Discrimination ban heats up Mesa Council meeting The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Discrimination ban heats up Mesa Council meeting

February 22nd, 2021 Mesa Tribune Staff
Discrimination ban heats up Mesa Council meeting
Mesa
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By Tom Scanlon
Tribune Managing Editor

Mesa is the largest city in Arizona without an ordinance prohibits discrimination based on age, sex, sexual orientation, race and other factors.

That could change within two weeks, however.

While a Thursday morning study session showed City Council to be in unanimous agreement on implementing an ordinance to protect against discrimination based, there was passionate debate over the size of businesses that should be included.

According to the Human Rights Campaign’s website (hrc.org), 225 cities and counties “prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment ordinances that governed all public and private employers in those jurisdictions.”

Four of those cities are in Arizona: Phoenix and Tucson, both larger than Mesa, and Tempe and Flagstaff, both many times smaller than Mesa.

At the 5:45 p.m. Monday meeting, City Council will consider the proposed non-discrimination ordinance, “prohibiting discrimination in public accommodation, employment and housing on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, veteran’s status, marital status and familial status and establishing penalties for violations thereof.”

The virtual meeting can be viewed online at youtube.com/user/cityofmesa11/live

Those who wish to weigh in can submit comments up to an hour before the meeting at mesaaz.gov/government/city-council-meetings/online-meeting-comment-card.

There will not be a vote at the Monday meeting. Mayor John Giles said he expects Council to vote on it March 1.

Andrea Alicoate, the city’s diversity administrator, led a presentation at last Thursday study’s session, noting the ordinance would “ensure that Mesa’s diverse populations have equal access to and treatment in goods, services, employment and housing.”

She said the ordinance applies to businesses and places of public accommodation, employers and the workplace, city employees and facilities, city contractors and vendors

Excluded would be federal and state agencies, religious, public and charter schools and religious organizations “when furthering (the) organization’s purpose.”

Also excluded are “speech and expressive activities and the free exercise of religion when protected under the First Amendment.”

City Attorney Jim Smith said ordinances in other cities were reviewed and that one difference is “We’ve articulated those First Amendment rights.”

But Assistant City Attorney Jacqueline Ganier noted, “Criminal activity is not protected under this ordinance.”

“I think that’s a point we need to underline,” Giles said. “There are rumors that this ordinance (will lead to) scary scenarios, like a person with bad intent allowed to go into a women’s restroom and do mischief or intimidate someone … Would this ordinance make that OK?”

“It is not allowable now,” Ganier answered. “Any nefarious leering, anything like that is not now and would not be allowed. This ordinance is not a free pass to engage in criminal conduct.”

In addressing fears that a non-discrimination ordinance would clog up Mesa courts, Alicoate said “other cities have reported a low volume of complaints” after passing similar ordinances.

The majority of complaints were resolved by mediation or education, she added.

Alicoate said the ordinance will not require businesses to spend money.

“Sometimes people like to characterize these things as ‘bathroom ordinances.’ Businesses will continue to have male and female bathrooms, is that correct?” Giles asked.

Alicoate confirmed, “Businesses can continue to operate as they do today.”

First violations would be subject to up to $300 fines. Fines of repeat offenders could be as high as $2,500.

If passed, the city will allow 120 days until the ordinance is effective date “to allow for public education,” Alicoate said.

Councilman Mark Freeman was the first to express concerns about employment size.

After Alicoate clarified that all businesses, no matter the size, would be covered, Freeman requested an exemption for businesses with 15 or fewer employees.

Councilman David Luna pushed back against Freeman’s idea.

“I don’t want to go beyond one employer. By expanding to 15 then you have 14 employees that aren’t protected by this non-discrimantion ordinance,” Luna said.

Luna cited Mesa Economic Development and the Maricopa Association of Governments in noting that of the city’s 13,000 businesses, 11,000 have 15 employees or less.

“We started working on this (ordinance) in 2014. It’s been a long process,” Luna said. “Based on what we’re hearing from Phoenix and Tempe and some of our neighbors, it hasn’t been a big issue. Our role is not to have a big stick, it’s to be a teacher.”

Councilwoman Jen Duff agreed with Luna.

She noted companies looking to land in Mesa ask if the city has an ordinance making discrimination illegal. “I’ll be proud that Mesa passes this,” she said.

But Giles and Councilman Kevin Thompson – who was absent but submitted a statement – sided with Freeman for excluding businesses of 15 or fewer employees.

After new Councilwoman Julie Spilsbury said she fully supported the ordinance but was on the fence about the size of businesses it should apply to, Giles suggested a compromise.

He asked council members if they would accept excluding businesses with 10 or fewer employees.

“Absolutely not,” an emotional Duff snapped. “This is a human right … Discrimination is not ok at any level and I think we have to stand for that.”

Luna added,  “We have to remember that behind that number is a human being. I will not budge. No one should be discriminated against in the city of Mesa.”

Councilman Francisco Heredia agreed businesses of all sizes should be included in the ordinance.

With three solidly in favor of no business exclusions and three behind smaller businesses being excepted from the ordinance, it came down to the rookie.

“My email’s full of 200 people opposing this,” Spilsbury said. “I’m only in my second month of this. This is a hard thing to deal with as I’m starting out new.”

But, after Freeman put her on the spot and asked her to “step up to the plate and hit a home run,” Spilsbury made a firm decision.

“I’m going to be a big girl. I think we should do it to 15 employees,” she said.

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