Scottsdale City Council

On June 8, the Scottsdale City Council unanimously adopted a $1.79-billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

For the first time in 15 months, Scottsdale residents will be allowed back into the Kiva to attend City Council and other public meetings beginning June 22.

But that attendance will be limited for the foreseeable future as the city continues to implement safety protocols to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Like many other cities, Scottsdale first closed Council meetings to the public in March 2020. 

Attendance in the Kiva will be limited to 34 people on a first-come-first-served basis and attendance at meetings held at other locations will also feature reduced capacity, according to the city.

Additional attendees will have to sit in a nearby overflow room that will include a live broadcast of the meeting.

Those in the overflow space who wish to make public comment will be allowed into the Kiva as space becomes available. The city will also continue to allow public comments to be made via telephone.

Anyone wishing to make a public comment in person or via telephone must still sign up beforehand. Sign-up information is available via a link at the top of each meeting agenda on the city’s website.

The announcement marks the most significant step the city has taken to restore public participation in meetings since it implemented comment via phone in December.

Until that time, citizens could only comment on items via email or through the city website.

By September 2020, the Progress reported that Scottsdale was the only large city in Maricopa County not to restore some form of live public comment. At the time, the city cited technical issues, stating call-in software used by the city resulted in echoes and other sound that made it difficult to hear callers.

The lack of a call-in option in Scottsdale resulted in criticism from some in the community but did not put the city at odds with state law.

When the pandemic started, Attorney General Mark Brnovich issued an opinion stating that cities could opt for online-only public meetings without violating the state open meetings law as long they properly notified the public and made those meetings easily accessible.

Brnovich’s opinion also noted that cities are not required by law to allow for public comment.

“The (open meeting law) permits, but does not require, a public body to include a call to the public on its agenda,” the opinion said.

The city worked out the technical issues by late 2020 after some prodding from Councilwomen Kathy Littlefield and Solange Whitehead..

Since that time, some residents have continued to push for the city to further open meetings back up to the public.

Scottsdale resident Sue Wood, who has circulated a petition for weeks calling on the city to re-open public meetings, cited other Valley cities’ decision to open meetings to the public and Gov. Doug Ducey’s rollback of restrictions.

Other cities like Chandler, Gilbert, Fountain Hills and Glendale have fully opened their meetings to public as has the Scottsdale Unified School District. Mesa and Phoenix have resisted opening the doors to the public and stuck with a virtual option.

Wood and other residents are pushing  Scottsdale to go further and open meetings without capacity limits. Wood said she believes city staff has kept meetings closed to the public to avoid vocal opposition to controversial zoning requests.

“So, that leads me to believe the Council and staff are using COVID as an excuse to keep us out of City Hall,” Wood said.  “The council does not want the residents to speak in person because there are high density projects that the residents oppose.”

Resident activist Emily Austin, a veteran of the battles over Prop 420 and Southbridge Two, said the lack of in-person participation at meetings has hurt organizing efforts.

“And I think it makes it more challenging for the community to stick together when we can’t even see each other, and I think the city kind of likes that,” she said.

Austin said she supported mitigations measures implemented over the past year but that the new plan could have been safely adopted sooner to give the public some access to their elected officials.

“It’s better than nothing…I think we have to celebrate the small victories,” she said.

Downtown gallery owner Bob Pejman, a fixture at City Council meetings in the past, questioned why meetings have remained closed even as other aspects of Scottsdale life returned to normal.

“Scottsdale restaurants, bars, concerts, and shopping malls have been open to the public for months, and in the meantime, there was no effort made to allow in-person public comment at City Hall, that is until citizens started to complain and the city got wind of a citizen petition circulating to open City Hall,” he said.

In May, city spokesman Kelly Corsette said the city would re-open meetings when county health metrics showed virus spread has sufficiently slowed in the community. 

He said the city would consider the limited return of public participation when the city reached moderate spread metric of between 10 and 49 cases per 100,000 residents.

Over the past two weeks, Scottsdale, a city with one of the highest vaccination rates in the Valley, has reached that moderate spread level. 

Still, critics have questioned why city staff and not Council is calling the shots on the attendance policy.

“But who is making these ‘policy’ decisions using the unique-to-Scottsdale COVID criteria?” Pejman said. “The City Council is the decision-making body, and they obviously did not make this decision in a public meeting...The council could have easily agendized this matter for a vote, but chose not to. So, are they not the decision-making body when it comes to this issue?”

COVID-19 emergency orders issued by Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega and his predecessor Jim Lane closed City Council meetings to public attendance and gave City Manager Jim Thompson authority to impose similar restrictions on board and commission meetings. 

Wood openly criticized some members of the Council for not pushing back on Ortega’s order.

“(Councilmembers Tom) Durham, (Betty) Janik and Whitehead CAMPAIGNED on including the residents in their city government,” Wood said in an email. “And now, they are not fighting for us. The Council should be making policy, NOT the city manager’s office.”

Whitehead took issue with that criticism and said she has been actively looking for solutions to restore public participation throughout the pandemic without putting public safety at risk.

“Last Monday, I asked the City Manager to find a way to get our residents back in City Hall before summer recess,” she said. “We discussed ways to do it safely and he delivered.”

Outside of public meetings, Whitehead said she has been actively meeting with residents and serving the community.

“While City Hall was closed, access to me has increased during COVID,” Whitehead said. “Every day of the week, I am communicating or meeting with residents.”

“I am so looking forward to having the public back,” Whitehead said. “Likely, staff will bring in groups based on the agenda item so that everyone can still feed off the energy of each other.  This is great news for the public and even better news for the Council – we work best when we have our residents in the Kiva with us.”