Happy New Year?

What a difference a year makes.
At this time last year, Desert EDGE was called the Desert Discovery Center and its future looked cloudy ... the new SUSD Superintendent Denise Birdwell was still on her best behavior and hadn't begun her reign of terror ... and Mayor Jim Lane, who had just been elected to his third term, was clean-shaven.
Now the once potent grassroots campaign to prevent Desert EDGE has lost its pizazz. Dr. Birdwell and SUSD administrators are under investigation by the State Attorney General's Office. And Mayor Lane has grown a beard that evokes former Mayor Herb Drinkwater.
The year begins with those opposing Desert EDGE making a "Hail Mary" effort to put the project on November's General Election ballot. They need more than 30,000 valid voter signatures and they only have six months to gather them. No longer the issue du jour, Desert EDGE is expected to be nudged out of newspaper headlines by the continuing charges of corruption in the school district.
According to attorney Susan Segal, who conducted the internal investigation initiated by SUSD, her probe failed to find any wrongdoing by school district employees connected with the hiring of a construction company to rebuild several elementary schools. Later this month Segal is scheduled to announce if the school district and one of it vendors, PGPC, a private consulting firm, had a conflict of interest.
The timing of the opinion from the Attorney General's Office about SUSD business practices should be coming soon.
No matter what the further findings are, the controversy is sure to persist throughout the year and eventually be an issue in the November school board race for the two open seats. If board members Kim Hartmann or Pam Kirby run for re-election, the issue will undoubtedly be their Achilles' heel. That will increase the opportunity for challenger Mike Peabody, president of the Scottsdale Parent Council and SUSD watchdog, to replace one of them.
In the meantime ... three groups are looking forward to hitting the "refresh" button in 2018.
After creating a public relations nightmare with the "non-firing" of Neale Perl, Scottsdale Arts anticipates naming a new CEO next month. Hopefully, it will finally be someone with community connections who understands the lay of the land. Scottsdale Coalition of Today and Tomorrow (SCOTT) has been hibernating since the group was launched last fall. If the group can get all of its sponsors on the same page, it will have a chance to begin having an influence on issues in 2018. And, last but not least, Businesses United for Scottsdale Schools (BUSS) will use the new year to reinvent itself - which could help shore up the crumbling credibility of the school district.
The November election will reignite political animosity and touch off a new wave of the tribalism that has plagued the city in the recent past.
City Manager Jim Thompson will be urging the City Council to call for a bond election in November.   After a year on the job, Thompson has determined that the city can't continue to rob from Peter to pay Paul to fund the repair and replacement of deteriorating infrastructure. In order to avoid past mistakes that have been the demise of other bond measures, this year's probable bond package must have the unanimous support of the City Council if it stands any chance of succeeding.
Kathy Littlefield, Linda Milhaven and David Smith are running for re-election to fill three seats on the Council. Three candidates have already announced their intentions to challenge the incumbents. Councilman Smith appears to be the most vulnerable of the incumbents, while Bill Crawford will be the most competitive of the existing challengers.
Even though the controversy consuming the school district is expected to continue, there's also the strong possibility that the SUSD Governing Board will place at least one measure on the November ballot - which would further complicate the passage of the city's bond package.
In short: This fall the political environment could be combustible.
Happy New Year!


The ongoing confrontation between the Scottsdale Education Association (SEA) and the Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) has been complicated by the intervention of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The IRS has revoked the tax-exempt status of SEA.

A spokesperson for SEA says the IRS' ruling was triggered by "clerical errors" in the organization's tax filings over the past three years.  According to the spokesperson, SEA is in the process of having its 501(c)(5) status reinstated.  The organization's position appears to be "no harm, no foul" and suggests that SEA is still a "legitimate entity."

SUSD isn't so sure.

Superintendent Denise Birdwell responded that the IRS's ruling"raises legal issues for the district."  She notified all SUSD employees: "At this time, the SEA members may not use the email, mailboxes or a bulletin board to distribute SEA information."  The SUSD Governing Board has scheduled an executive session to address the district's "possible legal concerns."

There's no good time to have a close encounter with the Internal Revenue Service - but SEA's recent experience with the IRS couldn't have come at a worse time.

The relationship between SEA and SUSD has become tenuous at best. Both groups are suspicious of the other's true motivations and don't trust one another. It's a classic political paradigm of management (administration) vs. labor (teachers).  Growing tension between the two during the past nine months has coincided with Superintendent Birdwell's evisceration of the school district that's been disguised as "reorganization."

Obviously, SEA's tax status shouldn't have anything to do with it being recognized as an entity with which the SUSD administration should be engaged.  But it should be equally obvious that Birdwell, who has a bad case of compulsive control, has been waiting for any excuse to mute SEA's voice with the school district.  

SEA gave Birdwell an excuse, even though it's a flimsy one.

"There is no legal argument why SUSD is not working with us, period," according to a posting on social media by Rony Assali, one of SEA's leaders.  "The administration is looking for a public reason to break ties with SEA being involved.  They are using scare tactics."  

Readers will recall that Dr. Birdwell attempted to end the school year two months ago on an upbeat note when she said: "We're going to be meeting this summer with the SEA.  They have a new executive board and have a very positive outlook on moving forward.

"We're going to look at meet and confer," she continued, and then asked the rhetorical question: "Can we do it in a more productive manner?"

That out-of-character optimism was before the latest SEA-IRS-SUSD SNAFU.

When the Governing Board convenes their executive session at 3 PM Thursday at the Mohave Annex, they will look to their general legal council, Michelle Marshall, to guide their discussion about the so-called SEA dilemma.  It's been said that Marshall, who specializes in employment and labor law, knows her stuff.

Unfortunately, because somehow Marshall survived Superintendent Birdwell's inquisition of much of the highest level of SUSD's administrative team, Marshall's objectivity is viewed with skepticism by many in the school district -- including members of SEA.

Jason Alexander Riding Issue To Raise Name Identification

It's likely that Jason Alexander will be taking a page out of the political playbooks of Jim Lane and Guy Phillips -- and if he's lucky, following in their footsteps by being elected to the City Council.

Alexander, the spokesperson for No DDC, hasn't officially announced his candidacy. However, using the guerilla campaign being waged against the Desert Discovery Center (recently renamed Desert Edge) as a political springboard, he's poised to take the plunge into next year's council race.

If Alexander does, he will be turning back the clock 15 years.

In 2003, Jim Lane, a political neophyte, was named the co-chair of a campaign to persuade voters to prevent the creation of a municipally run fire department. Up until then, the City of Scottsdale had contracted for fire services with a privately owned company, Rural/Metro. The company provided hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding for the campaign.

It was the most contentious political campaign that the city had ever experienced.

Rural/Metro prevailed by a nearly 2:1 margin. Six months later, the company walked away from its contract and the city created its own fire department in 2005. But Lane, a certified public account who had been barely known outside the business community, had raised his name identification. The following year he parlayed that notoriety into a successful campaign for council.

In 2012, a relatively unknown small businessman, who operated his own heating and cooling company, made a name for himself on the political scene. Guy Phillips, who had run unsuccessfully for the council in 2010, almost single handedly defeated an effort to ratify the city's General Plan in the spring election.

The business community took for granted the passage of Proposition 430. They also underestimated Phillips' grassroots campaign that had virtually no money and was driven by phone calls and emails. The Chamber of Commerce mounted a last-minute campaign that was too little, too late.

Like Jim Lane in 2003, Guy Phillips used an election issue as a vehicle to help land himself a seat on the City Council in 2012.

History could now be starting to repeat itself.

Jason Alexander has begun promoting himself in No DDC e-blasts. For starters, recipients have learned he's a fiscal conservative (the prerequisite to running for City Council). He also says he believes in "property rights and zoning law" (whatever that means). According to No DDC, if people don't get involved with Alexander's probable campaign, "you get more Linda Milhaven and David Smith." Both are expected to run for re-election next year -- as is Kathy Littlefield, who, like the No DDC organization, supports a public vote on the Desert Discovery Center. Councilmembers Milhaven and Smith, not so much.

Alexander has recently been trying to drum up enthusiasm and funding pledges. He's finding it easier to generate excitement for his candidacy than to raise money for his campaign.

However, Alexander may have caught a break.

The 2016 council races set a high watermark of what it takes to run for an $18,000-a-year council seat. The going rate for a campaign to serve on the city's esteemed governing body was nearly $200,000 last year, although Guy Phillips was an exception. While Councilwoman Milhaven is capable of raising that kind of money, Councilmembers Littlefield and Smith aren't prolific fundraisers. Which puts Alexander in play.

Some folks are trying to discourage Alexander from running next year. They're recommending that he wait until 2020 when incumbent Suzanne Klapp will be termed out. Others suggest that Alexander should "strike while the iron is hot." In other words ... while the project formerly known as Desert Discovery Center remains politically relevant and potentially top of mind for many voters.

Either in or out of the 2018 race for City Council, Jason Alexander is making a name for himself - and is expected to be a voice in the political dialogue in the immediate future.

Downtown Businesses Expect Taxpayer Entitlements

As the summer doldrums descend on the city and send people in
search of cooler climates, things are getting hot and heavy downtown once again.

Some of the proprietors of the antiquated art galleries and struggling souvenir shops - who already benefit from hundreds of thousands of dollars from the city to market downtown -- are trying to muscle more money out of the city to subsidize their businesses.  

These downtown business owners are demanding an additional $750,000 -- and they say they don't intend to take "no" for an answer.

And by the way ...these are same bellyachers who bullied the city into creating a new event ordinance that discourages downtown events. They're also the malcontents who rejected using $4 million for downtown enhancements, including street and sidewalk improvements to make the area more visitor-friendly.  So with one hand they're choking off business and with the other they're insisting on handouts from the city to attract more business.   

It seems like the city can never do enough for this group of grumblers who keep banker's hours and expect taxpayers to bankroll their businesses.

Last week Bob Pejman, the spokesperson for the rogue downtown retailers, wrote the city:  "Experience Scottsdale has done a great job of bringing out-of-state visitors to Scottsdale's resorts using the full Destination Marketing Budget (50% of the Bed Tax Funds).  There is, however, a glaring disconnect in bringing the affluent visitors from the resorts to visit Downtown's unique assets."
Of course none of the other so-called downtown "unique assets" are whining.  Not the restaurants.  Not the Museum of the West or the Center for the Performing Arts.  And not the bar or club owners.

Pejman, a downtown gallery owner, continued by saying, "The recent declines in sales tax revenues from brick and mortar retail establishments due to the increase in on-line shopping is even more reason why a larger portion of our city's Bed Tax Funds should be allocated to the marketing of our downtown as a major tourist draw."

Formerly known as the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Experience Scottsdale annually receives half of the city's bed tax fund.  Last year that was a little more than $9 million, which was 70% of the organization's 2016 budget.  Paradise Valley, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community also pony up annually to Experience Scottsdale.  Private sector businesses contribute as well.  

Downtown merchants aspire to the axiom that the "squeaky wheel gets the grease."  So far they've gotten the city's attention.  But that's all.

As expected, Experience Scottsdale isn't keen on appropriating any of the organization's bed tax funds beyond what it already has to help market downtown.  Assistant City Manager Brent Stockwell, under the direction of City Manager Jim Thompson, is attempting to come up with a reasonable response to the merchants without creating a slippery slope -- because if downtown businesses are allowed to force the city's hand, what's to prevent other groups from emerging with hat in hand.  For instance, bar and club owners in the Entertainment District.

Why not?  

After all ... what's good for the goose should be good for the gander.