Scott Bartle City Council
InMaricopa owner Scott Bartle addresses City Council about his ethics complaint against Councilmember Julia Gusse at its May 19 meeting. (Source: City of Maricopa, via YouTube)

At its May 19 meeting, the Maricopa City Council addressed an ethics complaint I filed against Councilmember Julia Gusse. Here is the story from my perspective.

The history

In a nutshell, Article VIII of the City Code (Code of Ethics) states, “The Mayor and the City Council shall maintain the utmost standards of personal integrity, truthfulness, honesty and fairness in carrying out their public duties.” I believe a council member, Julia Gusse, violated the spirit and the letter of this Code, many times over.

If you disagree, and at least one Mesa lawyer did, that’s OK. Apparently, things like personal integrity, truthfulness, honesty and fairness are quite subjective.

You can form your own opinion, but here are a few of the reasons I thought violations occurred:

  • Gusse insisted on meddling in my business’ hiring practices “before our City moves forward with any advertising.”
  • Gusse demeaned and threatened a local job-creator, writing “I suppose that with this email you have mansplained my council job to me and have put me in my place? Am I to scurry away now with your permission? As you are well aware, the pen is mightier than the sword!”
  • Gusse doubled down, professing she (i.e. city government) is entitled to a say on who and how my business recruits and hires talent: “When you hire an individual that is to report on anything from kids sports to a local crime scene, who you hire is 100% my concern!”

For over a year, I hesitated to file a complaint in hopes I could avoid doing so altogether. Given Gusse’s decision to run for re-election, I felt compelled to give the council the opportunity to prove its mettle and the public an opportunity to see how one of their elected officials actually treats local businesses. (As it turns out, we got to know what six of the seven council members think is appropriate relative to how to treat local businesses and their rights to interfere with them.)

[Note: After submitting my complaint, a public records request revealed Gusse emailed the mayor, “My recommendation is to NOT advertise one dime of our City’s advertising budget in this publication” and that she “will fight for the discontinued financial support of his organization.” She backs that up in 2019, spitefully telling local businesses owners to cancel their advertising agreements with InMaricopa.]

The meeting

Gusse did a good job of moving the narrative away from her actions. The council fell in lockstep, receiving the gift of a flawed investigative conclusion to complement the strategy of claiming a non-conforming process.

I am bemused as to how the City’s outside investigator came to his conclusion. I can only surmise we have very different standards of right and wrong, or he understands where his bread is buttered. Maybe potential legal liability for the City was a consideration. Somehow, the investigating attorney did not even find Gusse’s behavior to be unprofessional.

But I don’t think the report mattered. Gusse had eight minutes of victory speeches already prepared – and it seems unlikely she could have written those on the one-floor elevator ride from the executive session meeting room to the regular meeting in the Council Chambers. Price, Smith and Vitiello all could have pointed to the report findings and had all the political cover they needed, then quietly amended the Code to prevent those pesky constituents from being able to accuse them of any wrongdoing in the future. But they couldn’t resist following through on the “process” strategy on which they committed to hanging their hat. Conspiracy theory? Yes, but a very plausible one.

Pre-planned or not, council focused on issues that had nothing to do with the ethics violations. In fact, not one question was asked about the appropriateness of her emails. Not one member expressed concern with her meddling in a private business, nor her disrespectful communication, nor her threat to a local employer to withhold city purchasing.

Her modus operandi of grandstanding, playing the victim and accusing people (possibly me) of being dim-witted, racist, misogynist and anti-veteran predictably held true. (see YouTube video, 14:02)

Like Gusse, Councilmember Vitiello accused me of taking advantage of the City code by having the nerve to even file a complaint. He addressed his fear someone would file a meritless complaint against him for political purposes, though that would be in conflict of current policy which states a complaint would only be placed on a council agenda for action “if there is reasonable cause to believe a violation occurred.”

Vitiello seemingly exonerated Gusse to protect himself from facing the same fate: “This could be a free-for-all, for anybody to come against anyone of us councilmembers for whatever reasoning they choose to during an election year. And that really worries me.”

Oblivious to the facts in the complaint, Vitello said, “Process is the most important thing here. … I struggle with even starting to read (the report) because, again, the process to me, I feel was not followed.”

Vitiello also questioned me on the timing of my filing, despite my previously having made a public statement explaining my reason. (Tell me again why I am on trial here?)

Mayor Christian Price and Vice Mayor Nancy Smith continued the effort to cast doubt on the process itself. Throughout, the mayor never asked the city attorney for clarification of whether the process was properly followed, as is his common practice.

Council should have taken its beef with how the process transpired to the mayor and city attorney. Turning the tables and blaming the Complainant is a page out of Gusse’s book.

Like Vitiello, Price and Smith failed to address, much less condemn, Gusse’s actions.

Councilmember Marvin Brown said nothing.

Councilmember Henry Wade focused on personalities instead of facts. Somewhat confused, he made the motion to exonerate Gusse to “move forward.”

And so it goes. The council had an opportunity to hold a colleague accountable – the intent of the Code of Ethics – and instead tried to shoot the messenger. I told them they had only two choices – condemn or condone her behavior. They chose to condone.

The future

Despite Gusse’s strategy of making the complaint about my business and me, it wasn’t. The council’s decision to let her off is of little consequence to me. If anything, the profoundly poor judgment by six council members makes me realize, in spite of COVID-19, InMaricopa should be paying closer attention to the decisions our elected officials make. And we will.

One unknown is the impact on economic development of the City’s acceptance of its officials trying to dictate policies and procedures of private businesses. Is government overreach a factor in companies’ decisions of where to plant their businesses? Maybe.

What is certain is Gusse will graduate from emboldened to bullet-proof, and her disdain for the Code of Ethics will turn into blatant disregard.

My goals Tuesday were to (a) give council an opportunity to set a high standard by condemning Gusse’s behavior and (b) prevent Gusse from using her position to attack other Maricopa businesses like she does mine. I accomplished one of the two and will, like Wade, move forward.

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