POWER TO THE PEOPLE: Scottsdale politicking in the 21st Century

Scottsdale politicking becomes 21st Century digital enterprise

Posted 1/30/20

With about nine months until the 2020 election, Scottsdale political and community activists are bound to turn up the heat as passion for local elections fan the flames of the power of the people. …

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POWER TO THE PEOPLE: Scottsdale politicking in the 21st Century

Scottsdale politicking becomes 21st Century digital enterprise


With about nine months until the 2020 election, Scottsdale political and community activists are bound to turn up the heat as passion for local elections fan the flames of the power of the people.

Nov. 3, is set for election day, and if history tells us anything, Scottsdale is headed toward a contentious political season.

While the idea of online politicking, fake accounts and keyboard warriors were around long before these last elections it surely was hard to miss the chatter that bombards the public realm as voters prepared to go to the ballot box.

Nowadays there are multiple social media accounts and pages dedicated to Scottsdale hot topics, there’s campaigns, well-funded Political Action Committees, videos, private groups, veiled blogs and e-newsletters all with one goal: to see their issues take precedence on the ballot.

“Social media, or new media, is more relevant and complex today than it has ever been before,” said Scottsdale public affairs professional Kyle Moyer.

“Anyone seeking office must be aware of that evolving dynamic in social media; however, today, there is so much more noise than there ever has been in the past.”

Social media is not the only change in elections, as changes to Arizona campaign finance laws in recent years allow more cash to flow into political pockets. Local candidates and PACs are now raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for their cause.

The proverbial roundtable, which has emerged through community Facebook groups --- first, with “Respect Our Scottsdale Students,” followed by “NoDDC,” which is now doing business as “Scottsdale Together,” and most recently “Save Scottsdale” --- surely isn’t something all 230,000 Scottsdale residents are aware of, but it may be an epicenter for viscousness that permeates through local elections as there is no referee moderating discussion.

And, while many residents have good, fair, thought-out points there is a vocal minority of name-calling, insults and low blows made in the public online realm.

But most troubling, may be the false information that is spread.

The topic at hand this go-around appears to be density and height in Scottsdale. One side is for the “future” of Scottsdale, bringing in more jobs, people and inevitably housing. While the opposite side of the issue wants to see the Old Town area remain the same, ultimately, seeing the character of Scottsdale remain true to its small-town, charming feel.

And, entering the fray, political candidates are emerging.

In this November election, there will be three open seats on Scottsdale City Council, a mayor’s race, three open seats on Scottsdale School’s Governing Board and potentially, an election for Southbridge Two, pending the outcome of verified petition signatures.
Tactics to win an election are no longer to spend money, advertise, talk to constituents. The cog that turns the wheel in Scottsdale is much more sophisticated. And vicious.

Community watchdog

Scottsdale resident Sandy Schenkat, a self-proclaimed “outsider” threw herself into the local community and its happenings around 2013, when she first started following the city’s tourism development commission.

“I always thought of myself as one of the ‘newbies,’ but since 420, more people have taken an active roll,” Ms. Schenkat said, pointing out community members such as Jason Alexander, Andrea Alley and Mike Norton who were critically vocal activists during the 2018 election.

Ms. Schenkat brings up the city’s boards and commissions, describing them as an extension of how the City Council thinks. The city’s various boards and commissions --- such as Planning Commission and Development Review Board --- are filled through appointments made by the council members.

“They select people they want,” she says. “I saw on my board that the real truth doesn’t always come out. And I participated in that, and I got really angry.”
Since, Ms. Schenkat has kept her thumb on what’s happening in Scottsdale by attending various municipal meetings. Through her watchdog role, Ms. Schenkat has had a front seat to the ebbs and flows of Scottsdale, she says.

After Scottsdale City Council’s split vote narrowly approving Southbridge Two in Old Town Scottsdale, a referendum petition was circulated garnering about 17,000 signatures, according to the City Clerk’s office.

If the signatures are verified, the project could be put on the November ballot for voter approval, unless Carter Unger, Spring Creek Development president, decides to forgo the proposed plans and build within the set development envelope.

This referendum petition is the latest community activist event that has stirred up emotions of residents on both sides. Ms. Schenkat, who is a supporter of Southbridge Two, believes there were a lot of falsities spread during the petition-gathering effort.

“There is so much misinformation --- I went up three different times to petition gathers, and I got such varying stories of why they were gathering signatures,” she explained. “One just said, ‘You need to save the galleries downtown!’ --- and I went, ‘this has nothing to do with the galleries; the galleries are on Main Street.’”

--- Sandy Schenkat

Ms. Schenkat says she put her experience on Facebook, and immediately heard from community members opposing the project.

“The two different factions of people --- the people are not all one way, or the other way, but there’s a lot of conflict,” she said describing proponents for no-growth or low-growth.

“I believe in growth, I believe in moving forward. As I said, how dare we say you can’t move into Scottsdale. It’s the old law of supply and demand, and I feel that people that can afford to live here should live here.

That’s why we need to plan for our future, and we’re now having real obstruction against how does the city plan for its future with that PAC.”

Ms. Schenkat says she wonders what the underlying effort is about.

“What is this viscousness really accomplishing, other than just making enemies? And how can enemies work together for the betterment of the city?” she asked. “When you’re enemies versus collaborators --- collaboration is being lost by the attacks and negative approach that these naysayers are doing.”

An important election year

Tom Durham who filed his Statement of Organization paperwork to run for Scottsdale City Council in December under the moniker “Durham for the Citizens,” described the recent activity as having a negative effect.

He says, in turn, this may have turned some people off.

“In the most recent referendum on Southbridge Two, some people went way beyond passionate argument and into trading of insults. I think this type of activity had a negative effect, in that some people may have been turned off to a cause by the vituperative nature, and even profanity, of the comments made by that side’s supporters,” he explained.

“For the most part, these types of comments did not come from the parties themselves but came from outside supporters. I think the level of negativity on Southbridge Two came because this project went to the heart of what both sides saw as the future of Scottsdale. This vision of the future is a very personal and emotional topic, which isn’t necessarily solved by facts and logic. In my view, this was the reason why the topic was so heated.”

Furthermore, Mr. Durham agrees there is a “huge amount” of disinformation online, advising residents to go to the source when making up their mind on a divisive topic.

“I am concerned because this will be an important election year,” he said of the current temperature of Scottsdale politics.

“I am hopeful that Scottsdale citizens will come to see that this viscousness is counterproductive. In the recent Southbridge Two discussions, some people crossed a line in their comments, and I think this created a negative response to the position held by these people.”

--- Tom Durham

Mr. Durham says he always tried to stick to the facts about the project, by setting forth his view that the proposed project did not comply with the Old Town Urban Design and Architectural Guidelines.

“I thought this was a very legitimate reason for opposing the scale of the project, and I tried to promote debate on this topic,” he said. “I also tried to avoid engaging with some of the louder and more obnoxious voices on social media, although sometimes I did give in to a bit of sarcasm.”

A new venue for community debate

Mr. Norton, a longtime Scottsdale resident and a father, is oftentimes at the forefront of the online comments and guest commentaries talking about political issues. He has even earned himself the nickname “Mike the Mad Dog” for his colorful comments and language.

He first entered the public realm as the editor of Respect Our Scottsdale Students --- known as ROSS --- a Facebook fan page.

“Fact-based debates never hurt the process,” he said.

“Emotion-driven conclusions reached without knowing the facts, however, are always a threat to governing logically and with integrity. Worst yet, so much of the rhetoric that fueled the latest referendum on Southbridge Two’s project was steeped in blatant lies or misstatements.”

Mr. Norton agrees with Ms. Schenkat’s assertion that signature gatherers and proponents were seeking to “Save 5th Avenue shops from being torn down.”

“I watched signature gatherers tell residents that they had to sign the petition to stop developers from tearing down Fifth Avenue Old Town buildings. That was their pitch,” he explained. “And that pitch is just not true. The referendum doesn’t even ask that the buildings be saved. Whether SB2 is built there or not, those shops won’t be standing for long. They’ll be bulldozed and replaced with taller new buildings. The only question is ‘how tall and how dense?’”

He doesn’t, however, see Scottsdale as being in the “wild west” of online politics, pointing out international politics driven by Twitter accounts.

“Every issue, major or minor, becomes the fodder of every form of social media debate including the emergence of NextDoor as a forum,” he said. “I believe that the community will respond very powerfully to a forum where discussion can take place without personal attacks, where facts can be found that are verified and documented for investigation and challenged by anyone and everyone.

--- Mike Norton

And where the opportunity to achieve some consensus approval for projects is available. We have to create that forum ourselves.”

Mr. Norton says there is no version of social media that supports such a concept.

“The forum also extends beyond the jurisdiction of just our city. When the greater Scottsdale complex is considered, K12 education, county transportation projects, the community college district and neighboring cities all overlap. With the support of a broad sector of Scottsdale-area leaders, we’re raising money to accomplish that task and create that venue now,” he said.

However, when asked about Scottsdale being “vicious,” Mr. Norton says it’s the nature of many to be nasty.

“They like it. Especially when they’re miles away and engaged only by a keyboard,” he said. “Many things are said from the isolation of someone’s own home that would never be spoken face to face.”

A new vehicle for communicating

Scottsdale resident Emily Austin entered the public realm only a handful of years ago when her passion was ignited by a potential project near her home.

In the past few years, she says she has found her voice. During the Prop 420 movement, Ms. Austin gave more than a year of full-time volunteer work for the cause, she says. And most recently, she was actively fighting to gain referendum petition signatures.

She is a moderator on the Facebook fan page, Save Scottsdale.

“I discovered I have a voice, and I think I have been making a few waves. I’ve made a little bit of a difference, and I think a lot of it has to do with social media,” Ms. Austin said.

--- Emily Austin

Leading up to the November 2018 vote, two Facebook fan pages were dedicated to the Prop 420 vote: NoDDC and Protect Our Preserve. Ms. Austin says she was a moderator for both pages, and would share information, memes and other posts to hit as many people as possible.

“I was like the cheerleader, ‘ra-ra’ save the preserve --- firing people up to sign the petition,” Ms. Austin says. “I don’t think we could have done it without social media, quite honestly.”

Ms. Austin says NextDoor also played a critical role in spreading information about both Prop 420 and the referendum petition for Southbridge Two.

“I kept getting shut down, saying you’re on a soap box, you’re over posting. So they’d take it down, and I’d just re-post it,” Ms. Austin explained of NextDoor. “I was pretty ballsy about it. And then I would say, ‘hey, you’re now impeding on my First Amendment right.’ Because who are you to determine what I can and cannot post about?”

Southbridge Two, Ms. Austin contends just like many others, was a very emotional issue.

“What’s really hard is the stories they make up about me. I’m a really honest person --- I always say, you can call me a bitch but don’t call me a liar,” Ms. Austin said, lightheartedly.

“That kind of nonsense is the real downside of it. The character assassination --- defamation is a really difficult thing to prove, especially when you’re a limited public figure, or a public figure, which apparently many of us are now.”

The insults and false truths spread on the internet don’t go unnoticed, Ms. Austin says, pointing out everyone is still human.

“We’re allowed to have our viewpoints, but when people are completely making up stories about you --- it’s frustrating. That’s how you get into these wars,” she said, describing the back-and-forth comments and messages out in the open for the public to read.

“It’s hard to know what the limits are, because let's face it, this is still a fairly new vehicle for communicating. People are much braver online than they are in person.”

Judgment and observation

Scottsdale Attorney Jim Derouin comes to the table with a little bit of ethics under his belt, as he proposed to the municipality it needed an ethics code.

After two years, it finally adopted one, he says.

Pointing to the 2018 Prop 420 issue, he says the Desert Edge dispute should have been resolved long before it grew into the monstrous issue it did.

“We have to find a way to resolve the major disputes that arise,” he said. “There needs to also be a community consensus against the lack of civility and the use of personal vindictiveness in our political process. We have a great place to live.”

Mr. Derouin says the city is not “going to hell in a handbasket” as some people may lead you to believe.

“The purveyors of negative scare tactics promoted for the sole purpose of gaining or maintaining personal political power must be rejected,” he says. “The city is not going to hell in a handbasket; it is a great success story and we need to defend it so that it does not stagnate at the hands of those with no vision who are against everything and have answers for nothing.”

The city’s website, ScottsdaleAZ.gov is a source of reports and meeting minutes providing useful information --- a utility Mr. Durham suggested as well. Both gentlemen advised residents to read about and understand the issues they’re being asked to make choices on --- whether a political candidate or funding for a project.

“Doubt the voices in the community that are always, completely and totally negative and against everything proposed in the community, big or small,” Mr. Derouin said.

“Question the political junkies who seek political power for their own benefit rather than the public good. If a person has been negative about everything for the last 15 years, that person has no solutions and seeks only political power. Question those that have no solutions, only complaints. Use one’s own judgment and look around.”

Mr. Derouin says for the past 10-15 years, a vindictive, anti-social fashion using social media as a convenient way to operate has emerged.

“Fortunately, they reach relatively few people, but misrepresentation to them is a way of life,” he said. “This conduct is encouraged, aided and abetted by certain manipulative persons seeking political power or who already hold office. This has been going on for the last 10-15 years, and I see no likely end to it until voters make clear this conduction does not pay.”