In a rare move, a narrow majority of Scottsdale City Council voted to remove Prescott Smith from the city’s planning commission weeks after Mayor David Ortega asked him to resign due to his high number of recusals.
Ortega defended the action, saying he became concerned about retaining Smith, who was vice chair, after reading a recent audit of the Planning Commission produced by City Auditor Sharron Walker.
The audit showed Smith had four absences and 36 recusals from individual cases at 65 meetings between 2017 and 2019 – more than any other planning commissioner during that time.
The next highest recusal rate was from Commissioner Ali Fakih, who recused himself 26 times over the same span.
“The facts speak for themselves,” Ortega said.
The decision – only the second time a volunteer commissioner was removed before their term ended – was criticized by the Council minority for unfairly singling out Smith.
While a commissioner can be removed at any time for any reason, Councilwoman Linda Milhaven said the move was uncalled for because the Council has never adopted a recusal limit in the past and has not held others to a similar standard.
“It seems to me that they’re singling out one person for breaking a rule we don’t have, which seems to me it must be about more than just recusals,” she said.
Ortega said he unsuccessfully attempted to contact Smith to discuss the issue after reading the audit and ultimately confronted him at a business event recently at Hotel Valley Ho.
“I said to him, ‘you have two choices: I can write a letter thanking you for good service and accepting your resignation or letter number two, I will ask for Council action,’” Ortega said.
Ortega said he did not hear back from Smith, so he brought the issue before Council.
Smith, who had never spoken to Ortega prior to that first conversation, tells the story differently.
“When I requested a formal meeting with the Mayor to better understand his viewpoint and why I was being forced to resign, I was told that the Mayor believed that he was ‘clear’ in his previous conversation and that he would not have any conversation with me before going forward to put the matter on the next City Council agenda,” Smith said in a statement to the Progress.
Smith said he believes the mayor handled the issue inappropriately and showed disrespect for citizens who volunteer their time to serve on commissions.
“What saddens me even more was the way the Mayor’s message was delivered and his lack of respect for private citizens and city volunteers,” he said in the statement.
Smith also defended his recusal rate, stating he was attempting to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest even if he was not legally obligated to do so.
“In addition to my legal responsibility to declare any statutory conflicts, I also wanted to demonstrate the highest integrity where there might be any potential or perceived conflicts,” he said.
Councilwoman Tammy Caputi, who previously served on the city Development Review Board, said the decision to bring Smith up before the Council reflected poorly on how the city treats its volunteer commissioners.
“Prematurely terminating Prescott Smith from the Planning Commission is a terrible idea for the city and a terrible message to our valued volunteers and our citizens,’ Caputi said.
Even some council members who voted for Smith’s removal appeared unhappy with the process by which it was brought before them.
“We have the right to remove a, a sitting commissioner or board member, but we ought to have the rules and regs so that it’s not a political agenda item; that bothers me,” Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield said.
Ultimately, four of the seven councilmembers – Ortega, Littlefield, Betty Janik and Tom Durham – felt Smith’s high recusal numbers justified removal, arguing regular absences or recusals weaken a commission’s ability to advise Council.
“We need to make sure that we have our full complement of people on board when we hear all these cases so that we get better representation and hopefully solid decisions,” Janik said.
Council members who voted against the removal – Milhaven, Tammy Caputi and Solange Whitehead – argued that Council should adopt recusal rules first.
In summer 2019, Council discussed adopting limits on how often a sitting commissioner could recuse themselves for conflict of interest.
The rules proposed at the time would have removed commissioners if they had a 25 percent annual recusal rate based on total meetings. It received pushback from some members, including Milhaven, for being too stringent.
Council was scheduled to take up the issue again later that year, but that never happened. The issue did not make it before the Council in 2020, either.
Whitehead – who supported those talks in 2019 – voted against removal.
“I think our goal is to improve the commissions and boards and to improve public trust,” Whitehead said. “I don’t think this gets us there; in fact, I think that voting on one commissioner without clear metrics of what we want from the commissioners will undermine public trust.”
Following the removal vote, Council unanimously agreed to discuss reforming rules governing board members and commissioners.
Ortega said he supported having that conversation, but stood behind the decision to remove Smith, calling it an “extraordinary case.”
Both Milhaven and Caputi said recusals are the natural consequence of having qualified residents serve on boards and commissions.
They argued Council should be encouraging, not punishing, commissioners for recusing themselves when a conflict occurs.
Milhaven said the issue could have a “chilling effect” by making other board members and commissioners wary of declaring conflicts.
“I think we should be doing everything we can to encourage our commission members and ourselves to recuse anytime there’s even a potential conflict,” she said.
“And I think by creating a rule that says that if you recuse yourself too many times, you’re going to be brought up in front of the city council in a public meeting would make folks think twice about whether or not they want to recuse themselves,” Milhaven said.
Ortega did not back down from his decision.
““I was elected to challenge the status quo,” he said. “There are dozens of qualified, expert candidates for Planning Commission who can participate fully. There will be two vacancies to fill at Planning Commission in May.”
Smith said he would continue to look for ways to volunteer with the city.
“While I do not agree with the decision made at City Council last night, I remain proud of my work on the Planning Commission,” he said.
“Scottsdale is more than just my birthplace and home; it is truly a part of who I am. I will absolutely continue to serve Scottsdale moving forward and hope that last night’s display does not deter other qualified citizens from giving back as well.”