Cause for Complaint
A Phoenix city councilman says a top administrator knowingly withheld important information about one of the most high-profile city debates in recent memory: the proposed downtown football stadium.
Councilman Doug Lingner was so angry at assistant city manager Sheryl Sculley that he wrote a formal complaint letter to her boss, city manager Frank Fairbanks, urging that something be done.
But Fairbanks took no action. He didn't even show Sculley the letter until last week, nearly a month after receiving it and only after New Times had requested a copy of the document.
Instead, he tucked the complaint away, didn't mention it to anyone and only discussed the issue with Sculley in vague generalities, without telling her that someone had filed a formal complaint.
Lingner, a veteran council member who represents District 7, says the problem began after Sculley was picked to head the city's stadium project team. Late last year, Phoenix decided to join the bevy of Valley cities vying to host the Arizona Cardinals' proposed $350 million multi-use domed stadium.
As the most experienced person sitting on the council's Downtown, Tourism and Sports subcommittee, Lingner was responsible for helping review the project before it went before the entire nine-member city council for a vote. The subcommittee also includes chairman Michael Johnson and Peggy Neely, both political newcomers elected in November.
Johnson, whose neighborhood included the stadium site, and Neely supported the project. Lingner was openly opposed to it.
The stadium has been one of the biggest issues to face the council in years. It commanded headlines, divided opinions and caused intergovernmental rifts between neighboring cities Tempe and Mesa.
Phoenix officials had proposed spending $60 million on the stadium project, which would have been built between Fillmore, Garfield, Fourth and Seventh streets. The council voted against the project on February 20, after it became clear more money might be needed.
A week before the deciding vote, Lingner says, he became convinced there was information available that was not being distributed to everyone involved.
He says there were "comments being made by council members that indicated to me they knew more about the issue than other council members."
Lingner says he met with Sculley on February 12 and asked if there was anything else he needed to know about. Sculley, he says, told him no. The next morning, the Arizona Republic published a story citing a consultant's report that Lingner says he never received. The consultant's report, dated early February, criticized a possible plan to link the stadium with Phoenix's civic plaza.
Lingner had another meeting, this time with Sculley and Fairbanks. Sculley denied knowing about the consultant's report prior to its release.
Two days later, on February 15, Lingner penned his letter to Fairbanks.
"Sheryl is either unwilling or incapable of keeping me apprised of important facts that are critical to making sound decisions," he wrote. "Frank, I request that you take the appropriate action to address my concerns. . . . She has exhibited an inability to thoroughly perform her duties and information that affects the outcome of council votes has been excluded."
The letter also included concern that the city, through Sculley, was giving preferential treatment to neighborhoods in Johnson's district, while ignoring other historic neighborhoods near the proposed stadium site.
Fairbanks says he believes Sculley's version of events, which is that the consultant's report was in her office, but that she did not know she had it. Sculley told New Times the report was given out by a different department, and that she wasn't notified until after it had been released to the media.
Fairbanks did request that Sculley provide all information about the stadium to the entire council, which she did on February 19, a day before the pivotal vote.
Sculley says the stadium project changed on an almost daily basis, and that she and other staffers tried to provide the most up-to-date information to council and committee members as quickly as possible.
"Even though Doug Lingner had expressed his open opposition for the stadium, we provided him the very same information we gave everybody," Sculley says. "I'm sorry he feels he didn't get enough."
In contrast to Lingner's letter, both Sculley and Fairbanks note that Johnson and Neely wrote letters commending her efforts to broker a suitable deal.
If anyone received more information than the rest of the council, it was Johnson. According to Sculley and Fairbanks, it's typical for both the council member whose district includes a project and the subcommittee chair to be more informed about issues directly affecting their areas. In this case, they say, the same person filled both sets of shoes.
This is the first complaint letter Sculley says she has ever received. However, it won't reflect poorly on her 12-year tenure as assistant city manager.
"There's simply no evidence of wrongdoing," Fairbanks says. "I think the truth is Sheryl's an extraordinarily competent individual."
As for how the letter was handled, Fairbanks says he didn't make the complaint public because he thought Lingner wanted to keep it private.
"He said that he didn't want to make a big deal about it," Fairbanks says. "He came into my office, presented me the letter and said, 'This is between you, I and Sheryl.'"
Lingner says he never meant for the letter to be kept secret.
"I fully expected that the matter would be a public record," Lingner says. "If it got out, I wasn't going to deny it."
But that's just one of several areas where the city manager and councilman seem to differ. While Lingner says he didn't "waste words" in criticizing Sculley, Fairbanks downplayed the letter's tone.
The city manager says he didn't even perceive it as demanding disciplinary action be taken.
"I really don't believe he intended it as strongly as you're reading it," he says.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.