Mesa Mayor John Giles urged the city to focus on five areas as he begins his second full term leading Arizona’s third largest city: the COVID-19 pandemic, education, the digital divide, inclusivity and environmental sustainability.
Giles gave a “change is good” speech when he first became mayor six years ago. That message is still true, he told the City Council on Monday, as he called on the city to renew its enthusiasm, readdress its goals and make progress.
Responding to COVID-19 will remain the top priority, but the city needs to “chew gum and walk at the same time,” he said.
“We can’t do exclusively COVID relief. At some point, we’re going to come out of this and we need to be ready and prepared as a community to respond and to heal,” Giles said.
The mayor outlined goals for:
- Digital access.
- Environmental sustainability.
“An ongoing effective pandemic response, focusing on education and equality and the environment — these are not luxuries. These are necessities. And if we want our city to thrive, we must commit to finding ways to realize progress on these important topics,” Giles said.
Giles was sworn in to office last week alongside Councilmembers Mark Freeman, beginning his second term; Francisco Heredia, beginning his first full term after completing a former council member’s term; and Julie Spilsbury, beginning her first term.
Pandemic relief aid to COVID-19 vaccines
Giles said the top priority must continue to be health and safety during the pandemic, and the long road ahead to returning to normal.
“We are still in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s worse now than it ever has been, in fact. The pandemic continues to deserve our continued, effective, emergency response,” he said.
Mesa will continue to funnel available funds into areas of need, he said, adding that more federal relief may be coming with new leadership.
“When or if more funds are on the way, I want people to know that we’re going to do everything we can to get them out the door and into the hands of individuals and businesses as quickly as possible as we have done over this last year,” Giles said, referencing Mesa CARES programs such as business assistance, food distribution, homeless assistance, remote educational access and rent and utility aid.
The city received about $90 million in direct federal aid and spent a total of about $132 million on its coronavirus relief response last year.
Giles said the city is working to partner with Maricopa County to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine as quickly and efficiently as possible throughout Mesa in the coming weeks and months.
“Getting vaccinated is going to help you, it’s going to help your family and it’s going to help our community to be healthy and safe,” he said.
Education: ‘No longer can Mesa be known as a tale of 2 cities’
Giles said he wants to see Mesa city government continue to prioritize education.
He plans to create the Mesa Education Council, a group of education leaders, school superintendents and business leaders who will collaborate to boost educational attainment and job training throughout Mesa.
“No longer can Mesa be known as a tale of two cities,” he said. “It’s critical that we not leave people and neighborhoods behind as we become a more prosperous and better educated community.”
The city has been more directly involved in educational initiatives than many Valley cities, much through Giles’ advocacy. Existing initiatives include Mesa K-Ready, a free program to improve kindergarten readiness, and Mesa Counts on College and the Mesa College Promise Program to help boost higher education attainment and pay community college tuition for low-income students.
Ending the digital divide
The pandemic uncovered the divide in internet access, and Mesa needs to do better, Giles said.
Residents must have access to high-quality technology at home so the “digital divide” doesn’t prevent families from educating their children when school is not in-person, he said.
“This has become a more and more obvious and acute problem,” he said.
Giles called for adoption of a plan for a citywide conduit system to get fiber networks to every home and business in Mesa.
Protecting civil rights
Giles said he wants to adopt a nondiscrimination ordinance “that protects the constitutional and civil rights” of everyone in Mesa.
“We all take great pride in our city being a diverse and inclusive and a compassionate city,” Giles said. “I want everyone to know that’s true about Mesa. I want us to be known as a welcoming city that respects the rights of all residents, businesses and visitors.”
Tempe, for example, has such an ordinance that makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, age, nationality, sexual orientation, disability and other categories. Individuals can file complaints, and the city’s diversity office investigates complaints of discrimination at workplaces, public accommodations and housing.
Giles and Scottsdale city leaders, in 2018, pressed state lawmakers to pass statewide protections for LGBTQ people, with Giles calling it “the right thing to do.” But the measure did not pass.
Scottsdale’s new mayor, David Ortega, also recently said a city nondiscrimination ordinance that would extend to sexual orientation is a priority.
Shoring up recycling and carbon neutrality
Giles lastly reaffirmed what he views as a city commitment to environmental responsibility. He said he wants the City Council to commit to reducing Mesa’s carbon footprint and shoring up its recycling program.
“This is not an issue that we can take for granted,” he said, adding that organizations, businesses and governments around the world are setting goals for sustainability.
Giles said he wants Mesa to explore how it can become a carbon neutral city, meaning any carbon dioxide emissions would be balanced by carbon offsets or removal.
He also wants the city to invest in making sure “we will always have a reliable and sustainable recycling program.”
Mesa recently paused recycling due to impacts from COVID-19 and vendor contracts. The program has since rebooted, but the status quo is not ideal, as the global recycling market has been unsteady and costly in the last several years.
Mesa leaders are considering several long-term solutions, including building the city’s own recycling facility or working across the region to use existing city-run facilities rather than continuing to contract with private companies.
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