East Valley students studying abroad learn about understanding and acceptance. East Valley businesses dealing with industry in foreign lands build economic bridges. East Valley companies donating goods such as medical supplies extend a humanitarian hand.
The goal is global peace.
Since the early 1970s, East Valley municipalities have embraced the Sister Cities Program. Mesa, Tempe, Scottsdale and Gilbert together have adopted nearly 20 sister cities in Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Africa in the name of friendship.
But while the intent is lofty and results admirable, critics are concerned about the role local government should play in the relationship. Outside of lending their good names and support, and perhaps some nominal costs, cities should let the private sector handle the program, some say.
East Valley officials are divided on the issue.
Gilbert Town Councilman Dave Petersen calls the program a "bureaucratic travel agency." He said it is little more than a way for city officials to vacation in exotic locations on the taxpayer’s dime.
Tempe City Councilman Dennis Cahill takes an opposite position. Tempe’s involvement is crucial to the success of the program, he said. He pointed to the city’s Oktoberfest, which raises money for youth exchanges between sister cities. The festival at Town Lake costs the city $10,000 annually.
Since 1998, East Valley municipalities have spent a combined $164,000 in tax revenue to support the program. The expenditures have included dinners and gifts for foreign delegations, trips by city officials overseas and local festivals.
Some cities are more involved in the Sister Cities Program than others. Tempe, with seven sister cities, has spent $90,728 on the program since 1998. Mesa, with five sister cities, has spent $53,971. Scottsdale, with four sister cities, and Gilbert, with two sister cities and a friendship city, have spent about $10,000 each.
Chandler doesn’t have any sister cities. State Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, RChandler, the city’s mayor from 1994 to 2002, said he made sure no taxpayer dollars were spent on the Sister Cities Program because it was the responsible thing to do.
"You start reading about officials traveling to some exotic location, you wonder is this going to benefit the taxpayers of the community," Tibshraeny said.
Debate over cities’ involvement follows recent flaps involving elected leaders and the Sister Cities Program.
• Last month, Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker’s trip to Mesa’s sister city of Caraz, Peru, with executives of an ambulance company raised eyebrows, especially since the city is in the process of awarding a $10 million contract for city ambulance services. The company donated an ambulance and medical supplies to Caraz officials. Hawker paid his own way to take part in a humanitarian aid mission by Mesa’s Sister Cities organization.
• In June, Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano was planning a city-funded trip to Tempe’s sister city of Regensburg, Germany. Giuliano intended to break off from the official visit and spend three days in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on his own expense. The openly gay mayor allowed a friend to post an advertisement for him on an Amsterdam Web site for gays, saying in part that he was seeking "some hot fun." The mayor canceled the trip to attend a funeral.
• In March, a Valley television news station tailed Mesa City Council members Janie Thom and Dennis Kavanaugh to Mesa’s sister city of Guaymas, Mexico, recording their activities on hidden video. The news station captured them enjoying Carnival in the seaside resort town during the $2,300 taxpayer-funded trip. The trip came at a time that Mesa was trying to balance its budget.
Jack Sellers, president of the Mesa Sister City Association and a General Motors executive, said recent news about the program has focused exclusively on city officials’ involvement while ignoring the hard work of citizens and the positive exposure to the East Valley.
He pointed to a two-week trip in July to Mesa’s sister city of Caraz by 50 volunteers from Banner Health.
The trip was financed entirely by private funds. During the trip, doctors and nurses treated more than 1,000 people who otherwise wouldn’t have received medical attention, he said.
Sister Cities Program benefits
• Tempe’s Sister Cities Program has allowed 500 youths to travel to sister cities, and 500 foreign youths have visited Tempe. Funds from the program are being used to build wells in Timbuktu, Mali. The Practical Trainee Exchange Program allows young professionals to spend up to three months working for a company in one of Tempe’s sister cities. Thirty youths have completed the exchange program since its inception in 1987. Oktoberfest brings thousands of people into Tempe each year.
• Mesa is able compete for the Boeing 7E7 project because its sister city of Guaymas is a deep-water port, a requirement of the project. If Mesa is selected, there is talk of linking the cities with a rail line. The program also has helped in a proposal to build a highway linking Mexico, the United States and Canada, called the CANAMEX corridor. Trips by Mesa leaders to sister cities allow them to see how foreign cities approach issues like public safety, health and transportation, said city spokeswoman Heidi Gast.
• Several Gilbert businesses are working to establish economic partnerships with companies in the town’s sister cities of Leshan, China, and Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, Gilbert officials said. One Gilbert company, GPMI, is making labels in Chinese to test-market wet wipes in Leshan. If the test is successful, the company will begin exporting to China. Twelve companies in Newtownabbey have expressed an interest in the Arizona market.
• Scottsdale’s role in the Sister Cities Program has been limited to a $10,000 grant to the organization for administrative needs, a $250 cookie and punch reception for delegates from Cairns, Queensland, Australia, and a $625 Kachina doll given to Interlaken, Switzerland, officials. There have been no recent trips by Scottsdale elected leaders to any sister cities.