When developer Joe Risi wanted to gain approval for a rezoning request in Phoenix last winter, he had to go through the city’s Planning Commission.
And less than a month before the commission took up his project, Risi made a significant campaign contribution.
On December 7, 2017, Risi gave $2,000 to the political campaign of commissioner John Glenn, a Democratic candidate running for the state House in Legislative District 24.
Risi is not an isolated example of someone donating to Glenn’s campaign while also seeking the approval of the Planning Commission.
As the Arizona Capitol Times reported recently, a group of individuals with business before the Planning Commission have donated to Glenn’s campaign. Many are lawyers who were actively representing real estate projects before the commission at the time they made their donations; also among Glenn’s donors are developers like Risi, plus a long list of architects.
As a result, with the August primary one month away, Glenn is fending off questions as to whether the donations represent a conflict of interest.
He is running in a crowded primary contest to represent District 24, which includes east-central Phoenix and part of Scottsdale.
“We believe this is nothing more than a political opponent’s campaign that has struggled to gain traction and she is grasping at anything and is trying to drag my name through the mud,” Glenn wrote in an email to Phoenix New Times.
The nine-member Planning Commission recommends zoning changes to the City Council, which appoints commissioners like Glenn to four-year terms.
Risi’s project moved through the city's rezoning process last winter, around the same time that he cut a big check to Glenn's campaign.
Risi’s firm Arcadia 1, LLC wanted to rezone over three acres on the east side of Phoenix from a single-family residence district to a multifamily residence district.
The Camelback East Village Planning Committee approved the request on December 5. Two days later, Risi made his donation to Glenn's campaign. One month later, the Planning Commission approved the zoning change unanimously on January 4.
Glenn did not recuse himself, according to the meeting minutes. The minutes also note that during the meeting, Risi submitted a card in favor of the rezoning, but did not wish to speak.
The City Council signed off on the zoning change a month after that, on February 7.
When reached by phone, Risi refused to answer questions about his contribution to Glenn's campaign. “If the New Times were a legitimate publication, I’d be happy to share an interview with you," Risi said.
“I have no respect for the rag that you represent, and not in any way, shape, or form do I want to participate in an article with your newspaper,” Risi added, and hung up.
According to his latest campaign finance report, Glenn has raised just over $68,000 – the second-largest campaign finance haul among the seven Democratic candidates running in District 24.
Amish Shah, a doctor, has raised over $93,200, although $26,399 were from personal and family contributions. (He declined to comment on Glenn’s campaign finances.) Jennifer Longdon, a gun-reform activist, has raised $63,338.49.
Glenn's campaign committee chair is listed as Councilwoman Kate Gallego – a candidate in her own right, currently vying for the mayor's office vacated by Greg Stanton.
Glenn said in his statement that he prides himself on his “fierce impartiality” as a planning commissioner. An architect by trade, Glenn argued that it is “completely normal for a candidate running for office to have support from people from their professional network.”
According to the city's ethics handbook for boards and commission members, contributions to a political campaign do not qualify as a "gift" and as a result aren't subject to the same disclosure requirements.
He told the Capitol Times' Paulina Pineda that he gave a $2,000 contribution from lobbyist and embattled former mayor's office aide Joseph Villasenor to charity.
Whoever wins the LD24 primary has a good shot at winning in the general election – the district is solidly blue. The controversy over Glenn’s donations, meanwhile, has injected more drama into a somewhat acrimonious District 24 primary contest.
Incumbent Representatives Ken Clark and Lela Alston have made the decision to run as a Democratic “slate” with Glenn in the district, prompting grumbling from other Democrats in the race. Campaigning together, Alston would pursue the district's Senate seat while Clark and Glenn would run for the two House seats.
Their names appear side-by-side on campaign signs all over Phoenix. So are Glenn’s fellow slate candidates concerned about his financial ties?
“Not at all,” Clark said in an interview.
Clark vouched for Glenn’s integrity and described him as a “very fair-minded guy.” Both he and Alston stand by Glenn, Clark said.
“What we’ve been hearing for the last few months is that Jennifer Longdon’s supporters have been trying to shop this around to people and trying to get people to cover it,” Clark said. “Dirty tricks,” he added.
Alston’s campaign, however, did not respond to a request for comment.
For her part, Longdon denied having anything to do with the story of Glenn’s donations becoming public. She said she felt disappointed by Clark’s devoting time to the claim.
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“If I were John, I would give the money back and clear up any possible controversy over his donations," Longdon said.
She said that when she made the decision to run for the state House, she resigned from several boards, including her position on the board of the organization Arizonans for Gun Safety. She also resigned her seat on the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Committee, Longdon said.
Campaign contributions are a matter of public record, Longdon said, and she suggested that voters have outstanding questions about the individuals funding Glenn's campaign.
"I think as a candidate, he needs to answer them," she said.