Saying not only was there no ethics violation proven but that the process shouldn’t have allowed the complaint in the first place, Maricopa City Council exonerated Councilwoman Julia Gusse from wrongdoing on Tuesday night.
Gusse was accused of violating the council’s Code of Ethics by Scott Bartle, majority owner and publisher of InMaricopa. Bartle had submitted an email exchange from 2018 as evidence of inappropriate behavior.
He spoke to the council in its Tuesday meeting, and Gusse spoke her mind as well.
“If you take the names out of the emails and personalities that go with them, and submit this complaint to the other 90 city and town councils in our great state, I would bet my bottom dollar all 90 sets of your colleagues would overwhelmingly agree the respondent violated the Ethics Code,” Bartle told the council.
Gusse said they were false accusations costing the City $5,000 to $10,000 in legal fees that would have been better spent assisting a food bank. She said Bartle was trying to defame her character.
Earlier, council received a memorandum from Aaron D. Arnson, an attorney with the Pierce Coleman law practice of Mesa, who investigated Bartle’s complaint. In the document, Arnson stated: “I do not conclude that Councilwoman Gusse violated the Code of Ethics. Although some of her comments closely approached the line of unprofessionalism, I do not find a violation.”
Bartle reminded councilmembers that despite the memorandum’s conclusion, the decision was in their hands.
In the emails, Gusse had responded to Bartle’s routine solicitation to the council to renew advertisements in InMaricopa’s New Resident Guide by instead requesting information about the company’s hiring practices.
“I would never imagine he would take offense at such a question,” Gusse said Tuesday night.
The resulting email exchange became heated, and Bartle said it was inappropriate of a councilmember.
That year, the council ended up consolidating its ads to one ad, which convinced Bartle that Gusse had interfered. Councilmember Henry Wade said that charge was not substantiated.
Vice Mayor Nancy Smith said the City was in the process of going in a different direction with its marketing at the time and it was not proved that Gusse was responsible for cutting advertising with InMaricopa.
Councilmember Rich Vitiello said the purpose of the Code of Ethics was for councilmembers to hold each other accountable, not for use by third parties. “Process was not followed,” he said.
Vitiello said he was “scared” the code could be used by a member of the public in the middle of an election year to damage a councilmember.
“Due process is the most important thing here,” Vitiello said.
Mayor Christian Price, too, said code was never intended for a third party. He, like Gusse, was on the subcommittee that created the ethics code. He said the public has always had election and recall available to hold councilmembers accountable, but the council itself needed other means.
That conversation Tuesday was more than a month after Bartle’s complaint was filed, and after an external investigation was launched and after it was place in its agenda and council discussed the issue in executive session. Bartle said if a third party was not allowed to file an ethics complaint, it should have been the City’s first response to him.
Price said the council may be due to give direction to staff regarding the code.
Councilmember Vincent Manfredi, Bartle’s business partner, recused himself and departed the meeting before the discussion.
All others voted to clear Gusse of the charges.
After the vote, Gusse formally asked Bartle to accept her apology if he was offended by the way she communicated with him.
“I hope one day we can resolve our differences, but that day is not today,” she said.
Bartle, who had told council that to not condemn Gusse’s behavior was to condone it, remained silent on whether he would accept the apology.
Asked if he was concerned Gusse’s supporters in the community might harm or feel alienated by his company over the issue, Bartle said it would not change his position. “If it brings collateral damage in my world, so be it.”