Mad River Union
ARCATA – Mayor Susan Ornelas will lead an anti-crime “Plaza Study Session” soon, in response to what she calls “a looser atmosphere about violence” downtown.
“Nobody’s feeling safe these days on the Plaza,” Ornelas said last week, as another in a series of special meetings was about to begin at City Hall on racial justice and student safety.
The fora were inaugurated in the wake of the David Josiah Lawson homicide last Easter (Union, Sept. 22).
No date has been set, but “probably” the crime study session will be convened before the end of the year.
The mayor said the assembly of business owners and community members will address a hardening coalescence of vexing and deep-seated problems: low-level crime, fist fights, public drunkenness, shop doorway layabouts, foul and aggressive language – in her words, “things that have gone on for a long time [that] seem to be reaching a pinnacle and [getting] a little meaner.”
Queried if she agrees with critics who consider law enforcement and the social atmosphere downtown dangerously lax and laissez-faire, Ornelas replied, “Not really. I talk to the cops and they say they give out lots of tickets. You keep giving the same tickets out every day, [to the] same people often.”
Asked if she had concluded that the Plaza’s decline had engendered a climate conducive to the fatal gunfight last month on Ninth Street’s notorious Tavern Row, the mayor answered, “I can see some correlation but I don’t know, not necessarily. Now there is a looser atmosphere about violence; that is a correlation I could see.”
Does that translate to more law enforcement, she was asked. Would she support a dedicated tax increase to finance the hiring of more street patrol officers? Would students feel safer if police numbers were augmented?
“I think everyone might feel a bit safer,” Ornelas said. “I think the police are part of the answer, but it’s not going to be leaning heavily on police to solve the problem, I don’t think. That’s one part. I think we might have to look at some different policies of the way we manage downtown. I’m not going to get into specifics.”
Nevertheless she cited one particular: the taut, disturbing ambiance on the Plaza might justify new ordinances to restrict alcohol sales.
“That’s a thought we’re talking about also. That’s why we have to have a study session; get community members here, get business owners here, get the [city] council here. Put stuff on the table and talk about it.”
Councilmember Paul Pitino echoed the call for curbing alcohol consumption.
He suggested at the special meeting that it may be advisable to restrict the hours that Plaza bars operate.
“They are open too early and open too late,” he stated, adding, “More server and bouncer education might be in order,” to concert a strong clampdown on drunken fights and DUIs.
Ornelas was not surprised that last week’s meeting of the Public Safety Task Force Committee was canceled for want of a quorum, despite widespread fears of the lawlessness on the Plaza and in residential neighborhoods, where home invasions are endemic.
“It was a pretty big committee, so to get the quorum could be a difficult thing,” the mayor said in the interview. “We recognized that when we were forming it, but so many people wanted to be on it. With 11 people it would make sense that it would dwindle. I haven’t heard anything officially from them, that they feel like they’re not making their quorums.”
If dwindling attendance persists, she said, “We may lower the [number] of people or put another call out and say, ‘Does anybody else want to serve on it?’ I think the work they’re doing’s important and I’m really supportive of it moving forward.”