Small crowd gathers for Merced’s first 2014 town hall meeting

About two dozen Merced residents met at Rivera Middle School’s gymnasium Wednesday night during the Merced City Council’s first town-hall-style meeting of the year.

The council took questions from the public and heard residents’ concerns over police policy, marketing of the city and sidewalk upkeep.

Victoria Castillo, 30, of Merced told the council she’s had a difficult time when trying to ask for information about Merced Police Department policy. She said the department will cite the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and not answer her questions.

Castillo said she was looking for answers about policy surrounding a Nov. 20 incident in which Hubertino Vallejo of Planada was killed after being struck by an armored SWAT vehicle. Officer Moses Nelson was driving the vehicle that struck Vallejo about 4:50 p.m. on east R Street and 14th Street on that day.

She asked whether police are drug tested after such incidents, and whether officers are given psychiatric tests after serious incidents. She also wanted to know whether officers have personal or dashboard cameras.

Police Chief Norm Andrade responded to the questions, saying officers are drug tested after serious incidents or accidents. He would not say whether Nelson, the officer who was driving the SWAT vehicle, had been tested. “That’s still under investigation,” he said.

Andrade also said officers are offered psychiatric counseling, and sometimes undergo psychiatric testing. He said each officer has a camera on his or her body, which the officer can turn on or off, and the dashboard cameras come on automatically at a certain rate of speed.

Another participant at the meeting, Jordan Cowman of Merced, brought up a slogan on the city’s seal: “Gateway to Yosemite.”

“I feel like we don’t want a narrative that Merced is the place where you stop to use the bathroom on the way to somewhere better,” the 25-year-old said.

He said the city should think about changing the slogan, because people think of Merced as a place they want to leave.

Councilman Josh Pedrozo agreed. He said now, as the city approaches its 125th anniversary, is the time to assess a change in the slogan. “A lot of times, people (say) there’s nothing to do, or the ‘Merdead’ thing,” he said, referring to pejorative nickname for Merced. “This is a good time to reassess ourselves.”

City Council policy encourages the scheduling of a minimum of two town hall-style meetings to receive input and ideas from residents on issues, projects and programs. The meetings typically take place in the first quarter of the year.

The city’s first special meeting held outside City Hall took place in April 2012 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s social hall in south Merced.

Concerns discussed included McNamara Park, which has subsequently benefited from significant city and community attention. Another concern addressed last year was the lack of interpretive services at City Council meetings. The council has since contracted for services in Hmong and Spanish.

The Rev. Don Ramsey, the pastor for Saint Matthew Baptist Church in Merced, said the city needs to work on many sidewalks in south Merced. “I don’t know if there’s money in the budget, but we need to find some,” he said, during the meeting.

Mayor Stan Thurston said one topic on the agenda for Saturday’s goal-planning workshop is finding ways to generate more money for the general fund. He also said the town halls serve a purpose that the regular meetings of City Council do not. At town halls, speakers are allowed to speak freely and members of council can engage in a back-and-forth discussion with the public, Thurston said.

The priority and goal-planning workshop is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Saturday in the Sam Pipes Room of the Merced Civic Center, 678 W. 18th St.

The second town hall-style meeting for this year is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 12 at Tenaya Middle School, 760 W. Eighth St.