Mayor Sam Abed fielded questions on gangs, the homeless and the condition of parks at his semi-annual Town Hall meeting on April 11. The meeting was sparsely attended but that didn’t mean the conversation wasn’t lively.
The mayor gave a short introduction on the city, including the city council action plan. Several other council members, city staffers, led by City Manager Jeff Epp and Police Chief Craig Carter and various department heads, were present to hear resident comments and questions.
One member of the public started off the Q&A by asking about the gang injunctions in force in the city, claiming they are somewhat ineffective.
The mayor commented that one problem with gang injunctions is that the San Diego County District Attorney’s office doesn’t press them as much as the city would like. The DA’s Office has been using civil injunction to curb gang activity since 1997. Gang injunctions are court orders that restrict gang members in certain neighborhoods from doing things like congregating with other known gang members, wearing gang clothes, etc.
Chief Carter took the spotlight for a few moments to comment. “The gang injunctions have become more difficult to impose although we continue to push them,” he said. “We are getting a little more out of gang enhancement. We are still pushing the enhancements and that’s all we can do. A lot of the crime is on the books that we don’t get much bang for the buck on.”
Abed interjected, “Escondido does more than any other city to fight gangs. All we can do is document the cases of criminals and gangs and make the case to DA. We can’t control how much they prosecute.”
He added that Escondido has turned over more gang-related cases to the District Attorney than other cities. “We document these cases more. The best way to do it is report the most cases to the police.’
The same man who brought up the gang injunctions added that a property in the city continues to be a center of gang activity, despite numerous complains.
The mayor suggested he meet with Chief Carter. ‘You have a very legitimate concern and we want to do as much as we can to address it. That’s what the town hall meeting is about.”
Clumps of Grass
The next speaker was Escondido Soccer Club President Jessica Escobedo, who complained about the condition of Frances Ryan Park, which hosts “seven to ten prestigious state cup tournaments.” She said, “We had a major complaint about the slow decline of our fields.” She said one of the tournaments is “looking for other fields in Irvine and Lancaster.” She said this would indirectly hurt the city if fewer people visit Escondido and stay locally.
In separate comments to the Times-Advocate, Escobar, who is tournament director for the Dave Shelton Memorial Cup, said, “It started with an email complaint from a coach from Santa Clarita. Their team had played the prior weekend at Frances Ryan Park, in the State Cup. The complaint had included:
• Travel time, money spent on hotels, gas & food in Escondido
• State Cup should include top notch fields
• Ryan Park fields were not in top notch condition
“As a Club, we have spent countless hours and money on those fields. Our goal is to work closely with the City to rectify the problem,” she said.
When she spoke to the mayor Escobar added, “I’m here to see what help we can get. We would like to work together and see what we can do so that we don’t lose that revenue.”
“We have to balance those priorities,” answered Abed. “We have to have a balancing act.” He said he had visited that soccer field many time. He repeated, “It’s a balancing act. The problem we have is that the increase of our pension obligation is killing us. The city has to come up with $40 million in next four years.” But he added that the city wants to do what it can to attract visitors.
One of the city staff responsible for the parks, noted that the field is managed by a contractor. He said, “Part of the issue is the perennial grass. We are going to try to address those clumps of grass.”
Escobedo said that the soccer club also invests thousands of dollars in keeping the fields in good shape.
Abed concluded, “We have to make sure that the priorities are addressed. We are going to work on that. Staff has heard you loud and clear and will address these grass issues.”
An audience member asked what the city is doing to address climate change.
Abed answered, “The city was one of the first cities to develop a climate action plan.” That plan went to the voters. “Now after several years we are implementing it.”
Assistant City Manager Jay Petrek added that the city is working with San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to update the Climate Action Plan, which was first approved in 2012.
Director of Community Development Bill Martin said the staff is working to provide a draft document on the Climate Action Plan.
Abed added that they have asked for more money from SANDAG to further develop the action plan. “This is an important issue, and we were one of the first cities to address it,” he said.
Another audience member asked, “What are we doing about the homeless and keeping the downtown clean and inviting? I walk around, and I don’t see it as being clean and welcoming.”
The mayor said, “It has been frustrating to see more released” from the state prisons. “We have doubled the number of the homeless.” He attributed this problem to Sacramento and to other large cities like Los Angeles that “don’t do anything,” to address the problem. “They highjack the public spaces.”
He said the city is not given funding to deal with the drug addicts who are homeless. Because of this issue, the city council has added homelessness to one of the top issues to deal with.
Abed credited Deputy City Manager Bill Wolfe, who, since being tasked with dealing with the homeless issue, has created a distinct change. “You go to Grape Day Park and it is completely different than what it was a year ago,” said Abed.
Wolfe said they formed a task force that included police, park rangers and others, “to work towards the quality of life. The basic theme is if you are homeless and want a place to live, we are working to get you a place to live. Three more homeless people are getting a home this week.” Wolfe said they are helping three to four people to get homes a week.
“If they want the help we are getting them the help.” He said some homeless don’t want help and in fact embrace the homeless lifestyle. “We make them to understand that they can’t break the law,” said Wolfe. He said last September there were between 36-40 homeless in Grape Day Park. That number has been cut to four.
“If they want help, we get them help. That’s resulting in them being placed in housing. And if they don’t want help we are enforcing the codes to the max,” said Wolfe.
Mayor Abed added that they are focusing on the downtown, “To make sure it is vibrant. Staff has reunited several homeless with their families. Downtown and business and public spaces cannot be impacted by homeless.”
Wolfe added that if people call him directly at City Hall he will address their concerns.
A business owner in the audience added, “We want to know what we can do to make the downtown more inviting?”
Wolfe said he will be speaking at the next Downtown Business Association on that issue. Editor’s note: That DBA meeting will be Thursday April 26, 6 p.m. This quarterly merchant meeting will be hosted by Hawthorne Feed, and Stone and Glass art studio at the Hawthorne Feed store on West Valley Pkwy /Second Avenue.
The mayor emphasized that citizens should call the city about homeless issues. “See something, say something. If you see graffiti or shopping cart where they shouldn’t be, make sure you report it.”
City Manager Jeff Epp said they have put a video on the city website (www.escondido.org) instructing people on how to download and use the “Report It” app. “That’s a quick way to get the information to us,” Epp said. “Deputy Mayor John Masson uses it; I use it a lot. If I see something going on at Maple Street Plaza, I report it. One of the best thing the private sector can do is report it.”
Abed added: “Other cities are looking to Escondido,” for ways of dealing with their homeless. “I go to Grape Day Park and do a homeless count every couple of weeks. Now we have five or six. Two weeks ago I went to Jeff Epp and said, ‘This is great! It’s great to see a great Grape Day Park.’ ”
Immigration and Crime
The mayor was asked about the city’s decision to file a “friend of the court” brief with the U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit challenge SB 54, the “Sanctuary State” law, aka “California Values Act.”
Abed related how in 2009 the city first started to host ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents at police headquarters. “They used to work with our police hand in hand,” he said. The city would inform ICE if it had undocumented aliens in custody and if ICE had criminals in custody it would inform the police.
“After SB 54, the Sanctuary State bill was passed, we are no longer allowed to cooperate with ICE. They can’t have a dedicated place. Our ICE agents are in our neighborhoods, with no requests from us. With no cooperation with us. There are a lot of restrictions. They made it so difficult for us to coordinate,” said Abed.
Now, he says, ICE agents conduct raids without warning the Escondido police ahead of time; such as the recent sweep by federal agents that resulted in the arrest of 115 at the Transit Center.
“Now ICE agents are arresting criminals, but not telling us,” said Abed. They came to the transit center without our knowledge. They are separating families. If they had leadership in Sacramento they would say that is a bad law and change it. So our only alternative was to take them to court.”
Because the city is merely filing an “amicus brief,” it doesn’t cost the city any money or incur any risk of being part of a lawsuit.
Abed said he hopes other cities join Escondido, and he looks forward to the vote by the Board of Supervisors on a similar vote. Note: Tuesday, April 17, around 2 p.m., the Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 (with one member absent) to oppose the “Sanctuary State” law.
Abed said he and fellow city councilmembers have recieved more than 1,000 responses since their vote two weeks ago on the amicus brief. “The overwhelming majority of the city supports our action,” he said. “Ninety percent plus are opposed to the Sanctuary State and support the city action.”
He said he didn’t want to hear about families being separated since that sort of thing is happening because of the state law. “Call Governor Brown and tell him this is what you have done to us! We are not going to waver, we are going to fight the fight to keep us safe!”
Challenged by a member of the audience to say where he differs with President Trump’s immigration policies, Abed, who came to America from Lebanon and became a citizen many years ago, replied, “We want the people here who want to come here and get an education and live the American dream. If the Dreamers believe in America, that’s the American way.”
He added, “I’ll tell you one thing: I don’t want criminals. You prove your loyalty by your actions. So many of the Hispanic community support our country. You have to have loyalty to this country. I wear the American flag on this lapel,” he said.
He said he disagreed with Trump’s policies on immigrants. “Don’t commit crime, assimilate and love this country.” He added, “We are getting more and more support from the community, particularly from the Hispanic community because we are keeping the community safe.”