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Calif. town in debt, in trouble and out of time

For nearly a century the fortunes of this tiny town were tied to the oil fields that surrounded it and the people who worked them.
In this photo taken June 13, 2011, a sign is seen outside of the Shell gas station in Maricopa, Calif. Its own county grand jury has recommended that this tiny San Joaquin Valley community be dissolved because It's too poor to be a town anymore.
In this photo taken June 13, 2011, a sign is seen outside of the Shell gas station in Maricopa, Calif. Its own county grand jury has recommended that this tiny San Joaquin Valley community be dissolved because It's too poor to be a town anymore. Tracie Cone / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For nearly a century the fortunes of this tiny town were tied to the oil fields that surrounded it and the people who worked them.

They came by the thousands but have dwindled to 1,154 — a combination of oilers, farm workers and retirees drawn to a place of unrelenting sun and tumbleweeds 50 miles southwest of Bakersfield.

Now on the eve of Maricopa's 100th anniversary the county grand jury is calling for its dismantling, describing a place in political chaos: A city council clueless about its rights and responsibilities; an acting police chief hiring a tow company to impound vehicles of unlicensed drivers, then recruiting volunteer officers to write the necessary tickets, mostly to Latinos; a city mired in debt, borrowing tow company money to make payroll, unable to pay for even its county fire service.

"I care about this place very deeply, but I don't know how we're going to handle this," said Council Member S. Cynthia Tonkin, 75, who said she ran to reclaim her seat on the board last fall after a 15-year absence because police tactics were giving the town a bad reputation.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been investigating the vehicle impoundments. This week the U.S. Department of Justice sent a representative to mediate a potential civil rights dispute.

This comes on the heels of three reports by the Kern County Grand Jury issued earlier this month critical of town government and the police department. Jurors recommended both be dismantled and asked the county's Board of Supervisors to study the process.

The city with a budget of $1 million owes at least $200,000. Its annual fire protection payment to the county is more than three years in arrears. It owes $101,000 borrowed for street repairs but used instead for operating expenses, and $24 to the owner of each parcel of property for illegally assessed garbage fees.

"It's troubling," said Tina Johnson of Tina's Diner, which, with a rock shop and quilt store, is one of just three businesses left downtown and a popular meeting spot.

"This city has never been rich, and in the last couple of decades it has dwindled down, but they always paid their bills," said Sharon Pelletier, 67, the council's self-described gadfly.

Police and city officials have not yet formulated their response to the grand jury. The former city administrator quit months ago and the police chief is not talking. But city officials present and past are talking and their opinions are mixed.

The town's problems are exaggerated, said Andy Blakely, a council member since 1990 and owner of Andy's Septic Tank Service.

"I've never seen no town that don't have a deficit," he said. "It's just how you interpret that deficit."

The jury's most scathing criticisms were leveled in two reports aimed at the town's police department. When interim Chief Derek Merritt took over 18 months ago, the squad went from a two-man force that didn't work nights to one with 25 volunteers — all writing tickets and impounding vehicles on the highway to the coast that skirts the town.

With 100 missing citations and a lack of police record keeping, interim City Administrator Lauri Robison, the former deputy clerk, said the city doesn't know how many cars have been confiscated. The chief's deal with the tow truck operator gives the city 25 percent of the impoundment collections. Over the past 12 months the town has received $32,000, she said.

"One of the findings of the grand jury is that they didn't have all of the receipts," Robison said. "Our chief is going to address that, and that's all I can say on that."

'They take your car away'
Residents say the number of impoundments is high based on what they've seen.

"I won't even go through Maricopa," said Aileen Throop, who until 2005 had been the town's mayor for 12 years. "If you go through there and even just have something hanging on your mirror they will stop you, give you a ticket and take your car away."

Sometimes they snag several cars a day.

"Just overnight it was like the Keystone Cops," said Bob Archibald, who owns the city's single biggest contributor to sales tax coffers, a Shell station on Highway 166. From there, he can watch the police action. "There were police cruisers speeding by with tow trucks following them, people being pulled over left and right and cars being towed."

Families were left stranded on the side of the road, some with young children, sometimes in searing heat. Mike Smith of Sandi's Rock Shop says he saw a family ousted from their car on Christmas Eve.

Archibald hung banners warning people that Maricopa was a speed trap. In English and Spanish the signs begin: "The M.P.D. Wants Your Car and Your Money."

He lost $14,000 in gasoline sales because drivers began avoiding the highway last summer compared to the summer before, he said, but his complaints to the council went unanswered.

"They wanted the money," he said.

Archibald is one of several residents of Maricopa who began writing letters to the grand jury asking for an investigation.

Meanwhile, the impoundment practice raised concern among Latino advocates and civil rights groups.

A nonprofit that works with the indigenous Oaxacans employed on the area's farms say that of the 100 people they've talked to, 60 had cars confiscated — some twice.

"We're talking about a lot of folks getting their cars impounded, and this is just one community of people," said Hector Hernandez of Unidad Popular Benito Juarez.

Councilman Blakely says people just aren't used to aggressive policing. The chief took a door-to-door survey that showed broad community support, his handout shows.

But most of the confiscated vehicles belong to people who live outside of the city limits, the report said.

"It's a particularly shocking example of police misconduct. They're using it not for law enforcement but just to make money," said Jennie Pasquarella, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. "My objective is to end this, and so I want to do what it takes to do that."

Change has begun, said Robison. A month ago she told the police department to scale back the volunteer patrols so now there is just one car on the road at any time, instead of four.

She is working on the city's response to the grand jury while trying to balance the city's budget, due by the end of the month.

"There's still some debt, but we're working on paying that down," she said.

Over 30 years she has seen the town that once was home to the world's biggest gusher decline from a place "full of shops and banks" to this. She is hopeful it will rebound.

"I think the biggest step for us is just getting everything behind us and moving on," Robison said. "I think the city needs some major, positive changes. I believe Maricopa has a vision for the future. I want to see the city rebuilt and want to see things reconciled and get past this."