Standing debate dominates council
By Jesse Phelps
Once again, day laborers who
congregate and wait for work in the Fitzgerald Plaza dominated
discussion at the Ojai City Council meeting Tuesday.
Council members met early and talked for two hours about goal
setting, then called the regular meeting to order just after
7:30 p.m. before the old debate began anew. The rhetoric flew
as people with very different viewpoints expressed concerns about
an issue that, in a farming town in the heart of citrus country,
won't go away easily.
City Manager Dan Singer made the presentation on the agenda item
to provide further direction to staff on what to do about the
issue of workers who have selected Fitzgerald Plaza as a meeting
ground and pickup spot for their rides to work each morning.
Rhonda Harris, property manager and daughter of the property's
owners, spoke heatedly to the council, saying, "I just think
it's time, you guys, to figure this out."
Harris reiterated that she and her parents have been working
with the city to try to find an alternative for years with what
she considers to be little result. Among the complaints lodged
by Harris and other business owners in the plaza are the desecration
of bathroom sand public areas surrounding the businesses, including
the walls and flower planters in front.
Ojai Police Chief Gary Pentis, Singer and various members of
the council discussed both the measures already taken and possibilities
for further action. The crux of the problem is that, despite
the complaints, very little illegal activity has been witnessed
directly and no law exists that would allow police to forcibly
remove the workers.
A public safety hazard, such as employers blocking traffic, rude
and dangerous behavior to pedestrians or workers running across
the road to catch rides, would be the legal reason to create
a city ordinance limiting access but as of now, no such hazard
has been shown to exist.
That hasn't stopped Pentis from attempting to deal with the problem
in various ways. He says he's sent plainclothes female officers
down to walk in front of the workers.
hey have been perfect gentlemen.
He distributed bilingual flyers to try to increase awareness
among the mostly Hispanic population but discovered that many
are illiterate or uneducated, even in Spanish. He sent officers
who asked the population to relocate and says many have, either
to the park and ride across the way or to another prime pick-up
zone in Meiners Oaks.
And still the problem persists. Data collected by Pentis' people
shows that about 75 percent of the workers live locally. The
time-honored line method of getting work with a contractor is
not Ojai-specific - it's just the way this works virtually everywhere.
As such, workers in the most visible, easy-to-reach spots get
most of the jobs and nobody wants to move to a less visible area.
Nevertheless, that's one of the new proposals generated at the
meeting. Many communities have set up drop points with easy access
to restrooms and Ojai is looking at the possibility of a similar
action. The Ojai Unified School District has indicated that doesn't
want a permanent facility at the park and ride, but it is one
location being considered.
Other locations potentially tabbed for a facility include the
park and rise by the "Y" shopping center and the parking
lot at the lower tennis courts of Libby Park.
Councilwoman Carol Smith sympathized with the Fitzgeralds, and
said she'd spoken to several local contractors and asked them
to attend the meeting. None showed. She thinks that the solution
may be found through educating the "Johns," those who
come and pick up the workers.
Councilwoman Rae Hanstad agreed that education is key. "I
want to see increased outreach on all levels," she said.
And she stressed the point that the workers should have a fair
shot to earn a living, no matter how inconvenient it may seem
to some. Directly addressing Harris, Hanstad stated, " With
all due respect to how your parents have suffered, these people
are looking for work."
Though no resolution was reached, council promised to have staff
look more aggressively into the alternative drop points. Increased
police activity is not, according to Pentis, cost effective or
budget-wise. Calling upon the Immigration Naturalization Service
is another option that, for various reasons, was nixed.
In the end, as DeVito said, "Council is not taking this
issue lightly." Pentis and members of the council urged
the Fitzgeralds to employ private security if the problem persists
after an alternative is found.
In other matters before the council, a new city drug and alcohol
policy for employees performing safety sensitive functions was
accepted and a resolution authorizing the submittal for a grant
application for new, safer crosswalks at three Ojai locations
was unanimously approved.
The crosswalks would feature what public works director Doug
Breeze called "flashing amber runway lights embedded in
the concrete" at three crossings near local schools. The
grant would provide $150,000 and the city would be required to
pay another $15,000 for the flashy crosswalks for the kids.
Speaking of kids, the meeting kicked into gear with a service-learning
presentation from three sixth graders. Angela Amico, Erin O'Loughlin
and Haven Whipple of Ms. Giffin's Topa Topa Elementary School
class presented findings from a survey they did as part of their
"Walking Wednesday" is the name given to the day each
month when kids eschew motorized transport in favor of bicycles
and foot travel. City staffperson and Topa Topa parent Heidi
Whitman introduced the kids, who had detailed figures and a number
of suggestions for council, including new sidewalks, creating
signs and improving the visibility of existing sidewalks.
Council members were duly impressed with the work of the youngsters
and Whitman said, "As you can see, the children really did
their research. We were tickled pink in the public works department.
It was better than some staff reports I've seen ... in other
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