Fact Check: Allegation that Tempe councilwoman claims too many conflicts of interest
THE MEDIA: Video and interview.
WHO SAID IT: Matthew Papke.
TITLE: Tempe City Council candidate and a director at Lead Impact.
PARTY: Nonpartisan race.
THE RACE: Tempe City Council.
THE TARGET: Tempe City Council incumbent Shana Ellis.
THE COMMENT: Papke said Ellis frequently declares conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest and abstains from voting because of her relationship with a prominent Tempe development attorney, who has interests in Tempe projects or businesses. Papke said Ellis has not disclosed this relationship.
THE FORUM: A July 7 Tempe City Council candidate forum sponsored by the city Chamber of Commerce and The Arizona Republic. A resident's question was e-mailed to TheRepublic regarding candidates' conflicts of interest and their willingness to disclose those conflicts to voters.
WHAT WE'RE LOOKING AT: At the forum, Papke told voters that incumbents should cede their position if they are declaring many conflicts that prevent them from voting on city issues. In an interview with The Republic, Papke said he was referring to incumbent candidate Ellis' conflicts and her not disclosing to voters that her conflicts frequently are tied to her relationship with a prominent Tempe development attorney, who is her fiance.
ANALYSIS: Ellis has declared conflicts or potential conflicts and not voted on city issues that are tied to attorney Charles Huellmantel, whom she identified to The Republic as her fiance. She said they do not share assets.
The Republic reviewed City Council meeting minutes from January 2012 through May 2014.
Ellis declared 45 conflicts or potential conflicts and/or abstained from voting on those city items, according to meeting minutes. Of that amount, at least 34 were related to Huellmantel's business, Huellmantel & Affiliates, the applicant or a representative of the development project or issue before the council.
In another example last year, residents argued unsuccessfully against a General Plan 2040 amendment that allowed higher density near a single-family residential neighborhood. Huellmantel testified at the December 2013 public hearing supporting the higher density. Ellis declared a potential conflict of interest on the amendment to increase density of two parcels related to the General Plan, according to meeting minutes. Ellis abstained from voting on the item.
By comparison, from January 2012 through May 2014 Mayor Mark Mitchell cited five conflicts, while Councilman Kolby Granville cited four conflicts and abstained once. Council members Robin Arredondo-Savage, Onnie Shekerjian, Joel Navarro and Corey Woods each cited no conflicts.
Some conflicts declared by council members were tied to the same issue more than once, as it is a City Council policy to give certain items, such as some development or zoning issues, two public hearings for residents to address the issue. There were instances when Ellis would declare a conflict or potential conflict at the item's first hearing, informing voters that she would not be voting on the issue. Then, she would again declare a conflict or potential conflict at the second public hearing.
Ellis said she is proud of her voting record and ethical standards. She said she will always err on the side of caution and abstain from voting to avoid any perception of wrongdoing. She said she wishes her colleagues on the council would do the same more often.
Ellis told TheRepublic that she declares "potential conflicts" to avoid any perception that she may benefit from the results of a vote.
Ellis said she abstains on any item that may raise concern, citing examples such as when she chose not to vote on a contract for a program that her daughter attends and when she refrained from voting on the city's cemetery contract because her parents are on the waiting list for a burial plot.
On the issue of a relationship with Huellmantel, Ellis said that she has nothing to hide from voters but that she prefers to keep her personal life private.
Papke criticized Ellis for her high rate of conflicts and abstentions.
At a recent candidate forum, Papke told the audience that city officials who regularly do not vote on issues because of a conflict short-change residents who expect them to be their voice on the council.
Papke said: "When we have career politicians, people seeking second, and third, fourth terms, what are we doing? Why do we keep electing them?"
In an interview with The Republic, Papke said: "I believe anyone who is going to cite conflicts on an ongoing basis needs to think about taking a step back to think about what they're doing and if they can even represent the people."
Papke said Ellis has personal ties that will continue to stand in the way of her voting if she is elected to a third term.
Papke said he is not accusing Ellis of wrongdoing. Rather, he believes that she has abstained too often and she has a responsibility to inform voters at a public meeting that she has a personal relationship that often causes her to declare conflicts. Instead, she has remained silent on her reasons for abstaining from voting, he said.
Conflict-of-interest issues for public officials are mandated under state laws. Complaints are handled by the Arizona Attorney General's Office, said Kathryn Marquoit, an assistant Arizona Ombudsman for public access.
Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching said that under state law a public official is not required to declare a conflict of interest or disclose that conflict if he or she shares no assets with an individual. He said relationships involving a fiance, boyfriend or girlfriend do not qualify as a relative under conflict-of-interest laws.
BOTTOM LINE: Ellis has declared conflicts or potential conflicts of interest and or has abstained from voting on city issues that are tied to Tempe development attorney Charles Huellmantel, whom she identified to The Republic as her fiance. Ellis told the paper that she has not disclosed at a City Council meeting or in her disclosure forms filed with the city that she has a relationship with Huellmantelbecause it is not a conflict of interest requiring disclosure under state law.
THE FINDING: Three stars: Mostly true
Sources: Tempe City Council candidate forum video. Interviews with Tempe City Council candidates Shana Ellis and Matt Papke. Interviews with officials from the Arizona Attorney General's Office and the Arizona Ombudsman's Office. Tempe City Council meeting minutes and agenda documents. Tempe City Council Development Commission Review minutes and agenda documents. Tempe City Council Hearing Officer minutes and and agenda documents.
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