It was no April Fool’s joke, as the group United for Mesa delivered 11,505 signatures of support to the Mesa city clerk’s office late in the afternoon Thursday, April 1 for a voter referendum on the city’s non-discrimination.
The petitions were filed 30 days after Mesa City Council voted 5-2 to create the ordinance.
This stops the measure from going into effect after a six-month waiting period, though before the issue goes on the ballot as United for Mesa urges, the signatures must be verified.
The most controversial part of the ordinance is language that protects “sexual orientation, gender, gender identity” from discrimination. Some opponents complained to City Council this would allow men to lurk in women’s bathrooms.
Similar to the passionate pleas from both sides of the issue during hours of debate at council meetings, the news that the signatures were turned in brought out immediate – and divergent – views.
“I firmly believe that the majority of Mesa residents want everyone to be treated with dignity and respect, without exception,” said Mayor John Giles.
“Unfortunately, the efforts of a special interest group now force us to prepare for a costly and divisive city-wide election in November 2022. Contrary to their misleading petition campaign, the Mesa ordinance is moderate and protects everyone’s basic rights, including religious freedom and privacy. I urge Mesa voters to educate themselves about the facts, so they aren’t misguided by fear mongering.”
In an email, Equality Arizona slammed the effort to retract the non-discrimination ordinance.
“The dignity, equality and right to exist for LGBTQ people should not be up for a vote,” said Michael Soto, executive director of the group.
“As a person who grew up in Mesa, this ordinance was a major victory for fairness, equality and opportunity for all,” he said. “These hateful efforts by a small minority are not reflective of the Mesa I know today. Equal rights should not be a divisive issue.”
Other opponents of the law celebrated on social media with dancing emojis and praise.
United for Mesa itself is below-the-radar, with no official leaders or posted public meetings. Unofficial leaders like Barbara R. Parker rallied like-minded troops via Facebook and other outlets.
“Thank you to every petition signer and gatherer who helped save Mesa!” Parker posted Thursday night.
“Thank the Lord! I have never seen so many people working so hard to get signatures,” wrote Paula Smith in a comment to Parker’s post. “It's been amazing! I'm so thankful everyone's hard work paid off!”
“Thank you everyone for going the extra distance, so we may all have a voice in such an important decision,” added Charmon Puhlmann, a bus driver for Mesa Public Schools.
Councilmen Mark Freeman and Kevin Thompson voted against the ordinance March 1. Both said Mesa residents and visitors were already protected and that no ordinance was needed.
Thompson told the Tribune the NDO “has become more divisive in our community than anything we’ve ever done before.”
Days after Council created the ordinance, United for Mesa registered as a political action committee (PAC) and filed for the referendum, demanding the issue be put to voters.
“This measure would refer to a vote of the Mesa electorate Ordinance No. 5609, which prohibits many businesses, employers, housing providers, labor unions, educational facilities, and city government entities from making distinctions on the basis of certain enumerated classifications, including actual or perceived gender-related identity, in providing services or in employment or membership practices,” reads the text of the referendum petition that was filed March 4.
The petition was filed by Thomas Brown Jr., an attorney with Copper Canyon Law, with Youssef Kahlaf of 100 Squared Financial listed as treasurer.
Whether they succeed in stopping the ordinance and turning it over to voters depends next on verification.
“The process to verify the petitions will not be complete until late April at the earliest. After that process is complete, we will know if it qualifies for the ballot,” said Kevin Christopher, a city spokesman.
At least 9,093 signatures must be deemed valid for the challenge to succeed.
“We expect the usual legal challenges from supporters of the ordinance who are concerned they won’t get their way if voters actually have a say. But we are hopeful that the voices of Mesa residents will prevail, and this important issue will be put to the ballot where it belongs,” said an unsigned email from the United for Mesa group.
According to Christopher, if the United for Mesa referendum signatures are verified, “it would be voted on at the November 2022 general election unless council decides to call a special election, which they could do in November 2021 or March, May, or August of 2022.”
If a special election is not called, the measure will wind up on a crowded November 2022 ballot when races for governor and all other statewide offices are at stake, along with a U.S. Senate race, legislative races and Mesa council and school board seats.
It also would not be the only ballot question for voters to decide since the Legislature is considering several measures, including an amendment to the State Constitution.
Giles was intense in his defense of the ordinance.
“I want my children and grandchildren to know that I love them enough to stake my reputation on an initiative intended to make Mesa safe for and open to all residents, regardless of race, affiliation or orientation,” he said.
“No child should grow up wondering if they deserve the same treatment and respect as someone who looks or acts different from them. I relish the opportunity to raise awareness about the plight of the most vulnerable members of our community and engage in meaningful, respectful dialogue about Mesa’s NDO.”