Feb 15, 2023 - News

Phoenix may ban council members from using Footprint Center suite

An arena that says, "Fooprint Center."

Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Phoenix elected officials are reevaluating a policy that allows them to court businesses using a suite at the city-owned Footprint Center during concerts and Suns basketball games.

What's happening: The council voted unanimously Wednesday to review all the city's economic development efforts and potentially lease out the skybox and use the profits for other city priorities.

  • Council members will discuss the policies in a subcommittee meeting next week.

State of play: The action came in response to a petition submitted by a Phoenix resident on Jan. 25, asking members to stop using the suite. An Axios Phoenix story in December revealed that some council members attended NBA Finals games and concerts in the suite.

  • Also in the box between 2021 and 2022 were business leaders, real estate developers, union representatives and, on at least two occasions, people who previously donated to those council members' campaigns.

Why it matters: When politicians take advantage of perks, it can create the perception that the city is misusing a public resource, which breeds distrust, ethics experts told us.

Catch up quick: Council Members Laura Pastor, Carlos Garcia, Betty Guardado and Yassamin Ansari used the city's suite for concerts and basketball games over the past two years — usually bringing family or friends, according to records obtained by Axios Phoenix.

How it works: The city owns Footprint Center, but the Phoenix Suns organization manages it.

  • As part of the deal, the Suns provide the city with a suite to most events.
  • That suite is to be used to promote the city, host distinguished guests and enhance relationships with public agencies, per city policy. It can also be used for youth groups and adults with developmental disabilities.

Of note: All council members who used the suite refused to talk to Axios Phoenix before the first story published.

  • A few days later, each provided a statement to other media organizations saying their attendance helped build relations with important community partners.
  • During Wednesday's meeting, Pastor, Garcia, Guardado and Ansari said their use of the suite was no different from that of other members or the mayor attending Super Bowl events and taking international trips to recruit businesses.

Phoenix spokesperson Dan Wilson, who reports to the city manager, tells us the economic development department "frequently asks" council members to attend events to court economic development prospects.

Yes, but: Mayor Kate Gallego and council members Debra Stark, Anne O'Brien, Jim Waring and Sal DiCiccio say they've never been asked, even though businesspeople in their districts had been invited.

  • Community and economic development director Chris Mackay tells Axios Phoenix her office did invite Pastor, Garcia, Guardado and Ansarti to events but says she "would have to go back and do research" as to why other members weren't included.
  • "We did what we thought was best for our recruitment efforts," she said when asked why the mayor was never invited to events.

Between the lines: Council members are allowed to bring one guest for free but are supposed to pay for additional guests. Council staffers, who also attended events in the suite, are required to pay for guests they bring.

  • Wilson says the city doesn't keep receipts or records that would prove that they paid, though.

What to watch: Other Valley cities allow council members to attend sports and entertainment events in the name of economic development.

  • Phoenix's vote could prompt other cities to rethink their policies.
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