Part I - Developers are officials’ biggest backers - East Valley Tribune: Thespeculators

Part I - Developers are officials’ biggest backers

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Posted: Sunday, October 9, 2005 6:57 am | Updated: 9:14 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman makes no apologies for being friendly toward developers.

They have rewarded that friendship by being the primary financiers of his elections.

The largess of development interests is not confined to Berman. Land speculators and builders make up the single biggest category of donors to political campaigns of elected officials who represent the southern stretches of the East Valley, an analysis of contribution reports since 2000 by the Tribune shows.

In all, development interests gave at least $479,000 in the last five years to those who serve Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek as city and town councilmembers; and on the boards of supervisors in Maricopa and Pinal counties.

For this review, land speculators, major landowners and developers were considered development interests. People such as real estate agents or architects were not, unless they identified themselves as working for a developer or speculator.

Berman was the biggest beneficiary of development money. In the two campaigns he has run since 2000, Berman collected $50,685 from development interests.

He also received the largest single donation: $2,500 in March from land speculator Bill Lund, who is building a major retail and office center at Val Vista and Pecos roads in Gilbert.

While campaign contributions would normally be capped at $350 from a single individual, those limits were temporarily raised for Berman because his opponent violated finance rules.

Homebuilders Richard and Shawn Porter each gave $1,000 to Berman at that time.

Berman says he solicited the large donations and that he’s proud of the money he gets from development interests. What they get in return is someone who is committed to ensuring Gilbert offers a favorable business climate, he says.

"It tells me that the people that are building in our community are happy with the work we are doing," Berman says of the developer donations. "What they get is an open mind toward things that business people need. The truth is I have never done anything for a contribution that I wouldn’t have done otherwise."

Lund would not say why he wrote such a big check to Berman’s campaign.

"That’s my own personal reason," Lund says.

Chandler Mayor Boyd Dunn, who ranked second behind Berman in contributions from developers, says he has been tough in pushing strict building standards on developers. He believes the donations roll in from speculators because they know what to expect from him.

"I’m a known commodity," Dunn says. "They are always looking for consistency."

The most generous donors to political campaigns in the south East Valley are the family, employees and close business associates of Conley Wolfswinkel. Though he did not give money, his family and their business partners donated $32,470 to the campaigns of winning candidates since 2000.

Stuart Goodman, their lobbyist, says the donations are meant to buy access to elected officials, not favors.

"It’s not based on outcomes," says Goodman, who donated $690 on his own."I think contributions perhaps create more familiarity. But I don’t think they get you much more than that."

Ross Farnsworth, a developer building about 3,000 homes in the area of Baseline and Signal Butte roads, says he gives money to politicians who create a favorable business climate.

"We try to support candidates that are not bureaucrats, that are pro-business," says Farnsworth, who along with his family and business associates has donated $10,750. "We don’t do anything inappropriate."

Mike Evans, a former Gilbert councilman, said the problem with developers fronting so much money is they are buying access to decision makers that average residents do not have. Evans, who also is the former executive director of the political watchdog group Arizona Common Cause, did not take developer money when he ran for council.

He says land speculators are buying the assurance that they will get the attention of public officials when they give money to campaigns. But what they want is not always what is best for the community, said Evans, a councilman from 1997 to 2001.

"Nobody is spending thousands of dollars or hosting fundraisers purely because they want good government," Evans says. "Conley Wolfswinkel wants what he wants."

Lund received $60 million in tax incentives from Gilbert to build a 130-acre auto mall at Val Vista and Pecos roads in December 2003. However, he was turned down when he sought another $6.5 million in incentives for a shopping center on the property, Berman says.

Berman says Gilbert has not granted any major developer incentives beyond the auto mall.

Dunn says he has worked to curb developer incentives. Chandler recently entered into an agreement with Tempe and Phoenix to create an incentive-free zone covering a 25-square-mile area where the three cities come together.

Scottsdale builder George Johnson got help from the Pinal County Board of Supervisors when his water company ran into trouble with the Arizona Corporation Commission. The board attempted to form an improvement district that would free him of regulation from the state agency in new service areas he wanted to acquire.

Sandie Smith, the supervisor who represents the area north of Florence, says the board was asked to form the district by area landowners. The move was a mistake, but not a favor for Johnson, she says.

The three Pinal County supervisors received a total of $74,700 from development interests since 2000. Johnson and his wife have given $2,210 in the last five years, including $700 to Pinal County Supervisor Dave Snider last year.

Queen Creek Mayor Wendy Feldman-Kerr joined with Goodman earlier this year to lobby for a freeway alignment south of Germann Road, near a square mile of land co-owned by the Wolfswinkels. She says the route was needed to alleviate traffic jams in Queen Creek. An alignment two miles north was ultimately picked.

Feldman-Kerr received only $1,950 from development interests since 2000, among the lowest total of any elected official in the area.

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