At the public microphone and in front of the entire city council on Tuesday night, two young kids in Santa Ana asked their mayor for an apology.
Online, Mayor Valerie Amezcua had in a community Facebook group said that one of the girls’ remarks at a prior meeting – calling for a digital library instead of a police athletic program at an old fire station – had been written for them by their mother.
“I did not appreciate what Valerie, our Mayor, said about my last public comment. My mom did not write my speech last time. I wrote it on my own,” said 10-year-old Jadeley Verdin during this week’s public comments about the yet-to-be approved city budget for the next fiscal year.
She also called on the city to fund a youth center.
Her 12-year-old sister, Jadelyn, had the same message that night, during which Santa Ana City Council members were about to move forward with their newest slate of taxpayer spending priorities:
“I think you sincerely need to apologize to me and my sister.”
Requests for comment from Amezcua went unreturned on Wednesday.
The sisters’ words for local leaders capture an ongoing debate in town over how exactly to serve young people in a city with one of the youngest populations in the U.S. – a predominantly immigrant and working-class town that’s also a hotbed for debates about policing’s impact on young people.
And by the time the sisters were speaking on Tuesday, it was close to midnight.
“They have school tomorrow by the way,” said another resident calling for a youth center that night, 18-year-old Mia Verdin (no relation to the sisters), who criticized council members for not moving the city budget discussion to the start of a meeting packed with various scheduled policy discussions.
“That’s on you.”
Calls for a Dedicated Youth Center
As chairperson of the city’s youth commission for two years, and as a decade-long resident, Mia Verdin said she found it “very disappointing the city does not have a single youth center that is funded entirely by the city.”
While she and other speakers commended city officials for the existing spaces they’ve made for young people in town through community centers and programs, the speakers lamented that those resources limit the inclusion of certain age groups.
A quarter of Santa Ana’s 308,000 residents are under 18 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In turn, some speakers on Tuesday called for a dedicated space — a full-time center open to all young people.
“Don’t get me wrong, I highly appreciate the work that Parks and Recreation does. As commissioner, I’ve seen the arduous work that is put into creating community programming,” said Mia Verdin. “The shortcomings from the city are not on their shoulders,”
“Especially because they’re only seeing a $1.6 million increase in the proposed budget.”
The parks and recreation department, in total, is proposed to get a $15 million taxpayer spending budget in a city fighting a steep shortage of open green space.
Compare that to the police department, which is proposed to comprise nearly $147 million in taxpayer spending out of the city’s total $413 million in expenditures out of the general fund – about 35%.
While Council Members Ben Vazquez and Johnathan Ryan Hernandez seemed to echo those calls that night, urging the inclusion of a “teen center,” it’s not included in the current budget proposal.
That’s due to a lack of expressed support from a majority of City Council members throughout the budget meetings held so far.
A formal budget adoption is expected to happen at the council’s June 20 meeting.
“We have synthesized all the community input to date and we have also listened to you at the past three meetings, and whenever four of you agreed on an item we implemented it in the budget,” said City Manager Kristine Ridge during Tuesday night’s discussion.
Her remarks came during a tense point of the conversation about the need for more time to discuss council members’ outstanding spending requests.
“Right now there’s no more money left to spread around, so I’m not sure why we’re continuing to talk about things we want at this stage in the game,” Ridge said.
‘They’re Growing Up’
There are colliding ideas on the Santa Ana City Council about what youth services means.
Does it mean more police involvement?
“I would like to see more (police athletic league) programs throughout the city,” said one resident Selica Diaz in public comments on Tuesday, echoing a vocal group of residents who have turned out to speak in support of the program between this and last year.
She said she too would like to see more resources like libraries in her city.
“Unfortunately, our neighborhood has a history with gang activity, and we need to invest in Santa Ana youth to give them more opportunities to succeed,” she said.
Or does the answer lie in a youth center, where, as Council Member Ben Vazquez argued on Tuesday night, kids are “properly nurtured and become what they want — not what an adult wants them to be” ?
Mayor Amezcua and other council members have supported the expansion of the local police athletic league known as PAAL, which focuses on bond-building between police and kids primarily through sports.
“As far as investing in youth, I absolutely agree,” said Councilmember Phil Bacerra at an earlier May 16 budget forum. “I think PAAL’s been an amazing program and that’s something that we need to do to continue to invest in our youth. The program has had amazing results.”
A recent site eyed for the police athletic league’s expansion is a historic and unused fire station on south Cypress Street.
Last year, residents who supported PAAL showed up in full force during public comments to speak in favor of that expansion and more police in their underserved area with safety issues.
It’s an idea the City Council majority supports too, moving forward this year with architectural services that will plan the fire station’s renovation with the PAAL program in mind.
“The project is in the design phase now but additional funding will be needed to complete construction. If funding is available, the estimated completion date of the project is summer 2025,” said city spokesperson Paul Eakins on Wednesday.
But others in the Eastside/Pacific Park neighborhood called for more public input about the building’s use, and have voiced concern about using a rare opportunity at a public gathering space in the neighborhood on police programs.
It’s the same neighborhood in which the young Verdin sisters live.
Their mother, 35-year-old Vanessa Cerda, denied writing her kids’ comments for them in a Wednesday phone interview.
Cerda said she kept the mayor’s online comments from reaching her daughter’s ears until her daughter overheard it being discussed at a parent-teacher meeting around Mother’s Day.
She said it was her daughters who pushed the idea of speaking at meetings and that this year’s budget process – whether their demands are heard or not – has given them key lessons on what it means to be a civically-engaged young person.
“They’re children but they’re growing up in a society where they need to be exposed to these things, because how are they going to be able to navigate when they’re adults?” Cerda said.
“How are they going to be able to really advocate for themselves? And if they get shut down this time, that’s okay. Eventually they will create their path to knowing what they have to fight for, and eventually they will come to it.”