Merced County Times Newspaper
The Power of Positive Press

Groups organizing to gain seat at the table

Against the Wind: A Column by Jonathan Whitaker

Allen Brooks of the NAACP, Fernando Aguilera of the Merced Soccer Academy, Rodrigo Espinoza of the Merced County Board of Supervisors, and Patricia Ramos-Anderson of the League of United Latin American Citizens discuss ‘meaningful civic engagement’ during a meeting at Trevino’s Mexican Restaurant in downtown Merced.
Allen Brooks of the NAACP, Fernando Aguilera of the Merced Soccer Academy, Rodrigo Espinoza of the Merced County Board of Supervisors, and Patricia Ramos-Anderson of the League of United Latin American Citizens discuss ‘meaningful civic engagement’ during a meeting at Trevino’s Mexican Restaurant in downtown Merced.

The public comment portion of Monday night’s Merced City Council meeting was packed with speakers demanding that something be done to protect undocumented residents living in the area, and to lessen widespread fear in the immigrant community.

Various people, including some from groups with the titles Democratic Socialists of America and “ICE Out Of Merced,” expounded on purported activity by ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — activity in the region, and possible collusion with the Merced Police Department in terms of information and resource sharing.

Their words were striking.

However, even more striking to me were the relatively few words of three other speakers that night who mentioned they sent a letter to Mayor Mike Murphy, City Manager Steve Carrigan and all the other members of the Merced City Council.

They said they were following up on the letter, and were ready to talk more about it with the leaders.

So I say “striking to me” because of a rapidly growing effort I am witnessing among certain groups who are seeking change in the city.

I was not surprised about news of a “letter” because I had already seen it.

Late last week, I met with the three authors during an arranged meeting at Trevino’s Mexican Restaurant on Main Street. They came in separately, one by one, and sat down at a table with me.

First came Fernando Aguilera, a local business owner and the president of the Merced Soccer Academy. Then came Allen Brooks, the president of the local NAACP chapter. Next was Patricia Ramos-Anderson, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). We were also joined by Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza.

They handed me the letter — a no-nonsense correspondence, direct and to the point.

It read: “As we have previously discussed with Mayor Mike Murphy, we are concerned with the following three areas:

“1. Lack of funding in District 2 (South Merced) in providing community programs and overall maintenance of the district (streets, sidewalks, tree trimming, etc.)

“2. District elections have now been in existence for several years, but we’re yet to see any district representation on the local city commissions. There is an extreme lack of representation on the city commissions (specifically in District 2) specifically on the City Planning Commission, the Economic Development Commission, etc. It is important to include individuals from each district to be a part of the different city commissions. This will provide fair representation. Please let us know as soon as possible when you intend to rectify this concern.

“3. Allow the Merced Soccer Academy, the NAACP and LULAC to sit at the table to assist the city manager and District 2 in providing solutions to the challenges facing the City of Merced.”

I was also handed a letter of support for this cause by Eliseo Gamino, the president of the Central Valley Leadership Round — a group made up of regional Latino leaders.

The meeting went on for more than an hour, and a lot of things were said, and I’m still going through all my recorded notes.

I also got a strong impression that this was a serious effort that’s going somewhere, so to speak, and it appears tied to the 2020 elections in terms of timing, and maybe candidates as well.

But the most outspoken person of the three letter writers was Ramos-Anderson. She also was the one who spoke the most at Monday night’s meeting at City Hall.

She made a point to mention that her group is working directly with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the New California Education Fund (CNC). MALDEF was the main group that initiated legal proceedings against the city of Merced — and other cities across the state — to change “at-large” representative elections to “district” elections. They noted the state’s Voting Rights Act, and a lack of Latino representation on the council. In 2014, Merced leaders voted in favor of an ordinance to make the change, and it was later approved by voters.

In our meeting, Ramos Anderson hinted at possible litigation with regard to district representation on local city commissions. She was more clear at City Hall on Monday night when she brought up MALDEF and the CNC, and mentioned the word “litigation” two times.

She told the council: “It’s better that we work together, use our time together and address the issues together, and be equitable, and make sure we are all part of this process, because if we are not, the latter part is not going to be conducive. All you do is waste money when you go through litigation.”

Ramos-Anderson suggested that the “majority control” of the council is appointing residents on city committees and commissions that “don’t know the history,” “the level of inequality” and “who don’t live in” substandard neighborhoods of South Merced.

She also repeated some key phrases that stand out: “meaningful civic engagement,” “inclusion in the decision-making process,” and the word “equitable.”

She pointed out that the city can invest $300,000 in one part of the city, and another $300,000 somewhere else in the city, but those shares are not necessarily equitable.

“In communities that are substandard, it costs three times as much to do road repairs,” Ramos-Anderson exclaimed.

While her words were striking and strong, Ramos-Anderson was also polite. “We are here to open lines of communication,” she said, “but also to work together to address the issues in a respectful and productive manner.”

Aguilar of the Soccer Academy also made a point to personally tell me that he would prefer to keep the communication positive.

“All we want is for the city to invite us to the table, and let us all have a meaningful conversation on how to invest in south Merced in a fair and equitable way,” he said.

So I need to talk to the mayor about all this.

And I need to talk to Fernando Echevarria, the council member who represents District 2 in southwest Merced, and hear what he has to say.

Interestingly, Echevarria was the only candidate on the ballot in the very first District 2 election in 2016, though he did face a write-in challenge.

Another thing that is stuck in my mind is the fact that the city this year made a significant effort to inform the public about openings for the various commissions and committees. They listed the openings in our newspaper, including a quarter page ad, alerting residents who might want to serve the city. We also ran several press releases. The Times has at least six free newspaper stands in District 2, and a website everyone can access.

I know it took a little time, but a pool of volunteers did develop to fill those spots on the city panels.

Also, I still think about the low voter turnout numbers I discovered in the south Merced area compared to other areas in the city even before the districting process started. And since districts have been established, voter turnout in District 1 and 2 have been lower when compared to other districts.

All this makes me wonder about civic engagement and who is driving the various narratives.

In any case, stay tuned …

I don’t think this conversation is going away.

Actually, I have a feeling it’s going to get more intense as the 2020 election year approaches.

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