Longform

Don’t Even Think About Fighting Phoenix City Hall Unless You’re a Good Old Boy

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Acquittal can happen in minutes.

And so it was for Bob Gosnell. Hayenga's partner, Mary Slaughter, recalls that after the jury had been sent to deliberate, Hayenga and Slaughter hopped in their car to make the 15-minute drive home to north central Phoenix, thinking they'd sit around for hours, or even days, waiting for a verdict.

They were still on the road home when Hayenga's phone rang. The jury was back.

Back in court that very hour, the two women sat in shock as the jury unanimously found in favor of Gosnell.

If the verdict stung, what came next was even worse.

Because she'd brought the suit, the judge socked her with Gosnell's attorney fees.

Instead of getting a payday, Miriam Hayenga owed Gosnell's attorney $600,000, plus $15,000 in court costs.


Hayenga made good on her debt. Her lawyers negotiated to get the bill down to $313,000 — still awful, but something she could pay.

She paid.

By this point, though, there's no way she is giving up the fight. "She's tenacious," Slaughter says. "She is just such a fighter."

She's hired two lawyers: One, Jeff Finley, to sue the city, and the other, David Leonard, to look into suing Beus Gilbert for malpractice.

Because the statute of limitations passed years ago, any claim against the city will be a difficult one. In order to win, Hayenga and her attorney must show "fraudulent concealment" on the part of the city — that staffers not only didn't play fair but actively covered up their wrongdoing before finally admitting the truth in trial.

But that begs an important question: Did the city actively withhold information? Or did Hayenga's attorneys (including the best zoning attorney in town) let her down by failing to ask the right questions?

Gosnell's people clearly believe the latter.

Ric Williams, president of Gosnell Builders, says it should have been clear from the beginning that Hayenga wasn't entitled to residential units.

"Ms. Hayenga was clearly wrong and failed to adequately research the entitlements and/or received very bad advice from her attorneys and land use people," Williams said in a written statement. "Justice was served with her misstep and the actions of her team of contingency lawyers; hopefully, she will confront reality and drop her misguided legal attack on our city."

But Beus Gilbert disputes that. And at least one city official sees things much differently.

Peggy Bilsten was the councilwoman representing the Tapatio area through the 1990s. In fact, Bilsten happened to be present at the meeting in 2000 when city planners suddenly revealed that Hayenga didn't have 120 units after all.

Hayenga had hoped to call Bilsten in for a deposition. But the city's lawyers at Gust Rosenfeld claimed that the former councilwoman wasn't amenable to being called.

As it turns out, the city was playing hardball — dishonest hardball at that. Bilsten would have none of it.

Without even consulting a lawyer, Bilsten wrote up a notarized statement last November and gave it to Hayenga's lawyers.

"I am more than happy to give my deposition," Bilsten wrote. In fact, Bilsten explained, she was writing her statement because she was terribly concerned that she'd have to leave for an international trip before she'd have a chance to be deposed.

As Bilsten explained, she'd been told during meetings in 2000 that Hayenga didn't have units at her disposal. After reading the testimony of city planners Richert and Muenker, Bilsten became convinced that they'd concealed the truth.

"At no time during the meeting held in 2000 was I ever informed that the 120 dwelling units were illegally allocated by the city in October of 1995," she wrote. "Furthermore, I was never told that the city could have taken action to give property rights back to Ms. Hayenga, or I would have insisted that we do that.

"We have a responsibility as trusted public servants to do what is right and honorable."

And that wasn't all. Bilsten wrote that she had concerns about how the city had allocated those units back in 1995, the ones that ended up being taken from Hayenga. If the neighbors had really been properly notified that more density was being added, they surely would have been angry. (Just look what happened when Hayenga asked for a rezoning.) Why was no one even aware that a rezoning had taken place?

Bilsten was concerned that the city failed to post the change properly, and that the neighbors weren't notified, as required by law.

She called it a "cover-up."

"My heart is heavy as I am writing this statement, because I believe the role of public servants is to serve with integrity and honesty," she wrote. "According to the sworn statements enclosed, this was clearly not the case."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske