 2018. It required the city government to receive voter approval for most new development on the preserve.

In his original suit, Stuart claimed that city staff and others harassed him in public spaces while he promoted his initiative, removed his signs from public spaces and placed “prior restraints” on his free speech – citing a Feb. 7, 2017 arrest at a council meeting.

Stuart attempted to speak on behalf of his initiative and Lane argued that it was against state law to utilize public resources – i.e. a public meeting – to influence an election.

Stuart argued that his advocacy was permitted as a private citizen, but was removed from the podium by Scottsdale Police at Lane’s behest and then arrested later on for trespassing at the public meeting.

Another suit was filed by Save Our Preserve Political Action Committee of Scottsdale against the city in April 2018 after Save Our Preserve, Inc. was removed as a plaintiff in the Stuart case.

The second lawsuit ultimately ended up in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit following a March 2018 order in district court that denied the plaintiff’s request for a temporary restraining order barring the city from “advancing construction of the Desert Discovery Center.”

The district court had previously denied a similar request in the Stuart case.

The Ninth Circuit ultimately dismissed the case after hearing arguments in February 2019, citing the fact that Proposition 420 had passed and rendered the complaint moot.

“An almost identical amendment succeeded, and thus, there is no present risk that absent a preliminary injunction the City will build in the Preserve without voter approval or that SOP PAC will need to renew its advocacy efforts. The appeal is moot,” the court’s memorandum read.

The decision appeared to resolve at least one of the pending actions against the city stemming from the preserve fight, though the court left open the possibility that Save Our Preserve could seek a restraining order against the city in the future if the organization resumes political advocacy efforts.

“If it does, and the City interferes with those efforts, SOP PAC can seek injunctive relief at that time,” the decision read.