Tents and a community garden are among the items populating the temporary farmworker encampment established on a small piece of surplus city land that the Calexico City Council voted 3-2 on Monday night, March 8, to sell to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The land is one of two parcels, totaling 2.5 acres, that was being purchased for $26,700. There were reportedly 10 farmworkers staying on the site. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO
CALEXICO — On Facebook Live, Zoom, or streaming on a local public-access system, several hundred of those tuning in to a recent Calexico City Council meeting got a firsthand view of why the current council is personalities over process, and progress.
Notwithstanding technical difficulties, a well-known outspoken Calexican sneaking into a COVID-closed council chambers, and several loud exchanges among council members that led to a 10-minute-plus recess in the proceedings, two highly contentious issues were put to bed for now during a rescheduled special meeting on Monday night, March 8.
To get the people’s business out of the way first, the fractured council voted 3-2 to sell 2.5 acres of surplus city-owned properties — one parcel of which is home to a temporary farmworker encampment where there were reportedly 10 laborers staying in tents next to the international border fence — to the federal government for $26,700.
The second issue, where the council was being asked to consider a “Hero Pay” ordinance that would provide a premium to essential workers for a period up to 120 days from adoption, was voted down, also 3-2, after Calexico City Council member Raul Ureña made a motion to approve the ordinance. His motion came with the modification of adding a $3 an hour hike to agricultural, grocery, restaurant, and pharmacy workers in the city, and lowering a threshold in the suggested ordinance that would allow big-box retailer Walmart to be included.
After that motion was defeated, the council moved to another issue despite protests by Ureña and council member Gloria Romo to put another motion on the table.
The two issues were fraught with conflict between the council members — Ureña and Mayor Rosie Fernandez mostly, but also involving Ureña and Romo on one end and Fernandez, Mayor Pro Tem Javier Moreno, and council member Camilo Garcia on the other.
What the land sale and the Hero Pay issue represented, like several issues that have come before this council in the last couple months, were the drawing of clear battle lines: the new vs. the old, young activist Calexico pitted against what is perceived on one end as the status quo and on another as the silent majority.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Ureña’s prepared opening remarks on the land sale, which touched on other decisions and wielded what could only be taken as warnings to his fellow council members.
“What the people want right here is as clear as when the people asked for the preservation of the COVID committee and public restrooms,” Ureña remarked at the tail end of nearly 10-minute address on the topic.
“This (the land sale) and the Hero Pay are the type of issues that speak to our values and become tombs of political careers when you vote against the will of the people,” he continued. “People will remember just as clear as they remember the restrooms and COVID committee.”
The council member was referencing votes to disband the ad hoc COVID committee formed by the city in which Ureña was chair, and a proposal to open up the city’s public restrooms to the homeless and others in the city. Both votes came down along “party lines,” that is, the reoccurring 3-2 split.
What truly is the will of the people of Calexico is any guess at this point, as the social media “savvy” — a term used by council member Garcia on Monday night — has been quite effective in getting its point across in a torrent of emailed comments that numbered past 60, at least.
While 60 public comments were not read into the record by City Clerk Gabriela Garcia on March 8, she said last week there were 58 messages to the council — many of which were form letters with different signatures, Garcia explained — in the queue for the regular meeting on Wednesday, March 3, that was adjourned on a 3-2 vote due to technical difficulties with the city’s Zoom airing. In a rare show of solidarity, Fernandez, Ureña, and Romo all voted to adjourn to give the public the chance to air its opinions.
During the reconvened meeting, Mayor Fernandez made the comment, which had been implied by Garcia, too, that there are numerous Calexico residents who do not share the viewpoints of the majority of letter writers and commenters, but that they are “private” people who don’t want to face the social media backlash for their dissenting opinions.
One such opinion that likely did not fear such reprisals, real or imagined, was that of Calexican Isabel “Pinky” Perrone Tylenda, who slipped into council chambers and shouted at Ureña to “get a job” before she was escorted out by Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo.
Above the personal histrionics, the core of the issue was the land deal, though, stemming from an initial move last summer by the prior council to set into motion the sale of the two parcels, both along the border fence, one near Andrade Avenue and one further east on the edge of the city. With a price tag set under the previous administration, the plan all along was to sell the surplus lands to the federal government for the construction of a double-walled portion of the border fence.
The issue was brought up in late 2020 to overwhelming negative reaction through Calexico’s youth and social justice movements, championed by Ureña and Romo, but the issue was kicked down the road to last week’s agenda.
A final determination and resolution approving the sale was being requested by the buyers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had already deposited the money in an escrow account and were awaiting a required official resolution to proceed.
The debate was kicked off when council member Romo motioned to not sell the surplus land.
First, City Attorney Carlos Campos explained the parcels each came with a “perpetual easement” from the federal government due to their proximity to the government’s border fencing, “so they are not buildable as is.”
His explanation, which has been shared before and is among the city documents to the agenda, did little to dampen the overall sentiment by nearly all public commenters that the land should be used by the city to establish things such as affordable housing, restrooms, drinking fountains, and other amenities for Calexico residents or transients that likely could not occur given the legal precedent of the easements.
Additionally, the issue took on the added freight from the public comments, and some council comments, of the continued “militarization” of the city, the divisions of families and communities, and the racism and draconian policies championed by former President Donald Trump.
“I can proudly say, we are right up against the fence,” Ureña said, adding Calexico is just a step over the line to Mexicali unlike regions such as San Diego and Tijuana that are separated by land mass as well as fencing.
“But right now, the ghost of Trump’s militarization, border militarization, is knocking on our door,” he said, and he would not want to see the “racist” former President’s “border monument of hate in our city.”
Ureña added that this proposed double border wall, and borders in general, are “preventing (those south of the U.S.) from exercising their birthright of free migration on this continent.”
With much focus of those against the sale having been on Fernandez initially, that focus shifted toward council member Garcia since the issue was brought up again in December. Garcia, however, would not back down.
He said he was elected to represent the citizens and “tough decisions have to be made,” although he understood the concerns.
“If people choose not to bring me back, whatever decision I make, I’ve done my due diligence,” Garcia said. “I’m not going to resource (resort) to words of hate or division, or militarization of our borders.”
Just because there are 200 comments against the sale, he said, does not mean the opposing viewpoint “doesn’t exist.”
“They don’t want to be the target of social media, they don’t want to be the target of these campaigns,” Garcia added.
The militarization issue was of particular concern for Mayor Pro Tem Moreno, who said as a law enforcement officer of 34 years, he respects safety and security, and he said Calexico is not, nor will it be, in a militarized zone.
“There are no Humvees, no helicopters,” he said, “we’re a Christian community,” with values of unity.
What ensued was more than an hour of public comments read into the record, many of which were true to the theme of opposing division, racism, militarization, xenophobia, greed to some extent with the $26,700 referenced, and an overall lack of understanding of the will of the people.
Commenter Melissa Ruiz, whose city of residence was not referenced by City Clerk Garcia, said, “The border wall gives life to and supports white supremacy.”
Brawley resident Eric Reyes, a longtime advocate of farmworkers in the community and an elder statesmen of social justice advocacy in the county, spoke live via Zoom, although technical issues with the videoconferencing platform made much of what he said difficult to discern.
“We are two countries, one community,” Reyes said. “I say let the government use eminent domain” to seize the land, rather than selling out for $27,000.
Where the major distractions set in were midway through the public comments, when the city clerk read an anonymous letter that took Ureña to task for using the property to establish a farmworker encampment “without the consensus of the council.”
Calling a point of order, Ureña read from the municipal code and asked that the anonymous letter be stricken from the record, which set off a tit for tat with Mayor Fernandez over her role as mayor and what was not allowable, according to Ureña’s referencing of various sections of the code.
She finally called a 10-minute recess and got up and walked out. When the session resumed, so did the bickering, and at some point, resident “Pinky” Perrone found her way into chambers and stood up to address Ureña.
Perrone, sitting in the back row of chambers, told Ureña to be respectful, before she shouted to him to “go get a job and occupy yourself with more important things and stop destroying Calexico,” as Chief Gerardo escorted her out.
“Get a job!” she shouted one last time.
Gerardo said on Wednesday, March 10, that Perrone told him after he walked her out of chambers, that she was at home listening to the livestream and became incensed. She told the chief she drove down to City Hall, and waiting until she saw a night janitor leave a door open while he was outside for a minute, she slipped inside.
After the decision to sell, Ureña wanted his protest noted for the record that he did not support the action due to the fact that President Joe Biden had issued a proclamation that the border fence would not be built any further and that no arrangements had been made to relocate the 10 farmworkers living on the parcel near Andrade.
Chief Gerardo on March 10 said those on the encampment site would not be forced off until the U.S. government takes possession of the property.
The Hero Pay issue came up next, with Attorney Campos explaining that the proposed ordinance would only affect companies that employ 300 people nationally and at least five people locally. He added that in every case such an ordinance had been passed in California, the California Grocers Association had filed suit, going as far as to win an injunction at one point that was ultimately rendered void by a court.
This issue, too, came with numerous public comments supportive of the ordinance, including what sounded like a representative of “20,000 retail pharmacy workers,” although, again, the live Zoom system made the caller’s comments impossible to hear.