By Briana Gomez
July 18, 2020 (La Mesa) -- The La Mesa City Council Meeting on July 14 reflected an air of unresolved tensions, six weeks after rioting, looting and fires ravaged the community. The Council approved a grant application to help the homeless and addressed other issues, but concerns over police controversies and the riot response remained hot button issues with residents.
Residents asked to complete survey on future of MacArthur Park
Following the pledge of allegiance, Mayor Arapostathis opened the City Council meeting by addressing that the MacArthur Park Master Plan needs attention. Residents are encouraged to participate in the survey by Monday, July 20 at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/MacArthurParkConcepts.
The City of La Mesa has various plans intact to rejuvenate MacArthur Park. These plans both come with a hefty price tag ranging from $61 million to $72 million. The City will be forced to decide on funding options, entertaining ideas of either a bond or tax plan.
The renovations are projected to include an underground parking structure, senior center, and cosmetic upgrades.
The Council gave thanks to everyone who has continued to shop local. The Mayor then read a proclamation proclaiming July as Parks and Recreation month to recognize the importance of parks. “Parks and recreations support economic vitality of the community…foster social cohesiveness, accommodating and celebrating diversity…support human development…and support safe vibrant and attractive communities,” said Araposthathis
La Mesa leads other cities climate action implementation, despite shortcomings
Next came a presentation by the Climate Action Campaign on the San Diego Region Climate Action Plan Report Card, given by Maleeka Mardsen, co-director of policy for the organization.
“La Mesa is definitely one of the frontrunners and leaders in helping the region meet climate goals,” said Mardsen. But the region is falling behind on social equity, biking, walking, and transit, the presentation indicated.
Despite the city’s shortcomings, the organization is impressed with La Mesa’s progress.
La Mesa holds the highest implementation score compared to all the cities in the region.
Community Relations and Veterans funding
Next was a report from the Community Relations and Veterans Commission on the August 5, 2020 Community Conservation Event. The commission requested additional funding from the city.
“I’m pleased to see this commission doing what they’ve wanted to do for a few years,” said Councilmember Kristine Alessio.
Councilmember Bill Baber concurred, making a motion to give the commission $2,000 for its endeavors. The Mayor seconded the motion, which was unanimously approved.
Heated public comments focus on police oversight
The public commentary was once again heated, with some voicing sentiments calling for shifting funds away from the police department and into social programs, investigation into the incident involving Amaurie Johnson which led to the protests, and criticism for the La Mesa Police Department’s handling of Officer Dages, who arrested Johnson near the Grossmont Trolley stop in what has been criticized as racial profiling. Charges were later dropped after body cam footage failed to support the officer’s allegation of assault.
“Amaurie Johnson, another name. How many more? How many more will the police be allowed to harass and denigrate?” asked Kevin Mendez, one of the commentators. “The plight of the modern black man is not so much the product of willful ignorance, but that of a silent injustice.” In his closing statement, he demanded, “Fire and convict Matt Dages, immediately.”
While most residents expressed support for establishing a police oversight board, they also criticized the City Council for attempting to place a police officer on this board.
Heidi Oberg said, “Please move forward with an independent police oversight board…a police member should not be a member of the oversight board.”
Oberg was not alone in her sentiments to remove a police officer form this board.
Vinton Omaleki, a La Mesa resident of five years also expressed concern regarding the formation of the task force.
“I watched the police oversight task force last week and was utterly shocked by Officer Evans’s defensiveness and his attempt to invalidate one of his fellow member’s experiences with the police,” said Omaleki.”This kind of behavior is exactly why I’m opposed to having a police officer on the police oversight committee.”
Omaleki promised to engage in future protests if the oversight committee is weak.
Others continued to express distaste over La Mesa Police Department’s ongoing actions.
“I want to have a police department that works for everyone, not just some,” said Emily Green. “While I have not personally had any encounters with the LMPD, I see the tension and frustration by those who do feel unsupported by the very institutions that are supposed to provide protection and safety…an independent oversight board is recommended by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, the ACLU, Faith Coalition of La Mesa, and the La Mesa Activists for Good Governance.”
Other commentary reflected more heated emotion on the Council’s slow action.
Demetrius Antuna and family submitted pointed comments. “Chief Mayor Council, are any of you actually hearing us? We write and speak directly to you about these same matters week after week, yet what is being done about them? How many more times do I have to write the same comment about these same issues? The lack of transparency is shameful and the deflecting is not going to work; it’s been months and there still has been nothing done about Degas. We still know nothing about who shot Leslie Furcron,” she added, referencing a protester shot in the head with a beanbag and seriously injured. “We still don’t know who ordered the tear gas thrown at our peacefully protesting families, including my own.”
Patricia Harris, a resident of La Mesa stated, “As a grandparent of children in the La Mesa Spring Valley School District and as a resident of this city I am deeply concerned about the irresponsible and gregarious actions that have been taken by the LMPD in recent years.” She added, “As the aunt of a black La Mesa resident, I live in fear every day that he will not return home safely.”
Harris also noted the presence of what she termed a vigilante group, a reference to a civil defense group formed to protect La Mesa businesses during civil unrest, which she noted is supported by Councilmember Alessio. The group formed in response to downtown businesses being left without protection when police became overwhelmed amid widespread looting, vandalism, and fires that destroyed two banks, a historic building, and several vehicles.
Gail Neville wrote to voice “my complete support of shifting resources and money to local organizations for non-emergency situations such as homelessness and mental health crises.”
Other commentators praised the Council for their actions, but feel that more is needed.
“I want to thank you for beginning to take action towards making La Mesa a safe community for all of our residents. The events of the past several weeks have uncovered deficiencies in the services we are being provided with,” said Meagan Nolan. “I would like to voice my support in favor of a transparent town hall meeting where citizens can talk to elected officials directly about the events that transpired in La Mesa on May 30,” she added.
Nolan cited a recent lawsuit filed against La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez, promising that “no amount of denial or stalling time will make us forget that justice has not been served in La Mesa.”
Council approves last-minute grant application to aid homeless
After hearing public comments, the council delved into other agenda items.
In a public hearing, Council members considered a resolution authorizing submittal of a grant application to provide homeless services in the City of La Mesa.
This grant is part of a state funding program called the Permanent Local Housing Allocation Program (PLHA). This funding was made available by Senate Bill (SB) 2 and is administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development.
The program has allocated $195 million statewide in grant funding available to Entitlement and Non-Entitlement communities. Of these funds, the City of La Mesa would be eligible to receive $188,809 the first year, and approximately $1.1 million over a five-year span.
In order to obtain this grant, the City would have to complete a grant application by July 27, 2020, which left even the Mayor questioning whether this application could be completed in such a short amount of time. (The application has been open since April of this year, which begs the question as to why the city did not act sooner. The COVID-19 shutdown and subsequent protest and riot may have been factors in the delayed response.)
The plan must also include how the City would manage the funds.
If the City of La Mesa is able to receive these funds, they would be complemented by $262,000 recently received from Community Development Block Grants under the CDBG-CV funding program for homeless outreach related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Staff recommended that the City Council adopt a resolution which would authorize submission of the said grant application.
During this hearing, Meagan Nolan called in for a live public comment.
“I know that in particular a major increase in funding mental health services is a need which we see needs to be met,” said Nolan. “I’ve been concerned though that the conversation surrounding this need is almost immediately tethered to another major need, which is solutions for our homeless neighbors. Although it’s true that many homeless folks do experience mental health differences, this is not an impact that is isolated to one demographic and to see it as such continues a pattern that dissociates the powers that be from the people you serve.”
Nolan proceeded to discuss a study on mental health issues in Americans, noting that the study was conducted on individuals with addresses as opposed to homeless populations.
According to the data Nolan cited, 19.3 percent of individuals with mental illness experience substance abuse, affecting the community as a whole and often leading to transient behavior. She also noted that 37 percent of incarcerated adults in the state and federal prison systems have been diagnosed with mental illness.
The public hearing on this issue was closed and Council members voted unanimously to approve a grant application to help the homeless.
Future town hall on May 30 protest and riot response
The Council then addressed the Council-initiated proposal on the agenda to hold a town hall meeting addressing the events of May 30, 2020.
General outpour from public comment has been for the City to be transparent about the investigation of Officer Dages, and for the La Mesa Police Department to release the name of the officer who shut Leslie Furcron in the head with what was said to be a beanbag projectile. In response, Councilmember Weber and Mayor Arapostathis have been formulating a plan to hold a Town Hall regarding the events on May 30 in order to address comments that the City has been receiving.
“The Council, although we are not able to give much information at this time because we are still gathering it,” said Councilmember Weber, “we can still listen to the concerns and listen to the recommendations of our residents.”
Live public comment for this portion of the virtual meeting included a statement from John Moorem who had 19 questions for the City regarding the riots that took place between May 30 and May 31.
Jack Shu, a local activist from La Mesa, also spoke live criticizing the online manner of the proposed town hall meeting.
Shu also sits on the Public Safety Oversight Task Force. He sent in a public comment resigning from the task force to avoid any perceived conflict of interest because he is running for City Council. His public comment was not read during the initial public comment section, but was read later during this agenda item after he mentioned it during his live comment.
“I find this whole system to be inadequate and not conducive towards a good town hall meeting. My suggestion is that we can have one out in the open where the chance of transmission of COVID is relatively low,” suggested Shu, who proceeded to mention possible locations for a public town hall.
In addition to live comments, several written comments were provided with recommendations for a healthy town hall.
Rebecca Littlejohn said, “We all need to grow our perception of who our community is and work to embrace the neighbors whose lives we don’t know much about. It would be a tremendous step toward healing if we could see actions of accountability from the police department before such a town hall.”
Others submitted harsher commentary.
“How many people need to be maimed, abused or die?” asked Sheri Robertson.
Councilmember Parent ignored the petitions of those such as Jack Shu and suggested that the meeting would be digital in order to reach a wider audience.
Councilmember Alessio stated, “As much as there’s something to be gained from personal interaction…I’m not sure that would be a wise decision…we don’t want to have a gathering for a town hall meeting and have people take off their masks or do whatever they’re gonna do.”
Mayor Arapostathis directed staff to come up with a platform for conducting this town hall, and was supported in this decision by Councilmember Weber, with the hope that additional reports would come out prior to that date.
After some discourse about whether they needed to vote in order to direct staff, Vice Mayor Baber made a motion to order staff to bring back information on this issue. The motion was seconded by Mayor Arapostathis.
The Council requested that the City Manager redirect the issue to the next meeting with a mechanism and date.
No vote was conducted on holding a town hall at this meeting as the Council will be waiting for direction from staff.
Following this meeting, the City Manager issued Executive Order – 4 on July 16, which established temporary outdoor regulations for retail and dining businesses who wish to conduct displays or seating outside. This effort will assist local businesses to continue operations in compliance with restrictions on indoor dining from the State and County of San Diego public health orders due to COVID-19. Business will be required to provide insurance following sidewalk café insurance requirements.
View video of July 14 Council meeting
The July 14 La Mesa City Council meeting can be viewed at http://lamesaca.swagit.com/play/07152020-1677.