Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fullerton Police, Coyote Hills, and Homelessness at the Fullerton City Council Meeting

I've reached a point in my life where going to a city council meeting on a Tuesday night is something I look forward to.  This Tuesday, I went without any agenda or plans to speak during the "public comment" time.  I just went to listen and observe.

As I approached Fullerton City Hall, I knew it was going to be an interesting meeting because four network news vans were there.  It's interesting and kind of exciting to me that news vans and a packed house have become a fairly common thing at Fullerton city council chambers.  This is significant because, back around 2009, when I first started going to council meetings, they were a sleepy affair attended mostly by a handful of octogenarians.

Following the Kelly Thomas tragedy, Fullerton city council meetings have become increasingly well-attended, as a once-insulated city government is being forced to deal with the complexities of media scrutiny, community activism, and an increasingly engaged electorate.

One of the early public commentors, a doctor, said something about how the community was sick and dying.  I take a very different view.  Fullerton is sick, as are most American cities, but it is not dying.  On the contrary, it is coming alive with an awareness that engagement that is fresh and new and exciting.

Dan Hughes, Fullerton's controversial new police chief.

Many of the first public commentors spoke about the city council's upcoming decision to appoint acting chief Dan Hughes as its permanent police chief.  Kelly Thomas' father, Ron, criticized Hughes for not firing officer Kenton Hampton, who looked on as Kelly Thomas was beaten to death, and did nothing to stop it.  Instead of firing Hampton, Hughes has since promoted him to detective.  Former officer Ben Lira, also spoke his grievances against Hughes, including allegations of racism and lying.

Fullerton is divided about Dan Hughes.  To me, it seems a bit foolish to appoint such a controversial figure to chief.  Fullerton, in my humble opinion, should hold public candidacy hearings, and make the police chief an elected, not appointed, position.  However, the Council ultimately voted 5-0 in favor of appointing Hughes.

A couple people spoke about Measure W and the future of Coyote Hills.  The first was a member of Open Coyote Hills, the deceptively named pro-Chevron, pro-development group that supports building 760 houses and a shopping center on the last large natural open space in Fullerton.  This same speaker, at the last meeting, threatened that Chevron would sue and bankrupt the city if they didn't approve the development.  The other speaker was Angela Lindstrom, a representative of the Friends of Coyote Hills, who oppose the development.  She urged the council to listen to the will of the people, who voted by a 20 percent margin against the development in November, by voting down Measure W.  Lindstrom expressed her frustration that the new council appeared to be unwilling to terminate the development agreement, despite the November results.  What became clear to me is the fact that Coyote Hills is far from saved, and that people still need to attend and speak at council meetings, if they want this land saved.

The fight continues.

Another topic of discussion was the recently-approved year-round Homeless Shelter, to be built at the old Linder Furniture company building on State College.  The Orange County Board of Supervisors has approved project.  The majority of the people who spoke on this issue at the meeting were against the project, arguing that it would endanger children at the (sort of) nearby Commonwealth school, that it would bring more crime, and that it would lower property values.  

Hearing these often-used NIMBY (not in my backyard) arguments, I felt compelled to speak at this point.  Many of the people speaking against the shelter spoke of the homeless as an abstract menace.  Their arguments seemed detached from the fact that Fullerton's homeless are real human beings.  

So I got up and talked about how, it its 108-year history, Fullerton has never had a year-round homeless shelter, so it's historically significant.  Also, I talked about how, every morning, I walk past the Fullerton Museum Plaza, where local homeless people gather, and I am not afraid of them.  I said that, when I think of homeless people, I do not think of an abstract menace, I think of my friends: Ernie (who sells me old coins), Lee (who is involved with the Fox Theater), Raymond (who is a photographer), and many others.  I urged those who oppose the shelter to volunteer at a local food bank like The Pantry, to meet these people whom they want to deny a permanent shelter.

"Please, before making a decision, put a human face on your idea of homelessness," I said.

Todd Spitzer, Orange County's new supervisor, speaking about homelessness in Orange County.

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