Byline: Rebecca Rona-Tuttle
If you relied exclusively on the Los Angeles Times and local radio newscasts for information about the dramatic turn of events in the city of Maywood, CA, you would conclude that Maywood has a disaster on its hands. You might also conclude that its dire circumstances could portend similar outcomes in other financially distressed California cities.
But I spoke today with Leonardo Vilchis, director of Liberty Hill grantee Union de Vecinos (Union of Neighbors), who gave me an insider’s perspective on the newest troubles of the trouble-plagued town of Maywood. And the image he portrays stands in sharp contrast to what we’d otherwise infer.
Before going any further, let me tell you about Union de Vecinos, which Liberty Hill has assisted for more than 10 years with grants totaling $443,000 as well as other forms of support. Union de Vecinos organizes residents primarily in the Boyle Heights region of Los Angeles and in Maywood around issues residents find most pressing. Maywood is a city of 45,000 residents, most of them Latino and many undocumented, jam packed into one square mile. Union de Vecinos first organized residents there around tenants rights issues. When residents began voicing their concerns about having no choice but to drink polluted water provided by a private water company, Union de Vecinos began organizing around water issues as well.
This nonprofit’s organizing has been more than a fight for tenants’ rights and against unhealthy water; it’s been civic engagement and community building at its best. Soon, taking its lead from Maywood’s residents, the nonprofit expanded its focus to the corrupt police force and the many abuses perpetrated against residents, as well as to the makeup of the city council, school issues and more.
As you may have read in recent LA Times articles, Maywood’s city leaders have been forced to lay off all city employees, including Maywood’s police force, retaining only their city manager, city attorney and elected officials. The city will turn to the LA County Sheriff’s Department to meet its security needs and contract with the neighboring city of Bell for its municipal services. Numerous costly lawsuits brought against the city, most against its police department, had resulted in the city’s inability to obtain insurance. The city council, facing the impossibility of acquiring insurance and trying to avoid bankruptcy, had few options.
But this newest state of “disaster,” Leonardo explained today, “is actually a good thing.” According to Leonardo, the community supports the strong measures taken by the city council. Why? The city has avoided bankruptcy; a police department thought by many to be corrupt has been disbanded; and the city has entered into a collaboration with Bell, which--though admittedly having its own share of problems--is able to provide better services than Maywood's.
Leonardo says that Maywood is about to profit from new opportunities: In the coming years, with the involvement of Union de Vecinos, community members will be able to discuss their needs and determine their own priorities. He expects the city will establish new policing standards. The assistance of the County Sheriff's Department and the city of Bell will be temporary, giving Maywood the time it needs to assess its needs and rebuild. He expects that Maywood will be able to structure and hire a new police force, and establish a police commission within one to three years. And he anticipates that Maywood will succeed at reorganizing itself as a city within five to 10 years.
Not such a disaster after all.