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Welch v. Cochise Cnty. Bd. of Supervisors - 9/2/2021

Arizona Supreme Court holds that Arizona’s open meeting and conflict-of-interest statutes confer standing on claimants with an interest in preserving transparency and accountability.

At a special meeting held to fill a Justice of the Peace vacancy, the Cochise County Board of Supervisors voted to appoint one of its own members.  Taxpayer David Welch subsequently filed a special action challenging the appointment as a violation of Arizona’s public accountability laws, A.R.S. §§ 38-431.07(A) (open meetings) and 38-506(B) (conflicts of interest).  The Board held another meeting to ratify the appointment ten days later.

The trial court subsequently dismissed Welch’s complaint for lack of standing and mootness.  Division Two of the Court of Appeals reversed.  It held that Welch had standing as a taxpayer to enforce the public accountability laws, and that the Board’s subsequent ratification did not moot a claim for sanctions based on the original violation.

The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed in part and vacated in part.  The Court agreed that Welch had standing to enforce the public accountability statutes, but not based on his status as a taxpayer.  Rather, the Court adopted a “zone of interest” test

The public accountability statutes broadly authorize “[a]ny person affect by . . . an alleged violation” or “a decision of a public agency” to sue to enforce their provisions.  A.R.S. §§ 38-431.07(A), -506(B).  Reasoning that taxpayer status has little connection to the remedial purpose of the public accountability laws, the Court instead adopted a “zone of interest” test for standing, i.e., “whether the interest sought to be protected by the complainant is arguably within the zone of interests to be protected or regulated by the statute.”  City of Scottsdale v. McDowell Mtn. Irrigation & Drainage Dist., 107 Ariz. 117, 121 (1971) (citation omitted).  Applying this test, the Court concluded that Welch had standing to pursue his claims against the Board. 

The Court likewise agreed that the Board’s subsequent ratification of the appointment did not moot Welch’s public-meeting claim under § 38-431.07(A).  The Court observed that, under the statute’s plain text, ratification can render effective an otherwise invalid act but does not absolve liability for the original violation. 

Chief Justice Brutinel authored the unanimous opinion.

Posted by: Hayleigh S. Crawford

Posted On: 9/27/2021