Mexican-American Activist Groups and ACLU Run Into Stone Wall at Escondido City Hall

by on September 5, 2012

in Activism, Government

Escondido City Hall.

ACLU Opens up Office to Educate and Mobilize Latino Voters

This Friday, September 7th, up in northern San Diego County in the City of Escondido, there will be a ribbon-cutting celebration of the opening of a pedestrian plaza.  At this event welcoming the Maple Street Pedestrian Plaza, there will be musical entertainment and the official crowning of the King and Queen of the Grape Day Festival.

On the City’s official website, the new Plaza is advertised as:

“a destination for people of all ages to sit and relax, visit local businesses or engage with members of the community in a vibrant public space.”

It’s interesting that city officials are pushing the plaza as a “vibrant public space” because the whole issue of public space – and free speech – within the City of Escondido has become a contentious one recently, as Mexican-American advocacy organizations and other groups are finding it tough to actually get to use that very public space so glorified in this official ad.

Grape Day Park – right behind City Hall.

For instance, the ACLU wanted to organize a voters registration day and rally at the Grape Day Park on September 25th, just behind City Hall. But they were told that the City required 60 days to authorize any permit for its use. Their permit was denied as “untimely”. This violates the First Amendment, retorted the ACLU, and it filed a law suit against the City.

A press release issued by the ACLU asserts:

“Escondido’s ordinance represents an illegal prior restraint, pitting the public’s right to protected expression against the government’s power to approve or disapprove an application. On a number of fronts, the city’s current ordinance violates First Amendment protections…”

Yet, this is not the only contentious issue to surface recently in this city of 145,000 souls in northeast San Diego County.  Historically, the city has been pretty hard on its immigrants and on its Mexican-American citizenry in general.

Yet,  a grander view is presented by Mayor Sam Abed. “More and more people are making Escondido their ‘City of Choice'”, Mayor Abed assures us in a website promo of his city. He offers even more:

As the heart of San Diego North, it is one of the few remaining communities where people of all income levels can enjoy the Southern California lifestyle.

Mayor Sam touts “homes in a wide range of prices, two lakes, several parks, a sports center, golf courses, restaurants, wineries, shopping centers, comprehensive healthcare and the nearby San Diego Zoo Safari Park,” plus Escondido’s  Center for the Arts, and other platitudes about the area’s art. He describes his city:

Settled in a long valley in the coastal mountains of Southern California, Escondido, which means “hidden” in Spanish, lies about 18 miles inland, 100 miles south of Los Angeles, and 30 miles northeast of San Diego. Surrounded by avocado and citrus groves, Escondido is a diverse, vibrant community with just the right mix of small town friendliness and big-city buzz.

At the end of his municipal tribute, he even adds:

 Ladies Home Journal also ranked Escondido number eight among the Top Ten Cities for Government.

 We are assuming that what is meant is ‘good government’. And that issue – good government – is at the core of the complaints about Escondido by a host of groups – mainly Mexican-Americans – who have run into the bureaucratic and authoritarian wall that the City presents to its minorities and its dissenters.  Some may even call it a “racist wall” – as even though Latinos make up 50% of the residents of the City, they only account for about one-fifth of the voters.  There is only one Latina on the City Council, Olga Diaz, and only two have ever been elected to the City Council.

The diversity that Mayor Sam is so proud of is not demonstrated by the City Council’s ethnic make-up, and in terms of Latino immigrants, it is not welcomed by the personnel that carry out the policies of the City and its police department.

And this is why the ACLU has opened up an office in Escondido with plans to recruit and train 200 community volunteers – who will then mobilize the vote come November.

Much of what has been occurring in Escondido – especially the conflicts the city establishment is having with its critics – is not making it into mainstream press and media down south in the main metropolitan areas of the county (although smaller media has reported on the issues).  So, some background is necessary.

In the 2005-2006 period, Escondido City Council passed an ordinance that barred landlords from renting to immigrants without papers. The ACLU filed suit against the City in an effort to stop this anti-immigrant and anti-Latino law – and it was successful.

Fast forward to more recent time – the Escondido Police Department obtained a quarter of a million dollar a year federal grant to hold checkpoints ; so it holds checkpoint stops every month.

Suffice it to say, the Mexican-American community is not happy with these checkpoints.  Critics of the forced auto stops say they disproportionately affect undocumented immigrants, who cannot by law obtain a driver’s license, who suffer disproportionately from having their cars impounded by the City. Other critics contend the City is making money off the checkpoints.

In fact, people have been protesting near the checkpoints for a while.  In January 2011, an activist by the name of Matthew Bologna and another protester were demonstrating near a checkpoint from a sidewalk along Valley Parkway.  A police officer ordered them to move, citing a California Vehicle Code section (22520.5).  Despite the ACLU assertions that the vehicle code did not apply to the situation, CHP officers used the same code section during another checkpoint in May 2011 in Escondido.

More recently, Bologna was videotaping officers at a checkpoint on April 24th. Police ordered him to move away. According to the ACLU lawsuit, an officer told him that “we have a policy not to have you in our operational area for officer safety reasons.”

The ACLU is requesting the court to prevent the CHP and Escondido police from interfering with the anti-checkpoint demonstrators.  David Loy, legal director for the San Diego ACLU, stated:

“The time has come to resolve this in court. Escondido officers continue to violate the First Amendment.”

Besides this lawsuit, city hall has been besieged lately with calls for the City Manager and the Police Chief to resign.  Latino activists accuse City Manager Clay Phillips and Chief Jim Maher of leading the City into an illegal system of profiteering from the police checkpoints and towing fees.  A protest was held back in mid-April on these calls to the City Council to act.  Activists claim the city is making millions from mostly Mexican immigrants.

One North County-based immigrant rights group, El Grupo, is leading the calls for these removals.  Bill Flores, a member of El Grupo – and a retired assistant sheriff – called the towing fee and checkpoint allegations just the latest of misdirected policy by City Manager Phillips. Flores stated:

“His [Phillips] demonstrated conduct as city manager, by failing to notify the City Council of several important policy decisions, like the police partnership with ICE, like the hiring of [Phillip’s] son [as a city attorney], like the huge raises [for top city officials], speaks to a pattern of secretiveness that appears to indicate that the administrators are in charge of the city, not the elected officials.”

 Those leading the protest had four demands:

  1. an independent audit of grant-funded checkpoints;
  2. Removal of City Manager Phillips;
  3. Removal of Police Chief Maher;
  4. An end to the police partnership with federal immigration authorities.

Questions regarding the towing fees have raised to such a pitch that a number of other groups have joined in the call for an independent audit. In addition to El Grupo and the ACLU, the NAACP of North San Diego County, La Raza Lawyers Association and the National Latino Peace Officers Association have all made the call. State Senator Christine Kehoe requested the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee to look into Escondido’s impound and towing programs.

In a nutshell, the controversy around the impound and towing is this: it appears that the tow and impound programs are profit oriented, violating California law. Here is John Carlos Frey of HuffPost:

 Private tow companies in Escondido pay a contract fee in order to do business in the city. State law also regulates these fees and only allows a city to be reimbursed for what it costs them to run a tow program. By law, they cannot use tow contract fees for profit.

In 2004 tow contractors in Escondido paid a total of $85,000 in contract fees. The latest contract has tow companies now paying a whopping $450,000 – a 500% increase in the span of seven years.

When Police Services Bureau Manager Representative Susan Cervenka was asked for the documents to justify such a fee hike she said, “A lot of time those things are done in discussion… it’s not always done on a spreadsheet.”

That statement appears to be an admission of malfeasance. How does one get reimbursed for expenses if the expense report is never generated but is only “discussed”? After repeated requests for documents to justify reimbursable costs, the City of Escondido could not produce them and admitted they did not have them.

Continuing efforts to crack the bureaucratic wall have met with stone. During a television interview on KPBS  back last March, Police Chief Maher was asked whether he would be willing to display his account books to the public. He answered: “We don’t have books.”  And during a meeting in April, when Escondido officials were asked by the ACLU why the impound fee in 1998 was $45, whereas now it is $180, a Deputy City Attorney replied: ” We have no records from 1998.”

Figuring out that the Mexican-American population in the city was very underrepresented, the ACLU decided to go after Latino voters. Last week it opened an office in Escondido at 216 S. Orange Street, Suite 9, as part of its Nuestro Voto, Nuestro Futuro – Our Vote – Our Future campaign.  I spoke to Norma Chavez-Peterson, the director of Nuestro Voto, who told me that “our focus is to use November as an opportunity to engage, educate, and mobilize Latinos into the election process.”

“We have a real need for basic civics 101,” Norma said. Norma told me that they’ve connected with high school student groups, and have reached out to Latino and liberal professors at the local colleges. As far as the Registration Day of September 25th, Norma said “It’s still being planned,” and that they plan to register people and hold up signs.  It’s to coincide with National Voter Registration Day.  See their website: nuestrovotoescondido.org .

Perhaps the stone wall at City Hall in Escondido is beginning to crack. Analogies to the City of Anaheim could be appropriate,where you have a white-dominated political elite running the city while the majority of residents – Mexican-Americans in both cities – sit on the sidelines unrepresented. Anaheim blew up. What happens in Escondido will depend on how the establishment bends to enable the “diversity” that it so cherishes in its municipal brochures.

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A lawyer and grassroots activist, I was finally convinced by Patty Jones to start the OB Rag, a blog of citizen journalists, after she got tired of listening to my rants about the news. Way back during the Dinosaurs in 1970, I founded the original Ocean Beach People’s Rag - OB’s famous underground newspaper -, and then later during the early Eighties, published The Whole Damn Pie Shop, a progressive alternative to the Reader.
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