MARICOPA — The Maricopa City Council unanimously voted to exonerate Councilwoman Julia Gusse of all accusations brought forth by InMaricopa owner Scott Bartle in an ethics complaint at Tuesday night’s council meeting.
The complaint was in reference to a 2018 email exchange between Bartle and Gusse that got heated, and it listed 10 different alleged violations Gusse had committed. Bartle wrote the following under Description of Facts at the time of filing on April 16:
“Councilmember Gusse violated at least 10 clauses of the City’s Code of Ethics policy when she willingly, intentionally and unsolicitedly engaged me via email to criticize how I operate my private business. In the process, she successfully accomplished her stated goal of withholding advertising revenue from my company.”
At the council meeting Tuesday night and just before proceedings were set to start for item 7.1 on the agenda, Councilman Vincent Manfredi, a minority owner of InMaricopa, said he was advised to recuse, but did not wish to.
“I have been advised by the city attorney that it probably makes sense to recuse myself, although I don’t really believe there’s a conflict because we’re talking about a behavior of a council member,” Manfredi said. “I’m still gonna go ahead and recuse myself from this.”
The floor was then opened for statements first from Bartle, who was there on city invitation, and then from Gusse.
“I do not want to be here tonight,” Bartle said. “This is not about me and this is not about my company. This is about a member of your esteemed council whose actions are unbecoming and make your entire governing body and the city look bad. … You have your ‘get out jail free card’ if you choose to use it, but your constituents elected you for your leadership and your judgement, you cannot graze in a manufactured gray area.”
To get to the bottom of the allegations, the city hired an outside Mesa attorney by the city to investigate the validity of the ethics complaint, and in the end exonerated Gusse of any wrongdoing in relation to the complaint.
Gusse was then given the floor for her statement.
“I take offense at Mr. Bartle’s complaint, and see this as an individual taking advantage of a city sanctioned platform to defame my character,” Gusse said. “The outside attorney hired to conduct this investigation will end up costing the city anywhere between $5,000 to $10,000. It was mentioned earlier this week that the food bank is in great need of money, I could only imagine what those $5,000 to $10,000 would have meant to that food bank if we would have chosen to give it to the food bank instead of paying for these false allegations.”
Gusse detailed several other times she had spoken to local businesses regarding their business and hiring practices, and said that none had ever accused her of prying into private matters or taken offense to her line of questioning. She also cited a previous 10-year friendship between herself and Bartle as a reason why she felt comfortable voicing her concerns over InMaricopa’s hiring of a man with a violent criminal history.
Continuing, she stated there was no evidence of any “successful” withholding of advertising revenue from InMaricopa committed by the city following the email exchange as was accused in the complaint.
“Marketing and advertising public records will show that this year alone, InMaricopa was paid $24,985.00 while their competitor Maricopa Monitor was paid $10,459.00,” Gusse said. “Mr. Bartle’s perceived notion that I have powers or influence, those are false accusations.”
A daughter of Mexican immigrants, Gusse — who is also a veteran and one of two women currently on council — stated her belief that ethics complaints lodged by citizens such as these could become discriminatory based on race, gender or political background.
“Respect the diversity you see before you. Do not allow this individual to smear me any further,” Gusse said, “Accept this legal finding, paid for by this community, by our tax dollars, as — how did you put it? … My ‘get out of jail free?’ That’s how you put it. Well, this memorandum has exonerated me.”
With her statement complete, council members were free to pose any questions they had. Councilmember Rich Vitiello was first to speak, and asked Bartle if he had read the ethics code “as it’s written.”
Bartle replied that he would not have filed the complaint if he hadn’t. Vitiello then expressed his disappointment that the complaint was able to be filed in the first place due to the time frame in which it occurred and the way the legislation for the ethics code was written.
“The intent of it, the way it was written, is for one council member having an issue with another council member, not a third party,” Vitiello said.
Vitiello later elaborated on this point, saying, “Process is very important in legislating. … The intent was not for this to be anybody coming after us. At any given time, this could be a free-for-all for anybody to come against any one of us council members for whatever reasoning they choose in an election year, and that worries me.”
Bartle’s response to Vitiello was to express his surprise at the in-depth nature of the investigation, and to apologize.
“I was dumbfounded that there would be an external investigation, I’m sorry that that happened. I thought this would be pretty simple,” Bartle said. “I would not have filed the complaint had I thought the opportunity was not available to constituents and non-council members.”
Bartle had previously stated that he chose to file the complaint against Gusse during her re-election year to alert voters to behavior he felt was unbecoming of a council member, and reiterated that in the meeting.
He also reiterated that he would much rather be home than at the meeting.
“I do not wanna be here. I do not want to be in the front page of a newspaper,” said Bartle, who ran for a seat in the Arizona Legislature in 2014. “I do not want to be having these conversations with some of these folks who are my friends. It’s not good for the city. I would much rather be tucking my baby into bed than be here tonight, with all due respect.”
Mayor Christian Price later confirmed that Bartle was not required by law to be present at the hearing and did so of his own accord.
“He was invited and it was completely voluntary on his part to participate,” Price stated in an email.
Councilman Henry Wade questioned what had happened between the two that had led to the complaint. Bartle responded that, in his view, he had “never done anything” to deserve the treatment he felt he’d received from Gusse.
Wade then made a motion stating, “My motion would be, based on this conversation here, that Councilwoman Gusse did not violate the ethics code and that we move forward.”
Vice-Mayor Nancy Smith seconded the motion after sharing that the accusations of favoritism in advertising were her biggest concerns within the complaint, but as there was no evidence of favoritism in advertising practices, she felt the complaint had no validity. She also stated that written words can be misconstrued, and behavior is subjective.
Price then gave further background information on the original purpose and intent of the ethics code.
“It’s my belief that — as one of the members of the founding and writing of this ethics code — when you are looking at the way a code is written you have to look for legislative intent,” Price said. “The reality is, when you look at the definitions that are provided in the code, … this was never intended for third parties to be able to bring these types of things here.”
He also stated that when an issue of this nature is brought to the council, it can be politically based and not for council to become judges on.
“To Mr. Bartle’s point, should we have even gotten to this point?,” Price said. “It (could have) gone back to him in the beginning saying, ‘This is not accepted.’”
Several council members agreed that the process for filing had not been followed, and the legislative intent of the ethics complaint policy did not include the opportunity for third parties to file complaints.
Price stated that city staff would be advised of this to prevent further complaints from reaching a council discussion.
The motion to exonerate Gusse of violating the ethics code was unanimously approved by council, and Gusse made a brief closing statement.
“Please accept this council’s due diligence in following through (with) your complaint. Please accept and respect the process. Please don’t see this acceptance as a ‘get out of jail free,’” Gusse said. “I hope that someday we can resolve our differences, but that day is obviously not today.”