"I've Been Had"
Phoenix City Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood says her first instinct was to call a press conference in Mayor Skip Rimsza's office and, in front of the Valley's media, slug him.
She only changed her mind, she says, because it wouldn't be smart to commit an assault on camera.
Barwood says she's furious with Rimsza after finding what she claims to be proof that she was "set up" by Rimsza and the city's professional staff in the September 1995 rezoning vote which allowed a controversial silicon-wafer plant to be located near a residential neighborhood in her district.
Opponents to the Sumitomo-Sitix plant have long insisted that city leaders knew the factory's location was a done deal as early as March 1995 and that they purposefully kept citizens in the dark to prevent opposition to the plant, which uses extremely hazardous chemicals.
In particular, the plant's opponents have blamed Barwood, who represents the Desert Ridge area, for helping Sumitomo-Sitix locate its plant near homes before residents had a chance to contest it.
Now, in a stunning turn of events, Barwood agrees, at least in part, with those angry residents.
Barwood says she is furious after obtaining a letter which Mayor Rimsza wrote to Reijiro Mori, Sumitomo-Sitix's president in Japan, on July 3, 1995.
The letter indicates that Mayor Rimsza knew that Sumitomo was "investigating the Desert Ridge site, as well as permitting and infrastructure schedules" a full two months before the council vote.
Other documents found by plant opponents have shown that the city's staff reassured Sumitomo the zoning changes needed for the plant would go smoothly (something experienced zoning attorneys never promise clients), but this is the first direct evidence that Rimsza was aware of those negotiations at a time when Sumitomo's name was kept off all official publicity related to the rezoning.
Barwood says it's clear evidence that she was betrayed by Rimsza.
Barwood has insisted that she voted in September 1995 to rezone Desert Ridge so that a "high-tech firm" could locate there, but that she did not know the city had already promised the site to Sumitomo for a silicon-wafer plant.
"We voted on this in September. Up to that point at least I, and I'm assuming the rest of the council, was not told that Sumitomo-Sitix was the high-tech firm they were talking about. I had read in the paper they were looking at Phoenix, but nothing was mentioned in there that it was the Desert Ridge village core," Barwood says.
After the vote, fierce opposition to the plant arose among the residents near the site--but too late, the city claims, to stop the project.
Those opponents have taken their battle against the plant to court, but they have also targeted Barwood with a recall effort, charging her with knowing full well that the rezoning would benefit Sumitomo.
Alarmed by the furor over the zoning vote, Barwood says she approached city planner David Reichert, who she claims told her that the entire council had been kept in the dark to prevent the possibility of "insider information." (Reichert says he remembers saying no such thing.)
She now believes she was lied to.
Two weeks ago, during a deposition in developer Johnson International's lawsuit against the city--one of several spawned by the rezoning for the wafer plant--Barwood was given a copy of Rimsza's letter by an attorney who questioned her claim that she didn't have foreknowledge of Sumitomo's plans.
"I just about had a stroke at that point," Barwood says. "I mean, not only was I lied to, but for a year and a half, I had been out there being attacked all over the place, and [Rimsza] left me out there. And he knew the whole time that what [plant opponents] were saying was partially true, that there was apparently a deal struck ahead of time. . . . I was never at a meeting where Sumitomo was mentioned, before the vote.
"This whole BS in the papers that [Sumitomo] couldn't decide between Phoenix and Portland was a scam," Barwood says, alluding to the mountain of incentives--such as $11 million in infrastructure costs--that Phoenix offered the global business giant in the months before the September vote. "Obviously from Skip's letter, they had already decided, he had already decided. It was signed, sealed and delivered; he was going to give away the farm to get it. That is obvious to me. I feel like I've been had."
Barwood claims that she's the victim of a fairly elaborate scheme by the mayor, whose aides referred calls from New Times to the professional staff. Attempts to contact the mayor directly were unsuccessful.
"I really feel like I was hung out there, because he felt it was a great way to get rid of me," Barwood says. "And the second thing is he had made all these deals and he didn't want that to come out. And I'm furious. I mean, I'm really furious. . . . When you see this letter and there's no cc's to anybody, that means he wanted it between him and the president of Sumitomo-Sitix in Japan and nobody else. . . .
"I'm so furious I really don't know what my reaction will be when I see him the next time."
David Krietor, director of the city's Community and Economic Development Department, after checking his records of that time, admits that he could find no evidence that Barwood had been briefed along with the mayor before Rimsza wrote the July 3 letter. "We were in the process of interesting the company in Desert Ridge, and we asked Rimsza to send the letter," he says.
But he's quick to mention that public notices went up advertising hearings on the zoning change a week later, several meetings were held over the ensuing weeks with village planning committees, and the zoning proposals were advertised. And, he points out, on July 28 a story appeared in the Phoenix Business Journal which linked Sumitomo to the Desert Ridge site.
Asked if he's implying that although Barwood had not personally been briefed as the mayor had been, there was plenty of activity in July and August which should have tipped her off that Sumitomo was coming to Desert Ridge: "Yes," he replies.
"That's assuming I have time to read the Business Journal, which I hardly ever see," Barwood responds. "Why wasn't there a [copy of Rimsza's letter sent] to everyone on the council? Yes, there was zoning, yes, there were articles, but never was there a mention of Sumitomo."
Councilman Sal DiCiccio agrees with Barwood on that point. He says he did notice the Business Journal article, but he doesn't remember hearing the word "Sumitomo" in any city meetings or hearings before the September vote.
Councilman Craig Tribken remembers things differently. "You had to be unconscious not to know that this was going to be Sumitomo," Tribken says. In fact, he says, council members knew that after their September 20 vote, a press conference would be held with Sumitomo officials announcing that Phoenix had won the plant.
"Maybe there's a letter from Rimsza, but Barwood was upset the day after the vote that she hadn't gotten more attention in the press conference with Sumitomo and the mayor," Tribken says, adding that it's odd Barwood would raise objections so long after the vote. He does, however, admit that the city has deserved some of the criticism it has received about the Sumitomo matter.
"There's no question this thing was rushed. . . . It was obviously not a good exercise in terms of public input," Tribken says. "It was a little bit of a comedy of errors that made it the flashpoint that it is."
Opponents to the plant say it's some encouragement to hear city council members echoing their own complaints: that they were kept in the dark while a project with major impact was located in their backyard.
But they have little sympathy for Barwood.
"She's trying to save her own neck," says plant opponent Chris Klein, who has spent hours sifting through city files and has uncovered many startling documents in the case. He's angry that the Rimsza letter was not turned over with the rest of the documents he requested under the state's Public Records Act.
"I think the city is finally telling Barwood, 'Look, we can only help you out so far.' She failed in the zoning on her house, she lost on the recall lawsuit, and she's in a libel suit with [plant opponent and environmental activist] Steve Brittle . . . now she's crying 'Poor me,' and the city's dropping her like a hot potato," Klein says.
Klein is unimpressed at Barwood's claims of being set up.
"This is her district, she should know," he says. "It's ridiculous that she wouldn't know what was coming into her district. She has the same ability--actually an even better ability--to get documents that we found," he says.
If Barwood had bothered to research her September 1995 vote before she cast it, Klein says, she would have found what Klein and other opponents did later: that months earlier the city had all but promised Sumitomo-Sitix its zoning needs would sail through without a hitch.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.