City Responds to Land Sale Pause

Mayor Pro Tem Moreno takes on ‘political’ agendas of fellow council members

CALEXICO — The city of Calexico is in an indefinite holding pattern while it awaits to hear the “final determination” of the controversial sale of a pair of oddly shaped parcels of land along the U.S.-Mexico border fence, according to a statement from the city manager.

“Per the City of Calexico Attorney, this afternoon (Tuesday, March 23) Frank Schmidt, Chief of Real Estate, with the Army Corps of Engineers informed that this transaction has been placed ‘on hold’ until a final determination is made on how to proceed with this matter,” the statement from the city reads. “Once the Army Corps receives a final determination/guidance, they will inform the City of Calexico. He mentioned it could take some time to receive a final determination/guidance.”

Further, one elected city official who spoke frankly to the Calexico Chronicle on Wednesday morning, March 24, took issue with the political and ideological grandstanding that has taken place around this issue.

Meanwhile, some city officials were caught off guard by the announcement on Friday, March 19, when a reporter from inewsource emailed City Manager Miguel Figueroa and City Attorney Carlos Campos notifying them that inewsource had learned of the “pause” in the sale through correspondence with the Army Corps of Engineers, a copy of which was sent to both Calexico officials.

Miguel Figueroa, Calexico City Manager | FILE PHOTO

Absent from the inewsource report published online Monday morning, March 22, was a statement from the city, or reaction from the three members of the council who had voted for the sale of two separate parcels of land totaling 2.5 acres for a sum of $26,700. The decision to sell was made during a contentious City Council meeting on March 8.

“When the vote happened, the City Council was not aware” that the sale had been put on hold, Figueroa said told this newspaper on Tuesday evening. “The city of Calexico was unaware, including the city attorney.”

A statement from the city was pending direct contact with the federal government and not information third hand.

Next steps, Calexico Mayor Pro Tem Javier Moreno said on Wednesday, March 24, will be determined after hearing from the city attorney and city staff.

Calexico council member Raul Ureña, who had been in contact with inewsource, something he alluded to publicly in a Facebook post on at least one of his public pages over the weekend, stated in the inewsource report that Figueroa informed him Friday evening the sale was on hold.

“This is a victory for protection of the homeless people that are occupying that space,” Ureña told inewsource, referring to the reported 10 farmworkers living in tents on the parcel off First Street and Andrade Avenue. “They’re much more protected with that being municipal property under the state of California laws, as opposed to federal government laws.”

The issue has revolved around overtures by the Army Corps of Engineers to purchase the two parcels last summer to begin the process of constructing a secondary fence in those areas.

Since the transaction was started, a presidential administration with a different focus has taken office, with President Joe Biden stating in January that construction of President Donald Trump’s border wall was to cease.

On Wednesday morning, two of the three council members who voted for the sale spoke with the Calexico Chronicle, with one using harsh terms against what he said has been the political grandstanding surrounding the issue.

Javier Moreno, Calexico Mayor Pro Tem | FILE PHOTO

Without mincing words, Mayor Pro Tem Moreno chided fellow council members Ureña and Gloria Romo for being poor city policymakers whose focus has been on issues not germane to those things for which council members are elected to do.

“For us, it was a busines decision, it wasn’t political, it wasn’t personal. Camilo (Garcia), myself, and (Mayor) Rosie (Fernandez), we talked to the people living in those areas. They weren’t in favor (of the farmworker encampment),” Moreno said.

“They’re (Ureña and Romo) not City Council members, they’re advocates for reform … they’re not doing the job they’re supposed to do,” he continued, adding council members are elected and have the authority and responsibility to deal with infrastructure issues, water and sewer services, the state of the roads, and things of the like.

“This has nothing to do with basic services, all it has to do is with political ideology,” Moreno said.

While he admits, coming from a law enforcement background, he tends toward the conservative, he said he is also strongly supportive of organizations and movements that focus on marginalized groups. He said this is not one of those issues, and certainly not something a council should be distracted by.

In a final salvo, Moreno said:

“They’re not City Council members, and they’re not doing a good job at it. All it creates is animosity. … You don’t hear a lot from us because we’re professionals.”

Rosie Fernandez, Calexico Mayor | FILE PHOTO

Returning to the March 8 decision, both Moreno and Mayor Fernandez said they had spoken personally to residents who live in the immediate area of the border encampment, and they said overwhelmingly those residents were not in support of the camp and did support selling the land, or at least having it revert to its barren state.

On the other hand, both said they feel for the farmworkers and said there are resources for them, there have been for years, as Fernandez reminded that this is not a new issue for Calexico despite the sudden high-profile nature of things.

“My neighbor was asking me, ‘What’s going on with those tents? They’re not good for the people around here,’” Fernandez said Wednesday morning. “I said, ‘Why not speak out?’

“They don’t want any controversy,” she said.

Fernandez explained older Calexicans keep to themselves, they don’t want to be retaliated against on social media or in person, something Moreno said as well. That is also something council member Garcia said during the March 8 meeting.

Fernandez said she is concerned about the farmworkers, too, but there are services elsewhere, such as with the shelters through Catholic Charities, and she referred to more permanent housing for farmworkers on Andrade Avenue.

The mayor even wondered whether these displaced individuals could be assisted in finding temporary residence in the recently opened Hollie’s Hotel conversion on Imperial Avenue.

For his part, Moreno has been staging talks on trying to establish a more permanent drop-in site with wraparound (social) services for farmworkers in the city in a more stable situation.

In terms of the land in question itself, Moreno said he, Garcia, and Fernandez did their research. He had contacted the Army Corps of Engineers prior to this and understood that imminent domain was a real possibility for the parcels. He said the city could fight it, but that he learned suits challenging imminent domain can take up to three years to see resolution and that most of the time, courts rule on the side of the government per the 14th Amendment establishing the rule of law over such seizures of public land.

What more, Moreno said, he challenges the assertion in the inewsource piece that federal officials had been seeking a final determination multiple times prior to Biden taking office.

While that might be the case prior to Jan. 20, Moreno said no forward movement on the sale came from the city because staff wanted to wait to see the will of the new council, which was seated in December, when the issue came up on the agenda the first time for a vote.

In determining the price to be paid, Moreno said Wednesday that the $26,700 was based on a common scale of market value and available uses of two pieces of land upon which the city could not build anything due to the federal government’s perpetual easement.

That easement gives the government say over the land from the fence to 60 feet north, per the “Roosevelt Reservation,” part of a presidential proclamation made by Theodore Roosevelt in 1907.

The proclamation was made over public lands in California, Arizona, and New Mexico to keep the area “free from obstruction as a protection against smuggling of goods between the United States and Mexico.”

Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo, who said the farmworker encampment is within 55 feet of the fence, confirmed the federal government could remove the encampment at any time.

On a final note, Moreno said, “We are deciding what’s the best for the city, not what’s best based on political ideology or whether it’s ‘my way or the highway’ … We took action, and we took a little bit longer with it. … the Army wasn’t pushing the issue.”

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