Phoenix council members' Suns arena suite usage raises ethics policy questions

City of Phoenix councilmembers Betty Guardado, Laura Pastor, Michael Nowakowski and Carlos Garcia (right) step to the front of the stage and raise their hands after Guardado and Garcia took the oath of office during inauguration ceremony on June 6, 2019, at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz.
City of Phoenix councilmembers Betty Guardado, Laura Pastor, Michael Nowakowski and Carlos Garcia (right) step to the front of the stage and raise their hands after Guardado and Garcia took the oath of office during inauguration ceremony on June 6, 2019, at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz.

When details surfaced of how Phoenix City Council members used the city's luxury suite at the Suns arena, it didn't take long for insinuations to fly, three months ahead of a city council run-off election, that they did it for personal gain.

For years, the city has had access to the box to promote economic development, but a flap over how councilmembers attended playoff games and concerts the past two years is prompting discussion over whether or when such activity is ethically acceptable.

While no one at City Hall says councilmembers violated the suite usage policy, some there are questioning whether it was appropriate for elected leaders to attend events in the skybox with campaign donors. Others wonder if it causes a perception problem.

Councilmembers Carlos Garcia, Laura Pastor, Yassamin Ansari and Betty Guardado, plus some of their staffers, attended Suns playoff games and concerts in the city’s private suite at the Footprint Center. It was first reported by Axios Phoenix. One of the events included a leader from a union that illegally donated to Garcia.

The suite is supposed to be used by Phoenix's community and economic development department to promote the city and advance business growth or retention, and the city’s ethics handbook says city officials shouldn’t use city facilities for private gain.

The skyboxes can sell for between $4,000 and $10,000 for games and concerts, but the city doesn't pay that since it owns the arena and has an agreement with the Phoenix Suns, which operates the facility. The city receives 12 suite tickets per event and up to $250 in concessions.

Garcia attended four Suns games and a concert, Pastor attended five Suns games, Ansari attended one Suns game and Guardado attended three Suns games and a concert. Garcia, Guardado and Pastor sometimes brought guests. Staffers in Garcia and Ansari's office also sometimes attended events and brought guests.

Kesha Hodge Washington, who will face Garcia in a runoff election this March and who is endorsed by Mayor Kate Gallego, condemned the councilman’s behavior as “unethical,” saying in a statement that councilmembers should “not (be) entertaining themselves in luxury skyboxes on the taxpayer’s dime.”

Bill Scheel, a consultant for Hodge Washington's campaign, called it an "egregious violation of the city's ethics handbook."

The events in question, however, were authorized by the city’s economic development department and all included Phoenix business and community leaders, as required by city policy. City spokesperson Dan Wilson said he "was not aware of any policy violation," and added that city staff regularly ask council members to attend suite events, particularly Councilwoman Pastor in her role as chair of the economic development and equity subcommittee.

At multiple Footprint Center events, councilmembers hosted business leaders from food and medical science companies that are either newly located or soon to be located in Phoenix.

"The city has used this suite for nearly 30 years as one of many tools available to attract investment ... and strengthen and diversify our economy," Wilson said. City policy also explicitly allows councilmembers to attend, although it does not outline whether they can bring guests.

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The mayor and Councilmembers Jim Waring, Ann O'Brien and Debra Stark told The Republic they had never asked, nor been asked to attend the Footprint Center suite. Councilman Sal DiCiccio suggested the same, saying he forgot the suite even existed. Wilson said councilmembers attend based on which companies will be present and what district they're from or interested in.

Use of the luxury box raises questions about what constitutes personal enrichment and how to ethically use the skybox to advance economic development. The concerns underscore a conflict between city policies that both allow council members access to the suite while also barring them from using city facilities for personal gain.

Wilson said councilmembers and their guests were responsible for ticket and concession costs if attendance exceeded 12 people or the $250 allowance. Seven overflow tickets were purchased for the Bad Bunny concert for example, he said.

The mayor, who says her personal policy is to not use the suite, stopped short of saying councilmembers should be banned from the Footprint Center suite. Instead, she said elected officials should have to explain their attendance and notify the public when it's happening.

“I think it is our job as the city to make sure we articulate what we're accomplishing to our residents and how we're using it on their behalf,” she said.

Gallego, who was instrumental in bringing the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to the Valley — Arizona’s largest foreign investment at $40 billion — emphasized that she didn’t need “to sell the city in a suite” to get the job done.

Asked if she wanted Phoenix's suite policy to change to include her suggested transparency measure, she paused to think. "I don't know that it has to." She stopped, then changed her mind, and said, "Yes."

"I have spoken to the city manager ... and I've asked my staff to research best practices in suite management and how, particularly, local governments can use them to the greatest benefit for our residents," Gallego said.

How the city's suite was used, and who attended

Public records provided to The Republic show Garcia, Guardado and Pastor attended a Suns playoff game in May 2022 with leaders from the Phoenix firefighters union and other labor unions in the city. Economic development director Christine Mackay wrote the event would showcase the city to leaders "who are instrumental for future development projects."

One of the leaders was from the UFCW Local 99 union, which represents food workers in Phoenix. The union donated almost $28,000 to Garcia's campaign in 2022, which exceeded the legal limit. Garcia reimbursed the union in November and faced no penalties. The union's political action committee also donated $10,000 to Guardado in 2021 and $7,600 to Pastor in 2017.

Pastor said attending the Suns game with union leaders "falls directly in line with the purpose and policies of the Footprint Center suite usage. Business and labor go hand-in-hand, and I will continue to support these groups, which have been a large part in making Phoenix what it is today.”

Garcia said he's committed to the "working people" and union members in his district who "have been strong partners in bringing community resources ... and in advocating for stronger workforce development at the city."

He said his attendance at games and concerts served the purpose of the suite, "to bring investments and jobs to the city." He pointed to the $200 million food distribution hub and farmers market being built by Arizona Fresh in south Phoenix. Representatives from Arizona Fresh attended five events in the city's arena suite the past two years.

Ansari, who attended one event that included Arizona Fresh, said, "I wanted to make the pitch for my area because their investment was critically needed." She added, "There was an undeniable energy and collective pride all across Phoenix during the 2021 Suns playoffs. I was proud to show that off to potential investors and long-time business owners in our city."

Guardado similarly noted "measurable, positive impacts," saying organizations she hosted in the suite have helped provide food, school supplies, apprenticeships and career training assistance.

Other events attended by the city councilmembers included representatives from companies interested in or new to Phoenix. Multiple meetings included leaders from the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and Salt River Project. Others included AMEX, Sprouts, law and real estate groups and developers.

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The times council members attended suite events make up a small share of the total events the city had access to. Of the 45 events in 2021 and 2022, one or more elected leaders attended nine of them. A quarter of the time, the suite went unused. Most of the time, it was just city employees and business or community leaders.

Garcia and Guardado attended the Banda MS concert in September 2022 along with the city's economic development director Christine Mackay and Ricardo Castro, president of La Indiscreta FM radio station.

In paperwork requesting to use the suite, Mackay wrote, "The event will provide an opportunity for entertainment and hospitality users to see downtown Phoenix, and the nightlife, and new development. The visibility of the market will help to continue to drive a focus on this market, providing for messaging in diverse market segments."

In March 2022, the city hosted the Consul General of Mexico, Jorge Mendoza Yescas, and a representative from Caffenio, a Mexico-based coffee shop. Garcia's chief of staff, Adriana Maximiliano Garcia, and Ansari's policy director, Aaron Kane, attended.

Ansari told The Republic she asked Kane "to represent my office on my behalf" after getting sick. "This is typical in any government office," she said.

City employee Juan Batres wrote that the Bad Bunny concert was meant "discuss expansion plans in Phoenix" with Caffenio, a Mexican company coming to Phoenix.

Mayor, council members might change suite usage policy

Phoenix's current suite policy allows for city employees and council members to request to use the suite to promote the city, foster relationships with other government agencies and community leaders, and attract or retain businesses. The suite can also be used for employee award programs and to host youth groups or developmentally disabled individuals.

The mayor said she's asked City Manager Jeff Barton to look into how the city can provide an easy-to-access public record for residents to view who's using the suite when, and why.

DiCiccio said the city should sell the suite and put the proceeds toward the police department.

Said Councilwoman Stark, "I personally think we shouldn't be allowed" to use the suite.

Councilmembers Ansari and Garcia said they would welcome conversations about how to change the policy. Ansari suggested perhaps limiting the number of times a councilmember could use the suite.

Phoenix not alone in using sky boxes

Other cities in Arizona and in the U.S. have similar sporting arena lease agreements that provide suites and tickets to elected leaders.

In Sacramento, the City Council can access 25 tickets in a suite at the Golden 1 Center where the Sacramento Kings basketball team plays. The suite is supposed to be used mostly for community groups and economic development, but the mayor and council members can also use the suite to boost employee morale or reward public service. They're allowed to bring immediate family or no more than one guest, and their access is limited to 10% of events for the mayor and 2% of events for the council members.

The city also publishes data about who uses the suite and when, per California state law.

Conflict comes amid consequential runoff election

Questions about the four councilmembers' use of the Suns' suite come amid growing tension between them and the mayor and ahead of a March runoff election. The mayor, for her part, is putting in work to chart a more centrist course after the spring contest.

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Phoenix, like much of the nation, is facing a devastating affordable housing crisis, growing homelessness, and trouble with recruiting and retaining employees. The city is experimenting with how to become a more resilient city amid climate change and heat challenges that are endangering residents, particularly homeless individuals.

But Phoenix is also in a good position financially, flush with cash from federal COVID-19 relief funds and the growth of its own tax base, which increased 9% from 2020 to 2021. The Valley has seen an influx of advanced manufacturing companies.

Gallego wants to capitalize on that, bringing more high-wage jobs and attracting suppliers for TSMC under construction in northwest Phoenix. She also says she wants to address affordable housing and homelessness. But her sway and ability to build a coalition on council is at times hamstrung by four city councilmembers whom she doesn't always see eye-to-eye with.

Frustrations have percolated on issues related to police pay and oversight, labor union disputes and wage standards, for example. Often, Garcia, Pastor, Guardado and Ansari coalesce on a position, leaving Gallego on the outs or forcing her to become the deciding vote on controversial issues.

Meanwhile, Garcia has criticized the mayor for not communicating clear policy priorities and plans to reduce homelessness. He has also suggested Gallego is backing Hodge Washington because she envies his work in a district that she formerly represented as a councilmember.

Scheel, Hodge Washington's consultant, later suggested the councilmembers' attendance perhaps wasn't a clear-cut ethical faux pas.

"Upon further review, it seems like a bit of a muddle. Some attendees donated, others didn’t. Some endorsed, some didn’t. Some look like *legitimate* economic development folks, others not so much," he said to The Republic in an email.

Still, he believes the attendance contradicted the city's ethics policy. "That’s why Kesha (Hodge Washington) is demanding that Garcia pay the City for the value of the tickets," he wrote.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix council members' Suns arena suite usage raises ethics questions