By Mike Allen
Video by Ana Nita: discussion on racial incidents
May 16, 2020 (Santee) -- In the wake of two nationally-publicized racial incidents inside local grocery stores earlier this month, the Santee City Council voted on May 13 to confront the issue by expanding a community police board that will develop strategies for addressing intolerance. The incidents involved shoppers who wore masks with hate symbols during a county health order mandating masks in stores to prevent spread of COVID-19.
Mayor John Minto, who publicly denounced the incidents soon after they occurred, said he spent many hours talking with residents about what happened, and is convinced the city cannot ignore or simply shrug it off.
“We have to understand why and where it’s happening,” Minto said. “We’re going to triage it, find out where most of the worst symptoms are, and bring people together.”
The Council voted unanimously during its virtual meeting to expand the police board, formally known as Community Oriented Policing Committee (Compoc), by adding as many as four new members. The committee works with the Sheriff’s Department, Santee’s contracted police provider, on crime prevention and security strategies.
Minto, who chairs the board, said he has two specific people he wants to bring on--- an African American man and a woman from the Anti-Defamation League, but didn’t provide their names because he has not had their agreement yet.
Prior to the vote, the Council heard from 22 people who sent letters and emails to the city about the explosive incidents, which made headlines both locally and nationally, opening up festering scars of Santee’s history of documented hate crimes and white nationalist groups in the city. A few commenters referred to the derogatory nickname, Klantee.
The comments were nearly unanimous in condemning the acts by two men, one wearing a hood similar to those worn by the Ku Klux Klan inside the Santee Vons, and another wearing a mask with a Nazi swastika while shopping at the Santee Food 4 Less store.
“This type of behavior shouldn’t be ignored…I firmly believe that to ignore it is to condone it,” Michele Perchez said in her email. “It’s another way of saying this type of behavior doesn’t exist.”
Other public comments said the incidents revealed that while Santee has changed in recent decades and its residents have become more diverse, vestiges of racism remain, and people of color experience it.
“There is racism in Santee and it pervades the school system. It’s offensive to people like me to say, `This is not who we are anymore,’ so please stop saying that,” wrote Evelyn Andrade, who ran for City Council in 2018, coming in second behind winner Councilman Rob McNelis in District 1.
McNelis was called out for his comments in one report that quoted him saying the incidents were “classless and tasteless.” Later in the meeting, McNelis said he’s offended when he hears people call Santee a racist community. “It hasn’t been, as long as I have been here,” adding that he has been a resident for 26 years.
As for the incidents involving the two masked men, McNelis said neither act had anything to do with racism. “They were trying to make a statement about (Gov.) Gavin Newsom,” he said, referring to claims by the men that they were protesting a requirement to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was a horrible, horrible way to state it.”
Councilman Stephen Houlahan fired back, denouncing actions that extolled the KKK and Nazi symbols. “I absolutely denounce and despise those symbols,” he said. “We have to address it, and just saying ‘This is not who we are’ is unacceptable.”
Houlahan noted the negative publicity will have serious financial consequences if people decide not to visit and shop in Santee. “We must create an environment that shows we are not like this,” he said.
The meeting was the city’s fourth held with members located in remote locations via teleconferencing technology as a result of the coronovirus pandemic.
Minto, a former San Diego Police detective, said he has experience in dealing with racial intolerance, and that the police committee is the right venue to develop a plan for addressing this issue. He noted that Starbucks worked with the Anti-Defamation League a few years ago after the coffee purveyor sustained outrage over an incident where one of its baristas told two black men who were meeting in a coffee shop that they had to leave.
“We’re not going to have a plan overnight,” Minto said. “It has to be done thoughtfully and legally….People who live here and visit here deserve to feel safe.”
In other actions, the Council directed City Attorney Shawn Hagerty to return next month with a proposed initiative that would go on the city’s November ballot to challenge an already qualified initiative calling for term limits for city office holders.
The action means Santee voters will see dueling term limit initiatives on their mail-in ballots Nov. 3. Santee currently doesn’t have any term limits.
An earlier initiative to institute term limits qualified for the ballot in 2018 when the minimum number of signatures were gathered.
However, the majority of the council determined that measure, along with a slow growth initiative that also obtained the necessary number of signatures to qualify, should be delayed to the next general election rather than adopting them by a Council vote.
Both measures were backed in large part by Preserve Wild Santee (PWS), an environmental advocacy organization that has been actively fighting the Fanita Ranch residential development for several decades. That project, calling for 3,000 new houses, is under review by the city.
The original term limit measure from PWS calls for a maximum of three terms for every office holder, either on the Council or as mayor. A partial term would count as a full term. That provision would directly impact Councilwoman Laura Koval of District 3, who is serving two years on a partial term that ends this year.
The council told Hagerty to draft an initiative that installs a three-term limit for councilmembers, and a two-term limit on the mayor’s job. Under the proposed measure, the maximum service for a Santee office holder would be 20 years. Under the PWS initiative, the maximum is12 years.
Houlahan, who helped Preserve Wild Santee gather signatures for the slow growth and term limits measures two years ago, said he didn’t like the idea of putting another measure on the ballot, which would confuse voters. He said it would cost the city another $100,000 in legal analysis and filing fees. Hagerty said the cost would be between $10,000 to $20,000.
Councilman Ronn Hall said the main reason he supports higher term limits is because of the time involved in gaining knowledge about the job. He contends that it’s only fair that office holders be allowed more time to accomplish goals.
But he still supports some limits on how long officials may serve. He stated, “All you have to do is look at Washington to realize we need term limits.”
Mike Allen writes about government agencies and other topics for East County Magazine, mainly covering the Santee City Council. Among the newspapers he’s written for are the San Diego Business Journal, San Diego Daily Transcript, the Vista Press, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He has won numerous journalism awards including a fellowship to the Stonier School of Banking by the American Bankers Association while employed as a financial reporter. He is a graduate of Fordham University in Bronx, N.Y. where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. He now lives in Santee.
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