No local leader rode out the turbulence and controversy of 2020 quite like Fernando Echevarria.
The Merced City Councilman representing District 2 found himself in the spotlight on a variety of occasions under difficult circumstances.
While some of the headlines were not very flattering, the outspoken Echevarria managed to survive some periods of deep turmoil and make it to a new year and what looks to be a fresh start with a council that’s been significantly changed since the November election.
Recently, the 58-year-old Echevarria agreed to an interview with the Times in which he was remarkably candid about past events and confident about what he wants to accomplish as the city moves forward.
“So there is a big change [in city government]” Echevarria said with enthusiasm. “Overall, I like that we have new members on the City Council. I feel we are going to move forward in a lot of ways and get things done. We have Matt Serratto, our new mayor. And we have three new council members, [Bertha Perez, Jesse Ornelas and Sarah Boyle]. They still need time to get caught up and prepare themselves. My advice to them is that we all work together. If one person goes one way, and the other goes the another way, we are not going to get anything done. We have to become united as a team and move forward. I expect that we are going to have some different viewpoints. Bertha tends to be pro-unions, and Jesse is more of an independent thinker. I think Jesse will be more vocal about things, but I agree with him that our south Merced districts have been neglected in many ways over the past decades. We agree that getting rid of the old guard [in local government] and welcoming new leadership is going to be something good.”
Improving South Merced
The district Councilman Echevarria represents is mostly located south of Highway 99 and west of Martin Luther King Jr. Way. He said his top priority is addressing the homeless issues that are affecting small businesses and the overall outlook of neighborhoods in his area. Other topics include transforming the Merced Airport for increased tourism, improving nearby parks for better recreation options for District 2 residents, upgrading or installing new sidewalks and lighting, the cleanup or restoration of blighted properties, and the implementation of a first-time home buyers program for the area.
“The main thing is the homeless,” Echevarria told the Times. “It’s out of control. They don’t know how to control their drinking. Their drug use is out of control. It’s just a big mess. … I feel that the public is now suffering because of the actions of a few. I don’t want to be heartless, but enough is enough.”
The councilman said he has been working with small business owners in his district and listening to their concerns.
At California Liquor & Grocery on R Street, “They’ve been having a constant problem with homeless people or transients just congregating out in the front parking lot. … And, you know, I’ve got my hands dirty, and I just went out there and talked to them, and I said to them: ‘You are creating a problem here. There are resources available that can help you. Give me a call, maybe I can help you out. … But they just keep creating a lot of mess. They are defecating all over the place. You can’t even walk down the sidewalk without running into poop.”
Near Sam’s Smoke shop [also on R], “I’ve talked to the owner so many times. … They are leaving garbage and running amuck. So I ask: ‘Mental Health where are they?’ That’s my next big question. This town never used to be like this. We have laws that were established in the welfare institutions … ‘5150’ … The three-pronged approach. Gravely disabled, a danger to others, or danger to themselves. … Where is this going? … I will tell you there are a lot citizens now that they want to go out there, and push the homeless out themselves. They are so fed up with the situation and the shenanigans. It’s one thing after another. And not to mention the crimes the homeless often contribute to.”
Echevarria adds that he recently helped a homeless couple that he knew get shelter at a traveler’s hotel in his district, only to find out that a few days later they were thrown out for bad behavior and not following the rules. This result was both disappointing and eye-opening about the current state of homelessness in Merced, he said.
Nevertheless, with a proactive approach, Echevarria wants to counter the blight and unsightly happenings going on by beautifying the well-traveled entrance to District 2 — the underpass on R Street below Highway 99.
“I want to have community cleanup there soon, and perhaps get an artist to paint a mural on both sides of the underpass,” he said. “Right now it looks like crap. And we have one guy there that hangs out all day and screams at the cars that go by. … Think about it. That’s the main entrance to my district. And you know, our residents would like to have an entrance to their district like Kathleen Crookham [former county supervisor and Merced resident] has as an entrance to the Ragsdale Historic District near the G Street underpass. Over there, it’s so pretty and inviting.”
The councilman is also motivated by recent City Council moves to improve the Merced Airport in his district by putting the word “Yosemite” in its official title, boosting its tourism potential, and improving its neighborhood surroundings.
“A lot of adults in my district who don’t want to travel across town to some of the nicer bike paths in north Merced end up at McReady Park, a nice little area that leads to the airport. They go to walk and exercise. They take their children. They take their dogs …
“So why not make it nice?” he asked.
On A Roll …
Councilman Echevarria started the new year on the dais with a high-profile proposal that received unanimous support from his colleagues.
He took issue with the placement of the public speaking podium that has been located in front and below the City Council dais. It’s been that way for the past few years, having been moved during the era of Mayor Mike Murphy and City Manager Steve Carrigan. However, the City Council chambers has a built-in, elevated podium to the right side of the dais that was used in years past as the place for residents to stand up and share their thoughts with the elected leaders.
“Having the podium down below, front and center, is very intimidating,” he pointed out. “Our citizens shouldn’t have to feel like they are speaking at a Spanish Inquisition. The citizens are not on trial. They are not in trouble. And I think it’s not fair to the audience who can’t see their fellow residents speak and understand their emotions.”
The council agreed with Echevarria and voted to return public speakers to the previous podium — as soon as the public is invited back to live meetings once COVID-19 restrictions ease.
Echevarria’s colleagues haven’t always agreed with him.
In fact, just a couple of months ago, the City Council (with a different membership than today) voted to censure Echevarria for his actions and statements in the public arena as groups of local residents and “Black Lives Matter” supporters were calling for local law enforcement reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
The councilman’s troubles boiled over at an informal gathering between protesters and city leaders in front of the old County Courthouse. Echevarria took it upon himself to demonstrate a chokehold with a volunteer subject from the crowd. Echevarria was actually trying to show how the hold technique shouldn’t be used by police, but when he dramatized the demonstration by uttering the words, “I can’t breathe,” many of the onlookers were taken aback and later said the whole scene was offensive. A verbal back-and-forth between the councilman and several protesters ensued, and things went downhill from there.
“I wish I would have never gone to that protest meeting,” he told the Times. “It was a complete setup. People were so against me. I was targeted. They kept nitpicking at me over anything I said. I could never give these people a straight answer. … I stayed away for some days afterward only because I was … (pause) … To be honest with you, there was a fear factor that these people would catch me on the street, or come to my house. I didn’t know what they were capable of. It was not a pleasant thing. …
“I learned from my mistakes. I will never go to another protest or demonstration like that again — and that’s all it was. I have been involved in law enforcement. I’m a 10-year veteran of the mental health field. We always had demonstrations on techniques and what to do and what not to do. This was just a great misunderstanding.”
Councilman Echevarria’s law enforcement background came in handy back in September while shopping at the local FoodMaxx supermarket. A brawl broke out in the middle of the store sending customers and employees scrambling for cover.
However, Echevarria stood his ground, not willing to let a bunch of “no-good people” cause violence at a market in the middle of a pandemic. He helped stopped the fighting before the police showed up and arrested two of the perpetrators.
“My wife was shivering with fear in the back of the store,” he said. “There was blood everywhere. When one of the bad dudes said he was going to get a gun, I ran (and I don’t run very much) but I ran as fast as I could outside to the back of my truck where I had my weapon. Just by chance, I was going to have it cleaned at Stage Stop Gun Shop in Atwater where I purchased it from. But just by luck, I couldn’t make it there that day. It’s a legally registered gun, and it was in a gun box locked in the back of my trunk with the ammunition separated. … So I had a chance to get that, and mind you, there were only two bullets in the clip that I had brought along. … One of the bad guys kept making threats. I took a stance near a forklift and I had him in my sights. When the police came, they didn’t find any weapons. … I was only concerned about the safety of the public, and of course, my wife.”
Echevarria’s actions that day prompted front page news stories in the local media, and even some national attention on some websites.
‘A Couple Of Grape Pickers’
Echevarria said it’s been tough road to get to his position as a local leader in city government, but he’s proud of his accomplishments so far, and he says it’s only the beginning.
He said there was some members of the community and city government that “just did not like me from the very beginning. … They tried to do everything they could to stop me. … It’s not really a conspiracy, it’s just the way politics are done in Merced.”
The councilman mentioned his brother, and said: “We did pretty good for a couple of grape pickers. That’s all we were when we were kids. … We would get out there at four in the morning, shivering in the cold, and we helped the family pick grapes. When you do that as a kid, it gives you a lot of respect for a work ethic. It gives you a whole other point of view that other kids weren’t doing what I was doing.”
After the controversy in 2020, there’s one District 1 resident — Antonio Salazar — who has already announced on social media that he will challenge Echevarria for his council seat in the 2022 election.
Says Echevarria, “He is going to have a tough battle. … I have a lot of people who support me. I have a lot of accomplishments under my belt. I have a good head on my shoulders. I know what our District 2 needs. I’ve been out here getting my hands dirty. I would like to see his list of accomplishments. I would like to see his education. I would like to see his background. Let’s try to get some accomplishments under your belt before you even try to take me out.”
The council member said he has every intention to run for re-election and serve District 2 for another six years.
And after that, Echevarria said his goal is to represent Merced County and the surrounding region in the State Assembly.
Yes, he has big plans ahead.
“I think I can do a lot for the valley,” he said. “In many ways this region has been neglected. Specifically in the health care field. There are not enough doctors. A lot of our providers are nurses working in the capacity as doctors. And I want to support everything UC Merced has to offer to bring more doctors the the valley. …
“I also recently applied to serve on the regional Air Pollution Control Board. I want to be a part of that. The air quality is so bad in the valley. There have to be new restrictions. One of the things I would like to get behind is the transition from charcoal grills to gas grills among residents. Maybe we can start a trade-in program. … These are just a few of the issues that need to be addressed.”