A Scottsdale planning commissioner has resigned after multiple residents filed complaints alleging she violated the city’s ethics code while making comments against the need for more public outreach on development projects.
Former Commissioner Kelsey Pasquel resigned March 22, citing her decision to move into her new husband’s home in Phoenix.
“I will no longer meet the residency requirement to serve on the Commission,” she wrote.
“I still own my personal home in Scottsdale, my office building, and (three) businesses all based in Scottsdale and will continue to have a vested interest in the City,” Pasquel added. “I have enjoyed every second of the 34.5 years I have called Scottsdale home. My heart will always be in Scottsdale.”
Some residents believe the resignation was a way to skirt an ethics investigation stemming from comments Pasquel made at a March 13 Planning Commission meeting.
“She was absolutely resigning to avoid an ethics complaint; That’s my take on that,” said Jason Alexander, a community activist and organizer of the NoDDC organization, who filed a complaint. “Either way, we get a better result and an opportunity to upgrade that seat.”
At the March 13 meeting, Pasquel called community pushback against the Papago Plaza redevelopment “fake opposition.”
“A lot of that uproar that came after we saw the project was fake opposition,” Pasquel said. “It was people that don’t live in the neighborhood that were coming down and creating a huge stink because they want to run for City Council in 2020 and they want to get their name out there.”
Pasquel’s comments, first reported by the Progress, were seen as a violation of the city’s ethics policy by some residents, because Pasquel’s husband works for Withey Morris, a land use law firm working on the Papago Plaza project.
Pasquel, then Kelsey Young, had recused herself from the vote when the project came before the Planning Commission last November.
Jason Alexander, likely the individual referenced in Pasquel’s comments, filed an ethics complaint against Pasquel. Resident Albert Germek also filed a complaint, according to records provided to the Progress through a public information request.
Both Alexander and Germek’s complaints allege Pasquel violated the city’s ethics code.
It states, “A conflict of interest arises when a city official, a relative of that official, or an entity in which a city official has substantial interest is actively engaged in an activity that involves the city’s decision-making process.”
The code further states: “When a conflict of interest arises, the city official involved must immediately refrain from participating in any manner the city’s decision-making processes on the matter as a city officially, including voting on the matter or attending meetings with, having written or verbal communications with, or offering advice to any member of the city council or any city employee.”
To Alexander, Pasquel’s previous recusal is evidence that she should not have spoken publicly on any issue related to Papago Plaza.
Alexander said that “by marginalizing citizen feedback, she was influencing the commission, and that specifically is what the conflict of interest recusal is supposed to prevent.”
Pasquel’s comment also offended resident Andrea Alley, a community activist who lives near Papago Plaza and is also affiliated with NoDDC. She was one of the residents who voiced concern about the redevelopment to the City Council.
“I just remember my very first thought being how could someone so closely connected to the project, even though she’s not directly involved, even believe that was true,” Alley said. “Because I feel like all you have to do is read the news over the past few months to know what’s been going on with Papago and how much of a citizen and neighbor driven process all of that was.”
Alley also said Pasquel’s comments discredited the work the developer did to modify the redevelopment to address some community concerns.
“I felt like it discounted how far above and beyond the developer team went after that process, because they didn’t have to do anything outside of those two (community) meetings with the council asked for,” Alley said. “But they worked very hard I think to do as much as they could to make the community as happy as possible within what was approved for that project.”
Pasquel did not return a request for comment.
Alexander compared Pasquel’s comments at the March 13 meeting – which he called “not factual” and “incredibly insensitive” – to comments made by Planning Commission Vice Chair Prescott Smith, who also stated he did not believe the city needed to revamp its public outreach process.
“Smith’s comments, while I don’t agree with them, they were based in the ordinances,” Alexander said. “So you can disagree with his comments, but he was professional about how he presented them and was obviously passionate about his position. It was within the lines.”
City Attorney Bruce Washburn dismissed the complaints in light of Pasquel’s resignation.
For Alexander and Alley, the situation surrounding Pasquel’s comments is systematic of a larger issue in which members of the Planning Commission are too closely aligned with the development community they are supposed to oversee.
Alexander said he would like to see commissioners that are “not part of the development community; their income is not driven by being within that circle.”
They cited numbers compiled by the Coalition of Greater Scottsdale showing the recusal rates for commissioners going back to 2016.
In 2018, Smith and Commissioner Ali Fakih recused themselves more than other commissioners.
Smith recused himself on 16 of the 37 votes taken by the Planning Commission at its regular meetings. Some of those votes included motions on multiple items, according to the COGS numbers.
Smith said he does not believe his record of recusals affects his ability to be an effective commissioner.
“The City Council appoints citizens based on their personal and professional experience to serve on a given board or commission,” Smith said. “I am a very effective Commissioner given my unique background and expertise.”
During that same time, Fakih recused himself on 10 of 37 votes.
“Someone like (Smith) is obviously extremely knowledgeable about the rules and the laws,” Alexander said. “But if you look at what he does, he works for these development firms through his PR company and his conflict is borne out if you look at his recusal rate.”
Smith is vice president at Technical Solutions, a public relations firm that works with developers on zoning and land use issues.
“Planning Commission, as you know, serves in an advisory capacity to City Council before they make the final decision. The city has hundreds of zoning issues every year and the recusal process is in place to avoid any potential for impropriety during board/commission service,” Smith said.
Referring to a problem with a “good old boys club,” Alley questioned how effective the commission can be at protecting citizen interests.
“If there’s that many conflicts of interest, are they really representing the citizens or are they representing the developer and the architect and whoever else (they work with)?” she asked.