Monday, July 4, 2011

"We've Lost the Small-Town Feel:" Kern County Calls for Maricopa's Disincorporation

If any libertarians are spending today thinking wistfully about the vision of small government that our Founding Fathers held as an ideal, they should have a look at this LA Times report on what's happening in the tiny Kern County burgh of Maricopa. A county grand jury has just issued recommendations for what the city might do about its dismal finances. And we have to say that government truly doesn't get much smaller than this.

A hundred years ago, when Maricopa was founded, things were very good, as oil wealth brought good wages and other businesses began and flourished. Now, however, this town of 1,154 sees shuttered storefronts and empty diners, and in the wake of a Kern County grand jury's report on its finances, it feels like it's falling apart. The grand jury accused past administrations of poor bookkeeping (including keeping city funds in an unlocked desk drawer), barely being able to pay day-to-day bills, and rarely seeking legal help. Maricopa had even once borrowed money from a local towing company just to meet payroll. As a result, the panel wrote, "With a crumbling infrastructure, the financial resources of the city are insufficient to cover current needs let alone retire outstanding debt." The report closed by recommending that Maricopa disincorporate itself.

These findings led to an angry City Council meeting last week, at which some residents demanded that Police Chief Derek Merritt be immediately fired, while others demanded the recall of two of Merritt's critics on the council. This isn't a coincidence, as the impoundment policies of the Police Department are a focus of considerable animosity in Maricopa; the Southern California ACLU has described them as "essentially creating a racket to steal people's cars." The Maricopa police have been accused of targeting farmworkers in the hope of catching illegal immigrants without driver's licenses, and have long enjoyed 25% of the proceeds of selling impounded cars when the town's steep fees aren't paid. Gas station owner Bob Archibald started to complain last summer by putting signs in front of his business reading "Stop the Maricopa Police Dept. Out of Control Traffic Tactics. Your Voices Have the Real Power! Speak Up & Tell Them to Stop!" Archibald says he has seen "cop cars and tow trucks going crazy in front of our store, impounding cars right and left," and the grand jury's review included his documentation of customers' accounts of police encounters. And oil worker J.R. Phillips complains that, "we've lost the small-town feel. A town this size doesn't need 27 officers. They don't know who anyone is." Still, many in the town disagree with the town's most important business owner; at last week's Council meeting, Police supporter Marilyn Hynson said to Archibald, "we need your store here — but we don't need you here."

So here we are: a community on the verge of utter collapse, fighting over whether the actions of its government are justified. Just another example of what the state brings us every day.


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