Racial tensions in Mesa are no longer limited to day labor pick-up spots and neighborhoods, but have infiltrated the very City Hall office charged with bringing the races together.
Debbie Driscol, a 10-year neighborhood outreach coordinator, quit unexpectedly on May 19, nearly a year after filing a complaint alleging she was a victim of racial discrimination and workplace harassment.
Driscol is white and doesn’t speak Spanish. Her claims were against neighborhood services director Lisha Garcia, one of the highest-ranking Hispanics employed by the city.
Mesa hired an outside firm to investigate. It substantiated several of Driscol’s claims.
Among the allegations: Garcia publicly advocated opposition to Proposition 200, which requires voters to prove citizenship before casting ballots; made negative comments about the city to a prospective applicant, including that Mesa was “unresponsive to Hispanics;” and reposted a position to find a Hispanic candidate, according to the heavily redacted, 35-page report.
Other unresolved allegations include that Garcia declined to invite non-Hispanics to attend the Hispanic Women’s Conference, that Garcia is friendlier to Hispanics and uses affectionate greetings in Spanish, creating a perception that Garcia has a Hispanic agenda or is promoting the culture.
Driscol said she turned down a $24,500 settlementfrom Mesa, leaving open the chance for a civil lawsuit.
“They need to deal with the problem, not me,” Driscol said. “Nothing changed after the report came up.”
Garcia was hired by the city nearly two years ago from the North American Development Bank in San Antonio. She has denied the allegations, including that she favors one race over the other and treats non-Hispanic employees — and residents — differently.
“I don’t have an agenda that is targeted to a specific race or ethnicity, but to the entire city,” Garcia said. “I’m here to do the best job and give 110 percent.”
City Council members declined to comment, saying that they don’t want to be involved in personnel matters, don’t know much about the situation, or are worried about potential litigation. Even so, the city is standing behind Garcia, dismissing the report findings as simple communications issues. A management coach was hired for Garcia, but she wasn’t disciplined. The investigation and coaching cost the city $15,224.
There’s no debate that Garcia is proud of her Hispanic culture and gravitates toward those issues. Having Garcia in the top spot for a department that works closely with Hispanic neighborhoods can be a plus for Mesa. It can be interpreted as a sign that it’s reaching out to a growing Hispanic population, which activists say has been ignored.
But on the other hand, city employees are supposed to be politically neutral. According to the investigation, Garcia has pushed for projects that benefit Hispanic causes and her Hispanic friends. However, the report said, “Given the city’s historic lack of focus on Hispanic issues, the prioritization although arguably biased, may be remedially appropriate.”
Since Garcia began working for the city, she has allied herself with the vocal Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens. She also supported funding to restore the Alston House, once home to Mesa’s first black doctor, and leasing it to the citizens group and Mesa’s Martin Luther King Jr. committee for offices and a community center. The City Council eventually backed the plan.
Garcia described her relationship with the citizens group as “very warm and friendly,” but she said it’s the same as her relationships with organizations such as Mesa United Way or the Rotary Club. Two of board members from the citizens group declined to comment to the Tribune while three didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
Garcia will hold conversations in Spanish at city events. Her city e-mails, including some obtained by the Tribune, are sometimes written in Spanish. Garcia says she replies in Spanish to e-mails written to her in the language. When it was pointed out that she has responded in Spanish to e-mails written to her in English, she said she didn’t know why she did that.
She has been active in the Nuestro neighborhood south of downtown, where two white landlords have criticized Garcia’s support of a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe painted on a private apartment building across the street from them. The mural was by Mesa-based Hispanic arts group Xicanindio Artes Coalition, which has received city grants. The city says its grant money wasn’t spent on the mural.
Garcia has pushed for the city to acquire land in the area, including the controversial move last year to buy property from Luz Martinez, who later had his criminal code violations dropped by the city. The city has maintained the two issues were unrelated.
Irene Pine owns apartment units on Morris Circle northeast of Country Club Drive and Eighth Avenue, and lashes out frequently at Garcia and other city officials in e-mails, which have been obtained by the Tribune. She also worked closely with Driscol until Garcia reassigned her out of the Nuestro area.
“Mesa lost a good employee with Debbie Driscol. She had her heart in the job,” Pine said. As for Garcia, Pine said: “She should be working for the betterment of the city, not the betterment of one race.”
But Nuestro resident Jack Hannon, who runs Radio Barrio for the area’s Hispanic population, spoke well of both.
“I felt Lisha has sort of bent over backwards to be openminded and fair,” Hannon said. Of Driscol, he said she is “energetic and helpful.”
The report said that turnover in Garcia’s department has been high since she took over. From June 2004 to August 2005, 15 people left and 18 were hired by the neighborhood services department, in charge of neighborhood outreach, code compliance, human services, community revitalization and historic preservation.
Of those who quit, 11 were white and four were Hispanic. The new hires were eight whites, eight Hispanics, one black and one American Indian.