About 70 people took part of a letter writing event and rally organized by Agents for Change at Las Casitas Park in Salinas on June 19, 2020 | Photo by Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Story and photos by Claudia Meléndez Salinas
In one of the many memorable lines of “White Chicks,” FBI agent Kevin Copeland, disguised as heiress Brittany Wilson, feigns outrage at being asked for I.D. at a fancy hotel.
“I wanna speak to your supervisor! Better yet, I’m gonna write a letter! “
As far as civic engagement methods go, perhaps there isn’t any other that matches the sophistication and effectiveness of writing letters. First, you need to know how to write. Then you need to be knowledgeable about the topic you want to address. Finally, you’ll need to know who should receive your letter and how to send it.
And when politicians receive original letters, they listen. A letter signifies an educated, engaged, savvy voter, thus they are more likely to respond positively to a personal letter than to a petition signed by thousands of people.
“The biggest thing we hear from our sources connected to council people, is that the mayor and councilmembers lean heavily on public comments,” said Samantha Varela, an organizer with Agents of Change, a recently formed coalition of organizations that want to transform Salinas. Public comments “ get recorded, that’s why it’s important to comment on the city’s website, so we can point to them and say ‘we’ve been saying that since that date’.”
There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of people during the Black Lives Matter protests in the Central Coast in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Every participant demanded change, but only a few of those protesters have turned to letter writing. Agents of Change and other community organizations want to help young protesters find their way through the political involvement maze and held a letter writing event on Friday at Las Casitas park. The event was attended by about 70 people who heard from organizers why they would like to see more funding to community services rather than the police department.
“Are you OK with 45 percent (of taxpayers’) money going to the police?” Cesar Lara, executive director of the Monterey Bay Labor Council and policy director for MILPA, asked the audience. “Are you OK with our parks being in disrepair? Are you OK with street potholes big enough to swallow up a car?” To each question, the audience responded with a resounding “no.”
The city of Salinas allocates 45 percent of its general fund operating budget to the police department. The difference is remarkable when compared to Pacific Grove, which allocates 31 percent of its operating budget to police services, and with Monterey, with 23 percent of its operating budget dedicated to law enforcement.
In Salinas, where the city council is poised to approve its spending plan on Tuesday, public comments exploded during the June 9 council meeting. It took almost an hour for the city clerk to read them all. They were later posted to the city’s website: they fill 120 pages, and there were about 70 in support of keeping the police department fully funded, and about 30 asking the council to prioritize library, park and other services.
Supporters of police services cited feeling afraid, described the city as “dangerous and violent” — even though crime has decreased dramatically in the past five years.
Among those who want more money for services are some who are new to the political process “I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never attended a city hall meeting,” reads a message from a 20-year-old resident. “The fact that the police department acquires 44 percent of the General Fund and Measure E and F is enraging.”
If administrators have their way, Salinas officials Tuesday will approve a budget for the next year that’s pretty much status quo and has a modest increase for the police department of about half a million dollars to pay for a service previously covered by a grant. Those increases are on the table even as most departments have been asked to take a cut, including a 3.5 percent reduction to library services.
Many Salinas residents want to see cuts to the police department instead of an increase. Believing “safety” means a lot more than just having cops on the streets, they’d like to see more social workers instead—– to de-escalate potentially lethal situations with mental health patients. They want to see a housing coordinator to help address overcrowding and homelessness. Their proposals range from a modest $400,000 cut to eliminate the school resources officer program to shrinking the department’s portion of the budget to 30 percent.
They point to how the department initially relies on grants to increase staffing but later the community is asked to pay for those services. That’s the case of the Shot Spotter and school resource officers, which were initially funded through federal grants. “After 2020, these positions will be absorbed into Measure G,” the budget reads, referring to the SROs.
While initial grants become permanent expenditures for the police department, East Salinas residents are being told improvements sought through the Alisal Vibrancy Plan, which took hundreds of hours from hundreds of residents to put together, are not funded, Lara said.
“We need to change that,” he said. “This mini-general plan for East Salinas requires housing and economic development. These are the community priorities, and when we asked ‘what in here can you point to that’s supporting this plan?’ you know what staff said? ‘We’re going to be looking for grants.’ We need to change that.”
Organizing a letter-writing event for a traditionally underrepresented population is an important step in the movement, Varela said. East Salinas has historically been neglected. As an example, she points to the money being proposed for the upkeep of Closter Park: $17,850, the lowest amount among the city’s three largest parks with dedicated funds.
On Saturday, Agents of Change organized a cleanup of Las Casitas park. Varela said they found flyers on a bulletin board dated from 2008.
“We’re talking about 11 or 12 years of this park not being cleaned up…. Obviously, the city is not doing the proper maintenance they need to be doing for its residents. The East Side has consistently gotten the crumb of the crumbs of our tax dollars,” Varela said. “When we examine it even further and when we look at the budget, there’s only $4 million for recreation, and we have 52 parks in Salinas, that’s not going to cover the amount of man hours necessary (for the upkeep) of so many of our parks. That’s why they are in disarray.”
The Salinas City council will discuss the budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year during its meeting on Tuesday, June 23. Meetings are being held remotely. Public comments via email are due by 2 p.m. on the day of the meeting to the City Clerk at PublicComment@ci.salinas.ca.us Comments are limited to 250 words or less. Meetings can be viewed remotely at http://www.youtube.com/thesalinaschannel
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