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Homelessness, Public Safety, Climate Action: Key Issues For New Phoenix City Council

By Christina Estes
Published: Monday, April 19, 2021 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, April 19, 2021 - 10:31am

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Phoenix City Council chambers
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Phoenix City Council chambers.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and four councilmembers took their oaths of office Monday. The swearing-in ceremony includes two newcomers to the City Council, and their priorities could drastically shape the city’s future.

Homelessness

Over the past year, various city leaders have repeated a message Mayor Gallego shared with KJZZ before the pandemic, a message she emphasized again last week while addressing a regional plan for homelessness.

“We need solutions in every corner of Maricopa County,” she said during a council meeting.

Yassamin Ansari
City of Phoenix
Yassamin Ansari

Gallego endorsed Yassamin Ansari for District 7, which includes the state’s largest homeless shelter located at the Human Services Campus near downtown.  

“Ultimately, I really believe we need more permanent, supportive housing in Phoenix and smaller, more specialized facilities that are not just concentrated in District 7 but throughout the city of Phoenix and throughout the region as well,” Ansari said.

As more elected officials, residents and business owners focus on findings solutions to homelessness, the public conversation often centers on helping families, veterans and seniors. There’s rarely public talk about the need for low-barrier shelters, places that will accept people with pets and excessive belongings, people using illegal drugs, people with severe mental health challenges and registered sex offenders.

“You’re spot on,” said Ann O’Brien, who represents District 1 in north Phoenix. “It is a difficult subject but it’s one that we need to sit down around the table and roll up our sleeves and work together to find a solution to.”

One solution, she said, is to look beyond downtown: “Regionally, how can we provide them the services they need and to help them.”

Police Accountability

There’s less agreement among the council when it comes to civilian oversight of police. Last year, Phoenix budgeted $3 million to create the Office of Accountability and Transparency. But the council failed to agree on the office’s role in reviewing police shootings and excessive force claims. So, there’s an office but no one’s working in it. That could change before summer. Ansari expects to be the vote needed to move the office forward.

“Fundamentally, it's really important for us to have this office, really for the purpose of rebuilding trust between the police department and the communities that they serve,” she said.

O’Brien takes another view.

“My preference would be that we add more of a civilian voice to the current boards and commissions that look at police accountability rather than have another entire department and then use the money to continue to provide services to our folks that need them,” she said.

Schools

As president of the Deer Valley Unified School District Governing Board and the Arizona School Boards Association, O’Brien is especially interested in exploring how the city supports schools.

Ann O
City of Phoenix
Ann O'Brien

“I would never just start a bunch of programs,” she said. “It’s really important that we see what’s, you know, if we’ve got something, look at if it’s working, improve it. If it’s not, then we can start looking at other ways to tackle that problem.”

Climate Action

Ansari has spent years working on climate change initiatives and wants Phoenix to take a more active role. She thinks the council should push developers to plant more trees and use renewable energy to power buildings. As the city updates its climate action plan, she’s hopeful it will include significant ways to reduce gasoline-fueled vehicles, which account for 36% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Phoenix.

“There are other cities in the United States that have set like electric vehicle action plans, for example that set policies to try to make electric vehicles more affordable and accessible to folks,” she said.

District 7 Needs

Each council district has about 200,000 people, a population equal to the city of Tempe. Ansari’s district covers parts of downtown, Maryvale and south Phoenix, and runs southwest through Laveen to 107th Avenue. She’s working to identify the top issues in five geographic areas and plans to work with relevant city departments to make changes.

“In Laveen, many people would tell me that they want more outdoor dining or they — there’s a lot of rapid development when it comes to housing but not necessarily the amenities to go with that, you know, wanting more high paying jobs for the Loop 202 tech corridor,” she said. “But then in Maryvale, for example, I’d hear a lot more about needing more clinics or urgent care centers, improving public safety response times, needing before and after school programs.”

Ansari believes she is the first Iranian-American elected to public office in Arizona.

“I’m hoping to have a very diverse office and really have an open mind on different issues and make sure that we’re being as accessible and transparent as possible,” she said.

metrocenter mall
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Metrocenter Mall in Phoenix on June 20, 2020.

District 1 Needs

O’Brien’s district stretches from Northern Avenue near Interstate 17 up to the edge of New River. She wants businesses to share ways the city could assist them and residents to weigh in on police and fire needs.

“I want to make sure we have a public safety action plan that really takes a neighborhood by neighborhood approach and gets the input of our local block watch organizations and our other stakeholders,” she said.

O’Brien’s district includes the former Metrocenter Mall that closed last year. When it opened in 1973, just off Interstate 17 and Dunlap Avenue, Metrocenter was Arizona’s first two-story mall and believed to be the first mall west of the Mississippi River to have five department stores.

“I grew up at Metrocenter,” O’Brien said. “I used to take the bus from my home to Metrocenter to shop as a young girl until I got my license, and then I worked there for several years in high school and then again in college.”

Like her predecessor, O’Brien plans to work closely with Christine Mackay, Phoenix’s economic development director, to explore redevelopment opportunities for Metrocenter.

“I do think some housing, some affordable housing, some workforce housing for that area is important," O'Brien said. "And jobs. If we can bring some more jobs to that area that would be awesome."

As they begin their four-year terms, both women acknowledge a council made up of eight members and a mayor will have disagreements but say they’re bringing open minds and a willingness to find common ground as they work to improve their districts and the city.

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