Thursday, March 1, 2012
Without microphones, presenters shouted in Spanish and an interpreter translated into the indigenous Mexican language Triqui over the chatter of about 100 children. It was hard to hear details in a crowd of nearly 300 in the cafeteria of Mary Chapa Elementary School in Greenfield on a recent Sunday afternoon.
But for Comité de la Junta, organized by eight farmworkers and a physician’s assistant at Clinica de Salud, a tradition of community meetings is at its strongest, if not its most formal. Nine years ago, 27 new immigrants showed up for a presentation on American laws. Now, hundreds of people gather during the agricultural off-season for monthly sessions on environmental stewardship, health and parenting.
It’s just in time that Comité developed its own internal leadership structure; last week, former Greenfield Police Chief Joe Grebmeier, who originally convened the meetings, announced his retirement. Grebmeier’s departure, following nearly five months of paid administrative leave, comes during a period of upheaval in Greenfield that’s made police politically hot.
Three of the city’s five council members are facing recall elections June 5. And the city is suing 16 community organizers who gathered signatures to get a referendum on the same June ballot; the referendum would let citizens vote on whether to unravel Greenfield’s plan to share police services with the neighboring city of Soledad.
The consolidation is a step toward what Interim City Manager Brent Slama hopes could become a joint powers authority for law enforcement throughout South County. Police account for about one-third of the city’s $9 million operating budget.
The city budgeted up to $30,000 to fight the referendum. In their complaint, filed Feb. 15 in Monterey County Superior Court, attorneys from San Francisco-based Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson argue citizens may only reverse legislative actions, not administrative ones, through referendums.
Former City Councilman Agapito Vazquez partnered with Grebmeier to launch the community meetings back in 2003. After the cash-strapped King City School District started charging rent for meeting space – which would’ve run about $650 a month – the city dropped its organizing role and Comité formed.
Vazquez described racially charged city politics in Greenfield, which has a significant indigenous population. “The reason people were opposed to meetings is they don’t want people from Oaxaca here in this town,” he says.
In Slama’s view, the tension stems from the city budget’s 25 percent reduction in the past five years. “Since Chief Grebmeier had such a strong rapport with the indigenous community, obviously they feel [his departure] the hardest,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s fair to characterize any of this as racism.”
Most Comité participants are non-citizens and so can’t vote on the recalls or the referendum – if it survives court to make the June ballot. But they’re also entering the political fray.
Jorge Flores of the Brown Berets, a Watsonville-based youth empowerment and social justice group, presented to Comité Feb. 26 on the controversial fumigant methyl iodide. Afterward Armando Lorenzo, 21, said he’d sign a petition for a city resolution opposing methyl iodide – but not because he worries about health. “It’s because they ask,” he says.
Comité members are creating working groups to address specific issues like language, health and pesticides – particularly methyl. “The Salinas Valley is the produce capital of America,” says Comité member Jason Johnston, “and it’s also the pesticide capital.”