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Government & Politics

Scandal rocks Maricopa, leaving uncertain future

Shellie Branco
Valley Public Radio

Travelers are stocking up on snacks inside the convenience store at the Shell gas station in Maricopa on a hot Saturday afternoon. This is a town of about 1,200 residents in the oil-rich foothills of western Kern County. Bob Archibald’s Shell station sits on the intersection of two highways, and his business counts on travelers heading to the Central Coast.

So last year, Archibald took notice when the Maricopa Police Department began an aggressive campaign to pull over drivers for minor traffic violations and to impound cars.

“And word got out that you would be pulled over for no reason whatsoever, for not even breaking the law, and that infuriates people,” he says. “And word got out real quick, and our business literally went in the tank.”

The city itself is in financial trouble, so residents suspected the traffic fines and impounds were a way to generate revenue. They also worried the police were targeting Hispanics as a way to catch unlicensed drivers. Archibald says city officials didn’t listen to his concerns, so he put up signs of protest outside his store.

“One of them said, more or less, ‘Beware, the Maricopa police want your money, they want your car,’” he says.

Those signs and the charges of corruption made national headlines. And the city’s problems drew the attention of the Kern County Grand Jury. In June, the grand jury blasted the city for poor management and recommended disincorporation for Maricopa, meaning it would disband as a city and fall under the county’s care. Last week, the Maricopa City Council said no to disincorporation in its response to the grand jury. Since the release of the reports, the police department has admitted to ticketing drivers and impounding cars as a way to make money.

Eric Ziegler is a former city manager for the nearby city of Taft. He helped Maricopa city officials draft a response to the grand jury reports. He says the people of Maricopa don’t want to give up their city, and disincorporation requires a vote by the citizens.

“In terms of using all possible sources of legal advice (for disincorporation), legal advice isn’t free,” Ziegler says. “The grand jury has already said the city has financial problems. For the city to spend a fortune – if they have a fortune -- on legal advice for disincorporation, when the chances are 90 percent or better that there is no voter support for disincorporation, they would be doing the community a disservice.”

The city of Maricopa turned 100 years old this year, but residents didn’t mark the occasion with any fanfare. Outside the city council chambers, Maricopa resident Sharon Pelletier says she’d be sad to see the city fall apart.

“I bought my home here, I want to retire here, I want to live the rest of my life out,” she says. “It’s a 100-year-old house. I’ve always wanted an old house, I’m an old lady. [Laughs] So this is sad … and (I’d) hate to see it go.”

Maricopa is in the district of Kern County Supervisor Ray Watson.

“If they chose to disincorporate, they’d have to go back to LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission, and request to be disincorporated,” Watson explains. “That request would probably be granted because of the financial condition of the city.”

Watson says Maricopa’s debts haven’t strained the county, but the city’s residents are paying the price.

“What’s happening as they build up those debts, those, at some point, will be levied against their property taxes, and they will have to pay those,” he adds. “So the longer they continue to operate at a deficit, the larger the amount will be imposed on their property as a tax.”

Ziegler, the official helping Maricopa get back on track, says the city is creating a plan to pay back its debts, but the city’s financial future remains uncertain. And he’s helping the police department redraft its policies and procedures. He says it’s unrealistic for cities to rely on traffic citations as a way to generate revenue.

“If they see a police department ticketing speeders, and they know the fine for speeding is $100, guess what? They don’t speed,” he says. “And so fine revenue may peak for a month or two, and then it goes right to the bottom.”

Back at the Shell station, Archibald says business has improved since the police department eased up on the traffic citations. He took down his protest signs in the last few weeks.

“I would like to see more positive things happen for this town, it’s a good town with good people,” he says. “I’m pulling for the town, and the stories in the future I hope are more positive and moving forward.”