Phoenix’s neighborhood planning boards lean on members with ties to real estate industry

Construction has begun at the Aura Trinsic development site at Third Avenue and Coolidge Street. When finished, the development will feature 218 luxury units in a four-story structure. (Photo by Emma Peterson/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

PHOENIX – On a summer day last year, the Central City Village Planning Committee convened its regular monthly meeting to confer over zoning adjustments and requests for rezoning in downtown Phoenix.

The city’s 15 planning committees provide neighborhood input on zoning proposals. Each is composed of volunteer members who live or work in their respective village.

At the July 2022 meeting of the Central City committee, a member recused himself from the discussion about a zoning issue, only to introduce himself as the attorney representing the developer moments later.

The scene reflected the ethical dilemmas that can arise in Phoenix’s village planning committees.

The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism examined the occupations of village planning committee members for the entire city and found that many have ties to real estate, development and related professions.

Reporters were able to identify the occupations of 90% of the 244 members who currently serve on village planning committees.

Of that number, more than a third represent real estate development and related professions. Seven villages have more than 40% of their members in those occupations.

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A spokesperson in Councilwoman Laura Pastor’s office said council members specifically look for realtors, attorneys, architects and developers when considering applicants because the skillset is relevant to the village planning committees’ discussions. Understanding complex development projects is an advantage for committee members, but not a requirement, the spokesperson said in an email. Community involvement is also a priority, the spokesperson said.

Phoenix has an ethics code but no functioning ethics commission to enforce it. So declaring conflicts of interest is largely on the honor system for members of the planning committees and the city’s 51 other boards and commissions.

The attorney who represented the developer in the Central City committee followed the ethics code and recused himself from a matter in which he had an interest.

The Howard Center investigated a different situation that raised more serious questions. In the Alhambra Village Planning Committee, a member did not recuse himself from rezoning matters on two separate occasions even though he owned multiple properties in the area and sold some of them around the time the cases were being presented.

VPCs held to same ethics standards as employees

Council members and the mayor appoint village planning committee members for a two-year term after the resident applies online. Members can hold the chair or vice chair position for one year, but not more than two consecutive years. They are subject to the same ethics code as salaried employees, and are asked to familiarize themselves with the city’s ethics policies.

Jeremy Thacker, a member of the Encanto Village Planning Committee, said he reviewed the ethics handbook and signed an acknowledgement that he read it. Thacker said he might have also received a list of YouTube videos about ethics from the city.

The learning curve for members like himself who were new to zoning issues was steep, Thacker said.

“Urban planning is not for the faint of heart,” he said.

A two-year review of minutes from five of the city’s 15 village planning committees showed that, at least once a year, a city employee or the assigned city planner reviewed ethics procedures with members.

Four members from the five committees reviewed declared a conflict of interest and recused themselves from the discussions and votes, the records showed.

The city’s planning and development department declined interview requests regarding how they handle committee members’ conflicts of interest.

Reporters found a five-minute video the city published in 2018 that highlights conflicts of interest and the city’s policies on accepting gifts. An “Integrity Line” phone number is published at the end of the video. It goes to a voicemail, yet it’s linked to the city auditor’s office.

Members are solely responsible for declaring conflicts of interest, filing a conflict form with the City Clerk and refraining from discussion and votes.

The handbook cites examples of conflicts of interest as ownership of property “in close proximity to (the) property subject to the board’s approval of a zoning or license application that may affect the value of the board member’s property.”

Other examples the handbook includes:

  • Previous employment by a firm that seeks a city contract and with whom the board member anticipates doing further work;
  • A developer-board member who files an application for approval of a project;
  • A realtor who has had discussions concerning a listing agreement with an owner of a property that is the subject of a zoning application.

Nicole Rodriguez, an Encanto Planning Committee member, said she didn’t recall any ethics training from the city. The issue for her, she said, was that her committee does not include enough socioeconomic diversity.

“I don’t think they’ve been able to empathize with most of the committee members with those types of people who may be coming from a different socioeconomic or experience background. That’s why we need a more diverse committee,” Rodriguez said.

Through a spokesperson, Pastor said village planning committees accurately reflect the diversity of the community, and she makes that a priority.

This story was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, an initiative of the Scripps Howard Foundation in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer Roy W. Howard. Contact us at [email protected] or on Twitter @HowardCenterASU.