Merced County Times Newspaper
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City Council to reconsider Measure C for Nov. ballot

• Two leaders flip-flop again after heated exchange with city’s public safety personnel • Special Measure C meeting to be held on Monday, Aug. 8

Minutes before the start of Monday night’s meeting of the Merced City Council, one regular, middle-aged member of the public glanced over the night’s agenda, looked up and asked a nearby news reporter why there were so many people filling up seats in the chamber.

It wasn’t a stupid question.

The agenda was nearly all “consent items” related to relatively mundane city contracts, government grant approvals, and special community recognitions. Oh, there was one repair project of note: a $200,000 construction contract to start the long-awaited Laura Fountain restoration at Applegate Park. And there was a presentation of a new Youth Jobs Training Program — something positive to shine a light on.

Anyway, it was understandable that a casual observer at City Hall would speculate that there was nothing in that agenda that screamed out: “Oh this going to be intense!”

But times have changed — if you haven’t noticed already — and some agenda items that weren’t much of an issue before, are big issues now. At least in the realm of City Hall public debate.

So, actually, this meeting was going to get very intense, and there would be a meltdown.

There were two items at the end of the agenda that involved agreements between the City of Merced and the Merced Union High School District and the Merced City School District to provide police services at four local high schools and four middle schools. This concerns the placement of a “school resource officer” on campus at a cost that’s mostly absorbed by the school district who have made the request for service.

Similar city contracts with local high schools have been going on since 1998, and with middle schools since 2007.

Add to this history the recent events of local violence at schools and deadly shootings at campuses across the nation, and some might think the idea of putting cops on campuses is a no-brainer.

Well, no. A line of Merced residents, including several regular activists who attend the meetings and scrutinize city actions, showed up to strongly disagree.

Critics question the idea of “over-policing” school campuses, causing anxiety and stress among young people, and bringing trauma, pain and “criminalization” to students of color. Some suggest the city and schools should focus more on wellness centers on campuses. Others say the funding should go instead to affordable housing and youth jobs.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen Merced Police Department officers, and as many city firefighters, entered the chamber for a different, but perhaps, related reason.

They had heard about the division on the City Council over whether or not to extend the Measure C half-cent tax measure that has helped fund public safety service in town since voters approved it back in 2006. The tax will expire in 2026, and in recent years leaders have debated on the best time to approach voters again about it. During the Mayor Murphy administration (before the current one) boosting the number of MPD officers and extending Measure C were top priorities. Without Measure C, one of the fastest-growing cities in the state would face a $7 million annual budgetary shortfall, and funding for roughly 30 police and fire department jobs would be in jeopardy.

Stunningly, a split 3-3 decision last month by the City Council (with one member absent) rejected a resolution to place a Measure C extension on the November ballot — something the same council had voted to approve only weeks before. Two leaders, Fernando Echevarria and Bertha Perez, flip-flopped on the issue after hearing public comment and becoming frustrated with some details on the process. Echevarria was visibly upset about the way a city consultant came up with poll numbers that showed community support for the measure. He said not enough people in his south Merced district were contacted. Perez cited mistrust on the council after it was revealed at the last minute that leaders had more time to consider the issue. Suddenly, the idea of a public vote on Measure C in this year’s election was in limbo.

However, the public safety officers who showed up at Monday night’s meeting knew the City Council had the ability to put the Measure C item back up for reconsideration by a full council. There was still time to get it on the ballot. (Aug. 12 is the deadline.) That’s why they were there.

So the stage was set for drama.

During comments from the dais about providing police services to local high schools and middle schools, Councilman Echevarria — who has already been censured by his colleagues for controversial actions and alarming words spoken during a public protest in 2020 after the death of George Floyd in police custody — caused another stir.

The city leader pointed his finger at the rows of “Merced’s Finest” police officers in attendance and seemingly questioned their bravery.

Echevarria told them: “What I don’t want to happen is the same crap that happened in Uvalde, Texas, where they spent an hour waiting to get into classrooms. If we’re going to have officers on campus, they better have guts. And they better make a choice. The choice is to go out there and save the kids, regardless of your own safety and life — bottom line. . . . This is not going to be Uvalde, Texas where we’ve got a bunch of cowardly police officers that are not willing to stand up and risk their own lives for what they signed up for. … Damn if I’m not going to push that when something happens, that this is not going to be Uvalde, Texas, where we got a bunch of cowardly police officers that are not willing to stand up for. And risk their own lives for what they signed up for … When you see danger you react. I’ve done it. You don’t wait around for your buddies to come. My message is: Have some guts if you are going to approach a person with a firearm and don’t wait around until an hour or two.”

Myles Richter, the president of the Merced Police Officers Association, would later address Echevarria’s comments: “The men and women I work with, they’re the most courageous people I know and for us to be called uncourageous, it’s not right.”

He added: “I invite you to come on a ride along any time you’d like.”

Echevarria fired back, claiming he was talking about Uvalde officers and had never said Merced police officers were cowardly.

The exchange became so heated that Mayor Serratto slammed his gavel down and called for a recess.

The council would go on to approve the city’s agreement with local schools to provide police services. It was a not-so-surprising 4-3 split vote with council members Echevarria, Perez and Jesse Ornelas voting NO.

In final remarks on the issue, Perez claimed she was recently threatened by an MPD officer, and Ornelas said schools should be investing in the root causes of student behavior and officers should be focused on overall public safety and not student discipline.

Finally, Measure C

All this led to a debate on Measure C and whether it should reconsidered for the November ballot.

In recent months, public comment at City Hall has been critical of Measure C. There have been calls for the city to invest more in youth jobs, youth wellness centers, mental health services and affordable housing.

On Monday night, however, there was a strong show of community support for Measure C, including several cops and firefighters who stood up to say the funding is critical to maintain services. Some pointed out that both departments are already operating with a deficit of needed personnel to adequately serve the growing community.

“Today, we have fewer firefighters than when I started 16 years ago, even though we have increased in size,” said Ryan Paskin of the Merced Firefighters Association.

Realtor Mary Camper stood up and reminded city leaders that extending Measure C is not ultimately their decision to make.

“You may individually be against Measure C,” she pointed out, “but you shouldn’t vote against putting it on the ballot, and giving the community an opportunity to vote on it. Please, please give your community members a chance to vote.

The pro-Measure C voices were convincing, and the City Council ended up voting 6-1 to hold a special meeting on Monday, Aug. 8 for city leaders to reconsider placing the tax on the November ballot.

For the second time in two months, Council members Echevarria and Perez reversed their earlier decisions — this time voting in approval.

Councilman Ornelas remained against the idea of extending Measure C. He was the lone NO vote. Previously he has stated he would like to see an affordable housing component linked to the measure.

The fireworks of the dramatic night didn’t quite end with the Measure C vote. Before the meeting ended, during the “council comments” period, Councilman Ornelas, who was the last to speak to cap of the night, pointed his finger at Merced Police Department officers present, and said:

“During the discussion today, law enforcement called me a [obscene word]. I got people in the crowd, right? They heard the comments that y’all said about me. And I’m going to look at y’all dead in the eye. I could vote yes on all of the stuff, and y’all still wouldn’t like me. All right. So I’m going to continue to push back. In your face. You understand that?Yeah, I am that [obscene word].

Council members Echevarria and Perez applauded Ornelas’ statements while the rest of the council stared at him for a moment before they adjourned.

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