Councilman Sal DiCiccio Purges Two Planning Committees of Their Skeptics. Bring on the Developers!

Lynn Heath had been a member of the Camelback East Village Planning Committee for 10 years, two months, and roughly one-half of a meeting when her tenure came to an end last month.

It did not end in any of the usual ways: a fruit basket, a proclamation commending Heath's service to the city, or even a thank-you note.

It ended with a request to get off the dais, pronto.

As it turns out, Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio has been systematically removing longtime members from the two village planning committees under his control. He's not getting rid of everyone, mind you — just the more outspoken members and the people who refuse to rubber-stamp the plans of developers.

But even though it's part of a trend, Heath's removal was singularly stunning in its awkwardness. At the committee's February 2 meeting, Heath was seated at a table with her fellow members, participating as usual, when she noticed a young aide to Councilman DiCiccio entering the room.

The city planner who helps run the meetings asked the aide if he wanted to speak. He declined.

But, a few minutes later, the aide approached Heath awkwardly and asked her to step outside for a minute.

Outside, in the hallway, he dropped a bombshell.

She was no longer on the committee, he told her. She should have gotten a letter. She hadn't? Well, regardless, Councilman DiCiccio had declined to reappoint her when her term expired a few months back. She had to stop participating — immediately.

"You're not allowed to vote," he explained. "You can keep sitting up there, but you need to realize, it's going to get very embarrassing when it's time to vote."

The whole thing was so weird, and so awkward, that Heath acquiesced without a fight. (She's never gotten any letter, she insists.)

"I should have said, 'I've been a member for nearly 11 years, and I've just been kicked off the committee,'" she told me a few weeks later. "But I just excused myself and went to sit out in the audience."

Almost immediately, though, it became clear why the aide had confronted Heath in the middle of the meeting, rather than address the apparent oversight at a less-awkward time.

In the months leading up to the February meeting, DiCiccio had been stacking the Camelback East committee. The committee, which represents the area just west of Arcadia, lost a handful of longtime members and gained, instead, eight newbies. And the new members were ready for change: Just after Heath was unceremoniously removed from the dais, the committee voted on a new chairman and vice chairman.

Typically, such officers serve two terms, and incumbents are rarely challenged. But even though both the current chair and vice chair were running for a second term, and there'd never been a hint of controversy surrounding either man, DiCiccio's new appointees voted to topple them.

Voting as a bloc, they provided just enough votes to halt the incumbents' re-election. Then, they elected two members, Jay Swart and Michael Maledon, with the barest majorities. (In Maledon's case, the vote was 9-8.)

It was both Swart and Maledon's first village committee meeting.

Like most of DiCiccio's appointees, the two Biltmore residents donated money to his recent re-election campaign. But that may not be the only reason for their overnight success.

Both Swart and Maledon are friendly with Scott Schirmer, another Biltmore resident. More importantly, Schirmer is a broker who hopes to rezone the corner of 44th Street and Camelback. His Camel Square proposal would allow a 465,000-square-foot office complex with buildings as high as 11 stories.

The neighborhood strongly opposed the Camel Square rezoning the last time Schirmer pitched it, and the village planning committee voted to oppose the project.

But Schirmer threw a fundraiser in support of DiCiccio's election bid in November. And though he wouldn't call me back, members tell me Schirmer was in attendance at the February village planning committee meeting, watching the proceedings with great interest.

Phoenix's village planning committees rarely get much media attention, for good reason. Their members are volunteers, who agree to serve because they care about development in their neighborhood. While the issues are important to anyone whose backyard is affected, the debate over a set of plans can be tedious.

And a village committee is only the first step in a long process. After the committee, developers must go to both the citywide planning commission and the City Council. The committee vote is only advisory; even if a committee rejects a project, the council can still say yes.

But committees still have a surprising amount of clout. Traditionally, the council defers to them in deciding what projects to green-light. If a developer can't persuade the local village committee to say yes, he'll probably run into bigger problems at City Hall eventually. (See: Trump, Donald.)

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske