City Council Addresses Recent Ethics Issues

Council requests more training for Board and Commission appointees

By Bill Van Nimwegen

At their work session on Dec. 17, the Apache Junction City Council opened a discussion of the ethical behaviors of board and commission members. The Council appoints almost 50 volunteers who serve on ten different boards with varying responsibilities.

“It seems to me that when we appoint board members, we just sort of turn them loose,” said Councilwoman Robin Barker. “We may give them information about the board they’re on, but we don’t necessarily give them information about their legal responsibilities. We need to have some kind of training…that would also touch on those legalities.”

Without naming names, Councilman Dave Waldron brought up recent possible ethics violations at the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission. “I purposely didn’t bring up names—just instances—because it goes across all boards and commissions,” Councilman Waldron said. “Planning and Zoning happens to be the most high profile board or commission, other than the City Council. The idea was to have a general discussion.”

It was noted by Councilman Waldron that residents expect a level of transparency with how the city conducts its business and that back channel discussions should not be allowed. “Apache Junction has come a long way since incorporation…and the good ol’ person network… It appears as if we are regressing to back room deals and unethical meetings,” he said.

Two recent incidents prompted the Council’s ethics discussion, and both related to the Hitching Post cases now before the P&Z Commission and the Board of Adjustments (BOA), as well as ongoing litigation between the city and owners of the Hitching Post.

Although the Council discussion started without specifics, P&Z Commissioner Stephen Kridler was identified as someone with a possible conflict of interest. Commissioner Kridler works with Hitching Post owner Mehmood Mohiuddin in a security capacity. Mr. Kridler also accepted a campaign contribution from Mr. Mohiuddin for his recent Arizona Legislature District 16 run. He has been seen in discussions with the establishment’s owner during P&Z meeting breaks.

“Due to the business relationship between the P&Z Commissioner and the business owner, this communication can be considered ex parte and is highly unethical,” said Councilman Waldron.

However, Commissioner Kridler has not recused himself from P&Z discussions and votes concerning the Hitching Post. The establishment’s CUP case will come before P&Z again on March 12, 2019.

The other recent incident discussed last Monday night concerned Board of Adjustments member Braden Biggs having a discussion with an attorney representing the Hitching Post at a recent P&Z meeting. The BOA will hear an appeal by the Hitching Post on the possible revocation of its conditional use permit (CUP) on January 28, 2019.

Councilwoman Christa Rizzi said that she was unaware of the instances of ethical behavior described by Waldron and asked City Attorney Joel Stern, who attends many of the board and commission meetings, if he was aware of them.

“Have I seen violations? Yes, I have, but it is up to the individual board member to say, ‘I have a conflict of interest’ or ‘it looks bad.’ It’s up to that person to do it,” said Stern.

“If they don’t do it…that decision can be challenged in a court of law…and the item [that was voted on] can be basically thrown out… There could also be civil and criminal penalties.”

The Council discussed the current level of training afforded board and commission members before they take their seats. City Attorney Stern said that, since he began working at the city more than 20 years ago, documents addressing conflict of interest and open meeting laws have been distributed to incoming appointees, as well as instructions concerning the quasi-judicial decisions that are regularly made by some board and commission members.

The City Council proposed more comprehensive training for board and commission members through sessions offered by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns. Some of the recently appointed P&Z commissioners took advantage of city-paid training with the American Planning Association. Councilwoman Rizzi suggested that such training be made a requirement of serving on some boards.

In light of the current litigation between the city and owners of the Hitching Post, Councilwoman Gail Evans asked if either Kridler or Biggs have come to Stern to tell him what they are discussing in and out of the meetings. Regarding discussions they are having on social media, she wondered if they are representing the city, and could they be deposed in court.

Stern said that no one from either board or commission has come to him to talk about that lawsuit specifically or their activities with the litigants. It is his opinion that any appearance of impropriety is cause for an individual to recuse themselves from discussions or votes on related cases.

Councilman Waldron was curious about whether a quorum exists on Facebook if four or more board members were commenting or “liking” an open discussion. Stern was of the opinion that it could be and that the Attorney General could look at it that way too. “And I think a judge would, too, if they began to talk about the case.” Stern also pointed out that social media communications could be considered public record and subject to legal scrutiny.

The Council agreed that a memo summarizing the Dec. 17 work session discussion should be created and sent to all sitting commissioners and board members.

City Council meetings are open to the public and held in chambers at 300 E. Superstition Blvd. in Apache Junction. The meetings begin at 7:00 p.m. Complete agendas and supporting materials are available at https://apachejunction.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx.

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