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Residents voice concerns about Copa Glow as mayor doubles down
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MARICOPA — A January outdoor event put on by the city of Maricopa has come under fire for continuing as scheduled despite a surging pandemic.

Copa Glow is an annual city event held at Copper Sky Recreation Center that includes an outdoor night market, hot air balloon rides, food trucks and a beer garden. This year, the event is proceeding as scheduled at 6 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 15, and has come under fire from some residents who are concerned about the impact on the community’s COVID-19 numbers.

Arizona recently received the grim title for leading the world in a seven-day average for COVID-19 cases as the pandemic rages. When cases hovered in the dozens a day in March, the city closed its City Council meetings to audiences, and other festivals, galas and retreats were postponed or canceled.

On Jan. 3, Arizona reported more than 17,000 new COVID cases, marking a total never before seen in the state. There were 8,998 cases reported Monday.

Maricopa has been among the state’s fastest risers in terms of cases. The city’s two ZIP codes as of Monday combine for 4,804 cases, up 505 from the previous week and more than double where the total was at the beginning of December.

Local resident Merry Grace was surprised the event was still moving forward and posted her concerns to her Facebook page.

“All it takes is one person to spread this virus,” Grace later said in an interview. “As city leaders, they have a responsibility to not promote or encourage activities that will be causing spread in the community — not at this time. It’s just irresponsible. It’s not right. It’s not ethical.”

She received dozens of responses to her post, including several from Mayor Christian Price. The mayor highlighted the COVID precautions the city has taken for the event and emphasized the event is following all of the guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He also pointed to several events that the city held in the previous months, such as the State of the City Address and Merry Copa, which followed the guidelines set by the CDC.

“We’re doing everything that we can to make sure that we have a safe environment for people that choose to come and participate in this,” Price said in an interview. “If people choose not to, that’s OK.”

On Thursday, the city released more regulations in relation to the event. According to the city, attendance and capacity will be regulated and attendees are asked to maintain physical distance of at least 6 feet. Markings will indicate 6 feet distance while waiting in lines. Masks that cover the mouth and nose will be required for attendees, staff and vendors. Hand sanitizer and masks will be available on site.

“We have a mayor who’s not mandating masks (in public), so is he really going to be able to enforce others who are out there to party and who are not necessarily heeding warnings?” Grace asked. “Is he really going to be able to say it’s required to wear a mask when they know, ‘OK, the city doesn’t mandate a mask so you can’t tell me I have to wear a mask.’”

Price stated that anyone not wearing a mask appropriately will be asked to leave city property.

According to the city, this year’s event was also modified to be more adult-friendly and to encourage individuals not to linger.

“Kids are welcome,” the statement on the event page states, “but there won’t be attractions that would hold their interest (for hours) or be worth waiting in line for other than the tethered balloon rides, which would require registration.”

The event description goes on to highlight that attendees can eat, drink and check out vendors before riding a balloon at their scheduled time.

In the comments under Grace’s private post, discussion of the event quickly turned to COVID-19 in general. At one point, Price compared the risk of getting the virus to a car accident.

“We live in a world of uncertainty and risk,” Price wrote. “Every time we get in the car we suffer risk. But we do it because it’s a convenient way to get to work. But cars are more dangerous than this disease (virus).”

This claim has been refuted by data reported from the National Traffic Safety Association.

According to the data, an average of 24,166 people died in car accidents yearly from 2013 to 2018, while 365,000 people died of COVID-19 in 2020 alone.

This data shows that at least 10 times more people died of COVID-19 in 2020 than of car accidents.

“To dismiss the severity of this is wrong,” Grace said. “That’s a slap in the face of the people who have lost loved ones, including my husband, who lost his aunt.”

Price later said in an interview he was not making a “numerical comparison.”

At a Thursday night board meeting, Maricopa Unified School District Vice President AnnaMarie Knorr pointed to the latest city events as reason to keep the schools open.

“The city is still holding their community events, the restaurants are open, the bars are open, UltraStar is open, you can play flag football, you can go to the skatepark. … You can do anything you want to do that was available pre-COVID, except go to school,” Knorr said. “If the rest of society doesn’t change, we won’t have graduations even if we do close. It will not be the school district’s fault, period.”

She also stated that by closing the schools, the district is sending the message that school isn’t important, or not as important as other activities currently being allowed by the city.

Price said the circumstances surrounding MUSD’s decision to reopen schools were much different than Copa Glow.

“At the end of the day, the Copa Glow event is very different than kids sitting in a closed classroom, so that’s the school district’s decision,” Price said.

As of publication, the Copa Glow event is scheduled to proceed as planned by the city.

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Hughes assumes role as Maricopa chief of police
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MARICOPA — Maricopa Police Chief James “Jim” Hughes remembers the moment he decided to become a police officer vividly. His hometown of Bernardsville, New Jersey, had just been hit by a rainstorm that year, around August 1973.

“I was 5 or 6 years old and I was on the porch of my parents’ house,” Hughes said. “It was a heavy rainstorm. There were trees down, power lines down, and I remember seeing a police car go by.”

Bernardsville was — and still is — a town of just a few thousand, and it sits about 25 miles west of New York City. His father served the community for 26 years and, unbeknownst to Hughes that day, was in the patrol car he saw driving by.

“I was just like, ‘I want to be that person,’” Hughes said. “‘I want to be the person that’s out there when everyone else isn’t. That one person kind of standing guard for the city.’”

His father pulled over and chided a young “Jimmy” for being outside during the storm, but it would turn out to be the outdoor romp that shaped a 34-year career in law enforcement.

On Jan. 5, Hughes took on the role of police chief from now-retired Chief Steve Stahl. He takes the helm after more than eight years of service with MPD as a commander and said he has some big shoes to fill after Stahl’s retirement.

Hughes said leadership of a department takes a number of qualities, and he defines it as similar to how he was raised by his father.

“This may sound a little elementary, but I think a good leader is a lot like being a good parent,” Hughes said. “Care, do everything you can to provide for your department or family, correct your officers and employees when they go astray and support them when they do well.”

According to Hughes, Stahl embodied those qualities.

“I always respected the fact that he was one of the hardest working people in the building, (and) one of the most passionate,” Hughes said. “Nothing great happens without passion.”

Passion for the field of law enforcement is something Hughes shares with Stahl.

Hughes started out in the field as a fresh-faced 19-year-old at the Mendham Township Police Department, another bedroom community outside of New York City. After 10 years as a patrol officer, he worked in undercover narcotics. Working his way up to sergeant, he had traffic and general patrol duties before he became lieutenant of criminal investigations for the department.

“(My favorite role) personally, was my days as a young patrol officer … having some great squadmates and just the camaraderie that comes with police work,” Hughes said. “I used to say quite a bit, I’m like, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this job, I’d do it for nothing,’ it’s just a lot of fun.”

He worked there for 25 years as a police officer before retiring at 44 as interim chief for the department, but he felt he wasn’t done yet.

“I had amassed all this knowledge and experience and I felt if I just walked away from the profession, it would go to waste — especially at 44,” Hughes said. “(I was) still young and in the prime of my career, and I wanted to do more.”

Looking for a change of pace, he found it in the position of director of the Honolulu Police Commission. But, after about a year and a half of operating as the chief investigator of all non-criminal complaints against Honolulu police officers, he felt it was time to get back into sworn law enforcement.

Hughes said that while he really liked his Honolulu position, it did not provide for the authority to enact systemic change the way he had originally hoped. He applied to a number of departments back on the mainland and when he came in to meet Chief Stahl, it all fell into place.

“We clicked immediately and shared the same vision,” Hughes said.

He was hired as a commander with the department and would go on to work in both support services and operations departments before becoming chief with MPD this year.

Described as a cheerleader for the department by Stahl, Hughes joked that he regularly tries to recruit his exemplary servers while out to dinner with his wife in the hopes of hiring some new officers for the department.

Though he receives positive responses most of the time, Hughes also says he’s had to handle changes in public perception in recent years as well. It drives him forward, he says, to continue the department’s mantra of “making every contact excellent.”

“We’re in a public trust business. If parts of the public are being somewhat reluctant to provide trust, it’s our job to fix it. It’s our job to show them that we are worthy of their trust,” Hughes said. “It only takes a couple bad apples. We have national media and we have, you know, another difficult mountain to climb with public perception.”

Similar to Stahl, Hughes cites the challenge of each day being different as a reason to stay with the profession.

“Every day in this profession is rewarding, because every day is different. There’s no routine day at the office,” Hughes said.

“You’re not allowed to have a bad day,” Hughes added, “because if you have a bad day, you affect other people in a negative manner.”

As the son of a police officer, Hughes understands this dedication. Hughes’ brother William also put 25 years into law enforcement with Morris County Park Police.

Hughes’ father died in 2000, but he was able to witness Hughes’ success in the field before he passed. Hughes and his wife Brandelyn have been married for two years and live in Ahwatukee together with their blended family of seven children ranging in ages between 3 and 22.

The two met while Brandelyn worked as a city employee for Maricopa and hit it off.

“She’s a strong woman,” he said. “She’s a hard worker. We’re very similar in a lot of ways.”

Hughes’ family has shown such support for him and his career. In fact, his eldest is getting ready to pursue the same field.

“They’ve been supportive,” Hughes said. “My oldest son, he wants to become a third generation (police officer). He moved back to New Jersey to be with his grandparents. … He’s talking about how he wants to test to become a police officer in New Jersey.”

In Maricopa, Hughes is thinking ahead for the future of the city too. He hopes that during his time as chief, he can strengthen ties with the other entities and communities that surround Maricopa.

“I believe that relationships drive progress,” Hughes said. “Other departments, Gila River, Ak-Chin, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Public Safety, parole, probation, all those agencies, we can improve those relationships there. I also want to bolster community policing efforts and community outreach.”

Community policing and community outreach are important to Hughes, as they help not only to catch criminals, but to stop the crimes before they occur — the ultimate goal.

“It’s so much easier and cost effective to prevent a crime than solve a crime, and the beauty of it is that there’s no victim of a crime,” Hughes said.

As chief for MPD, Hughes sees his role as a partnership with the city to further growth in the community.

“I want the city to continue to grow with the right people. We want the right people in here that contribute to our community in a positive manner,” Hughes said. “We need to provide an environment where there’s low crime that attracts the good families to move to Maricopa.”

He hopes to address repeat and career criminal offenders and focus on overall quality of life issues that affect Maricopans. Above all though, Hughes stressed that the city is getting what they’ve already gotten from Stahl for the last eight years.

“You’re getting someone who’s approachable, someone who cares,” Hughes said. “Someone that’s not going to have all the answers and know everything, but I will work to solve the problems within our community.”

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City launches 'Keep Maricopa Beautiful' campaign after trash complaints
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MARICOPA — A new “Keep Maricopa Beautiful” campaign was launched by city officials this month in an effort to help combat trash and dumping within the city while also providing new opportunities for volunteers.

The program was started, in part, to put a stop to common litter areas outside local businesses.

“We started noticing that there was an overflow of trash happening in some of our business areas and we’re like, ‘We’re Maricopa, we’re beautiful, and we should do everything in our part to maintain it that way,’” said organizer Judy Ramos, neighborhood services manager for the city of Maricopa.

A photo of an overflowing trash can in Maricopa went viral on Facebook in November after resident Ellie Whitaker posted the photo with the partial caption, “I’m pretty sure that we’re better (than) this.”

Located on the sidewalk between Ross and Dollar Tree, the receptacle is well known in the community for overflowing — with the ground around the trash can often littered with debris.

Residents in the comments of the post chimed in, with one person adding, “I’ve lived here 4 years, I’ve never (seen) this trash can empty and not overflowing.”

The new Keep Maricopa Beautiful campaign will focus on multiple ways to reach the common goal of a cleaner city, including education on proper trash disposal, prevention of dumping and trash pickup through volunteer efforts.

“Maricopa is one of the fastest growing cities in the Valley and when you grow that quickly, little things can fall through the cracks — like litter,” Ramos joked. “We should want to live in a clean city and so by helping develop good habits and throwing our stuff away in the trash can, that will inspire others to do so.”

Though the pandemic has postponed a long-term goal of a city-wide volunteer effort to pick up trash, Ramos said there will still be opportunities for those interested in volunteering. Many teens in the community need volunteer hours, and Ramos hopes this campaign will provide a new opportunity for kids to get involved early and create good habits.

Those who volunteer to pick up trash can use the hashtag #KMB to post photos of their cleanups or submit their photos to KMB@maricopa-az.gov.

“Employees will also be doing their part as well,” Ramos said. “Occasionally you will see employees come out once a month, maybe one or two or a few — whoever’s interested in participating.”

Part of maintaining a clean space is the prevention of trash build-up, and the city hopes to address that through education of the public. Ramos said the campaign will help to educate volunteers, business owners and their patrons about the best way to dispose of trash and maintain a clean environment for everyone to enjoy.

Another issue the campaign hopes to address is dumping, where individuals discard anything from construction materials and landscaping debris to trash and car parts in an empty area or on the roadside. Dumping is illegal and is a nuisance for the owners of the land.

If a community member sees someone dumping large amounts of debris or trash, Ramos urges them to immediately call the Maricopa Police non-emergency line at 520-316-6800 and report it, as it is a violation.

If someone is experiencing repeated dumping issues on their property, they can also report it at maricopavipportal.com or by calling the city’s code enforcement division at 520-316-6922. The program will expand on these existing services to help better prevent dumping and support land owners.

“We also are starting to work with individuals to do their part and work with code enforcement to put up ‘no trespassing’ signs, ‘no littering’ signs, in areas where whoever is continually dumping in their area,” Ramos said.

Ramos hopes that, through the Keep Maricopa Beautiful initiative, residents can create a cleaner, brighter future for the city.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to say that we live in the cleanest city in the Valley?” Ramos said. “That’s what really inspired this. We have a rich history, we have amazing views, we have an economy that has an amazing future, so we don’t want to lose sight of what we have — and just keep it beautiful.”

Visit the new website for the initiative at keepmaricopabeautiful.com for more information.

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MUSD board votes 3-1 to postpone in-person classes until February
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MARICOPA — In a special meeting Thursday, the Maricopa Unified School District board voted to postpone in-person classes until Feb. 1 due to the current COVID-19 numbers.

Superintendent Tracey Lopeman reported the district had been notified of dozens of new COVID-19 cases between Monday and Thursday and said she was still receiving the emails up until the meeting.

According to Lopeman’s data, 35 new cases were reported to MUSD during the period. Of those, 15 in-person students and 14 in-person staff members were infected as well as four distance students and two distance staff.

“I would emphasize that those 15 cases could create 15 separate quarantines,” Lopeman said. “We don’t know the overlap between the in-person students and the in-person staff, those positive cases, so we could be looking at 29 separate quarantines. Certainly there could be some overlap.”

Multiple families wrote into the school board meeting during the call to the public reporting their families were currently ill with COVID, or had recently lost family members.

“I admit that I didn’t know much about COVID. Like much of our city government at that time, I didn’t want to wear a mask, I just didn’t get what all the bother was about,” wrote one parent. “Then our family was affected. I lost my brother to COVID, that alone was shocking to the kids. … I wish this on no person. Seeing this firsthand has traumatized me, and to think that I could have prevented some of this by doing simple preventable things earlier haunts me.”

Lopeman suggested the board set a tentative start date for in-person learning on Jan. 19, with time to discuss again at the regularly scheduled board meeting Wednesday.

The board deliberated over issues of student and staff safety, consistency, attendance and budget issues in relation to whether a district-wide move to online learning was suitable.

Board members Ben Owens and Torri Anderson were in favor of remaining consistent and stressed the importance of a stable learning environment for students. However, AnnaMarie Knorr felt that the school district was at odds with how the rest of the community is treating the pandemic.

“The city is still holding their community events, the restaurants are open, the bars are open, UltraStar is open, you can play flag football, you can go to the skatepark … you can do anything you want to do that was available pre-COVID, except go to school,” Knorr said. “The message we are sending to our kids is, ‘school is not important.’”

Owens moved to extend online learning until Feb.1, and board members Jim Jordan and Anderson joined him in voting yes while Knorr voted no.

Schools will remain online for instruction until Feb. 1. On-site support services like meals, learning labs, medical and mental health services, English language learner support, tutoring and services for children in foster care will remain in place until otherwise specified by the district.