Una serie de medidas que explícitamente prohíben toda la actividad comerciante del cannabis fueron adoptadas en la ciudad de Bell Gardens ante la posibilidad de pronto perder el control sobre el crecimiento y ejecución de la hierba.
La decisión sucedió después de que el gobernador Jerry Brown autorizó una programa estatal de regulación (Medical Regulation and Safety Act en inglés), el cual otorga licencias a dispensarios en California.
A los casi 20 años de la legalización de la marijuana medicinal en el estado, el programa aprobado por Brown intenta clarificar áreas confusas en la legislación cómo la actividad actual no reglamentada.
Bajo la ley, ciudades como Bell Gardens serían requeridas a adoptar ordenanzas o normas de zonificación para regular el uso de la droga entre sus límites municipales. Si esto no se a ejecutado, arriesgarían a que el estado se instale como árbitro final sobre la industria de la marijuana medicinal en la ciudad.
“O actuábamos ahora o dejábamos que el estado decidera”, dijo Abel Ávalos, director del desarrollo comunitario en Bell Gardens.
La ciudad decidió endurecer sus límites municipales en respuesta directa al plazo limite en octubre, de acuerdo a lo que Ávalos dijo a EGP. Además, agrego el director, los cambios también ayudarían a Bell Gardens a regular con más eficiencia el crecimiento y la distribución de la hierba en la ciudad, a pesar de que los dispensarios fueron prohibidos en 2007.
El uso ilegal de la marijuana ha sido un problema para la ciudad, de acuerdo a la concejal Jennifer Rodríguez, quien remarcó la dificultad de imponer las leyes que prohíben el uso en público.
“El olor se siente en dondequiera”, dijo Rodríguez a EGP. “El olor de la marijuana se siente en el gimnasio, mientras manejas -no hay ningún control”.
En noviembre, los votantes tendrán la oportunidad de emitir su voto en contra o a favor de la “Ley del Uso Adulto de la Marijuana” (o Adult Use of Marijuana Act en inglés) el cual legalizaría el uso recreacional de la hierba para adultos mayor de 21 años. La ley también aplicaría impuestos al crecimiento comercial y en la venta del cannabis recreacional.
“¿De qué sirven las leyes si son difíciles de imponer?”, pregunto Rodríguez.
De acuerdo a Troy Henshaw, detective y sargento del Departamento de Policía de Bell Gardens, ellos regularmente reciben llamadas de gente quejándose de jóvenes fumando marijuana en público. Los reclamos a veces son de personas que están parados cerca del infractor y en otras ocasiones son de personas que van manejando detrás de alguien emitiendo una nube de humo notable desde adentro de su vehiculo, explico Henshaw.
“Algunas de las llamadas no resultan en arrestos ya que no podemos localizar al infractor pero en otras veces sí acabamos arrestando o multando a los ofensores”, dijo Henshaw a EGP. “Yo diría que no es un problema grave en los parques públicos pero si recibimos quejas al respecto”.
Según la policía, cada caso varía ya que ellos tienen que determinar si el supuesto infractor tiene una receta médica para poseer la marijuana o no. En el caso de que no estén autorizados, el oficial entonces decide que tan severo tienen que ser los cargos, lo que usualmente acaba siendo determinado por la cantidad de la substancia en posesión.
“Si un individuo es encontrado violando la ley, esa persona puede recibir una multa, ser arrestado por un delito menor o por una felonía y la marijuana es confiscada”, dijo Henshaw.
Desde el 2011, el poseer una onza o menos de la droga es categorizada una infracción con una multa de $100 sin manchar el récord del infractor. Esto es un intento de despenalizar el delito para reducir la carga financiera en las cortes que resulta cuando se enjuician dichas infracciones.
En otros términos, “si te pescan fumando, te multan y te mandan por el lado en que viniste”, se quejó Rodríguez.
La regulación de la marijuana medicinal ha demostrado ser sumamente difícil en varias ciudades locales. Dispensarios ilegales y no reglamentados han afectado a Los Ángeles a pesar de la Proposición D, una medida que limita el numero de los negocios a 135.
La oficina del fiscal municipal de Los Ángeles, Mike Feuer, quien en una ocasión calculó que el numero de negocios ilegales sumaban a 800, tiene en pie un esfuerzo continuo para suprimir estas actividades que están fuera de control.
Mientras que el problema no es tan grave en Bell Gardens, tres dispensarios ilegales fueron abiertos en la Avenida Eastern, cerca del corredor comercial en el centro de la ciudad. Los tres fueron cerrados rápidamente cuando fueron descubiertos por la ciudad, dijo Ávalos a EGP.
“No conocemos de ningún dispensario que opere por el momento en Bell Gardens”, aseguró Henshaw.
La legalización de la marijuana podría atraer nuevos y más grandes problemas como problemas financieros y accidentes y/o actividad criminal a causa de la droga, según Rodríguez.
“Esto es sólo el comienzo y muy pronto tal vez no podremos hacer nada al respecto”, dijo.
BELL GARDENS – Faced with the possibility of losing its authority to regulate the growth and delivery of medical marijuana in the city, Bell Gardens officials have adopted a series of measures that explicitly prohibited all commercial medical cannabis activity in the city.
Their actions come in response to Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of the Medical Regulation and Safety Act, a state-licensing program for dispensaries. Coming nearly 20 years after medical marijuana was first legalized in California, the three-pronged bill aims to clarify gray areas in the legislation that allowed “pot shops” and commercial medical marijuana activities to continue unregulated.
The Act requires cities like Bell Gardens to adopt ordinances or zoning laws to regulate medical marijuana operations within their borders, or risk the state becoming the final arbiter of the medical marijuana industry in the city.
“It was either act now, otherwise the state will decide,” explained Abel Avalos, Bell Gardens’ Director of Community Development.
Avalos told EGP the city decided to tighten its existing zoning codes in direct response to the state’s March deadline, but added that the changes also give Bell Gardens new tools to regulate the delivery and growing of marijuana in the city, activities that have popped up in greater frequency recently despite the city’s 2007 banning of medical marijuana dispensaries.
Illegal use of marijuana is an issue for the city, says Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez, pointing out the difficulty of enforcing laws prohibiting its use in public.
“Everywhere you go you can smell it,” she told EGP in frustration. “You can smell it at the gym, while you drive; there’s just no control.”
In November, voters will decide whether to approved the “Adult Use of Marijuana Act,” which would legalize marijuana for recreational use for adults 21 years and older, and tax the commercial growth and retail sale of nonmedical cannabis.
The current Medical Regulation and Safety Act only allows cities to ban nonmedical marijuana businesses and to prohibit businesses that also sell alcohol and tobacco to also sell medical marijuana. But according to Rodriguez, the measure fails to adequately deal with enforcement-related issues.
“What good are these laws if it’s difficult to enforce them?” she asks.
According to Bell Gardens Police Detective Sgt. Troy Henshaw, the department regularly receives calls complaining of people, often juveniles, smoking or using marijuana in public. The complaint sometimes comes from someone standing near the offender, other times it comes from a motorist driving behind a vehicle emitting a noticeable smoke and smell, he explained.
“Some of the calls result in no one being located and others have resulted in citations and arrests,” Sgt. Henshaw told EGP. “I would not say it is a big problem in public parks or spaces, but we do receive calls about it.”
Police must evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis to determine if a suspect’s possession of marijuana is legal, looking at such things as whether the person has a medical marijuana prescription card allowing them to be in legal possession of the substance. If not, the officer must make a decision as to how severe charges should be, which is often determined by the amount of illegal marijuana the person’s possession.
“Each situation is different, but if an individual is found to be violating a marijuana law…he or she can be issued a citation, arrested for a misdemeanor offense or for a felony offense and the marijuana is confiscated,” explained Sgt. Henshaw.
Since 2011, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is just an infraction with a maximum $100 fine and no criminal record, decriminalizing the offense as part of an effort to reduce the financial burden on the courts for prosecuting the charges.
In other words, “you get caught smoking, get a ticket and sent on your merry way,” complains Rodriguez.
The enforcement of the medical marijuana industry has proved difficult for many local cities. Illegal and unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries have long been a problem in the city of Los Angeles, with new facilities continuing to pop up despite voter approval of Proposition D, a measure that limits the number of dispensaries allowed to operate to no more than 135. The Office of L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, which at one time estimated the number of unlawful dispensaries in the city to be more than 800, has an ongoing effort to shut down the illegal facilities in what many have described as a constant game of “whack-a-mole.”
While the problem has not been no where near as bad in Bell Gardens, three medical marijuana dispensaries did illegally open along Eastern Avenue, near the city’s downtown commercial corridor.
In “plain sight,” but unbeknownst to the city, the businesses were quickly shut down once they were discovered, Avalos told EGP.
“No known dispensaries currently operate within Bell Gardens,” assured Sgt. Henshaw.
But the legalization of marijuana could bring new and bigger issues, points out Rodriguez.
She believes legalizing marijuana for recreational use will shift the burden of regulation onto municipalities like Bell Gardens, not to mention the issues of enforcement and the financial and societal consequences of marijuana-related crimes and accidents, problems she feels have surged since medical marijuana was legalized.
“This is just the beginning, it’s just starting and soon we may not be able to do anything about it.”
Dozens of block parties were held across the Southland Tuesday night, drawing thousands of residents to join with local police officers, sheriff’s deputies and elected officials as part of the annual National Night Out crime-prevention event.
As many as 38 million people across the country were expected to take part in National Night Out activities, which annually takes place on the first Tuesday in August. Chief among its goals is to promote a partnership between the police and the community, which this year has been under greater strain due to some controversial police-involved-shootings and the ambush-style deadly assaults on police officers in recent weeks.
In Boyle Heights, the National Night observance included a peace march denouncing crime and violence.
Some cities, like Commerce, hosted BBQ-style block parties while other cities like Bell Gardens and Montebello held larger events at local parks that featured demonstrations from K-9 units, information booths and displays of public safety vehicles, to the delight of many children.
Started in 1984, National Night Out is billed as “America’s night out against crime.” It is sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch and co-sponsored by local municipalities and law enforcement agencies nationwide.
The event initially began as a call for people to hold small public gatherings in a take-back-the-streets show of community pride.
Over the years, the event has grown to include block parties, parades, movie screenings and picnics.
During the event, residents are encouraged to lock their doors, turn on their front house lights and join with neighbors, law enforcement and Neighborhood Watch leaders at local neighborhood events. Activities vary by event but generally include free food, police and fire displays, live entertainment and a chance to interact with city officials and local police officers.
Information from City news Service used in this report.
An armed robbery in Bell Gardens Thursday morning ended with one suspect in custody and at least one other still on the loose, after an hour long chase and officer involved shooting that continued into neighboring Downey.
After receiving multiple 9-1-1 calls, Bell Gardens police officers at around 10:47 a.m. responded to an armed robbery in progress at the Verizon Wireless Store located at 7220 Eastern Ave. Workers and customers were held at gunpoint by at least two men before the suspects made off with a significant amount of merchandise, Capt. Scott Fairfield told EGP.
One of the suspects, identified as 25-year-old Dillan Wilson, fled and a pursuit ensued when officers located his vehicle and attempted a traffic stop. At one point the suspect’s vehicle – a black Saturn SUV – struck two occupied vehicles at the intersection of Garfield and Gage Avenue, police said.
One of the lead police vehicles involved in the pursuit early on overheated and caught fire.
The chase continued into the city of Downey where at one point Wilson turned onto Denvers Street, a dead end. The suspect then threw his car into reverse, ramming two police cars as officers attempted to exit their vehicles, BG police said.
According to police, Wilson allegedly drove towards an officer standing nearby prompting a second officer to fire multiple shots at the vehicle in an attempt to stop the suspect. The chase continued onto Bluff Road, another dead-end, at which time the suspect jumped out of the car and fled on foot into the nearby Rio Hondo River.
Wilson was taken into custody following a short foot pursuit, police said.
At the time of the arrest Wilson was bleeding from his head and arm and was treated on scene by paramedics before being cleared for booking. It is unclear whether Wilson suffered injuries caused by a grazed bullet during the gunfire or from shattered glass. No officers were hurt.
A handgun reported stolen from Whittier was recovered from the suspect’s vehicle. Wilson is facing charges of armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, felony evading, hit and run and a possession of a stolen handgun, according to Fairfield.
Police are still searching for the other suspect or suspects involved in the armed robbery. Anyone with information is urged to contact the Bell Gardens Police Department.
The Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau is investigating the officer-involved shooting.
A man was stabbed this morning in a Bell Gardens park, authorities said
It happened at 4:05 a.m. at John Anson Ford Park, at Park Lane and Garfield Avenue, Bell Gardens police Sgt. E. Aguirre said.
The victim was stabbed multiple times in the abdomen and right leg, Aguirre said. The suspects were described as two males, he said.
An investigation was underway into details of the stabbing and the hospitalized victim was not cooperative, Aguirre said.
Mayor Pedro Aceituno (center) and Mayor Pro Tem Jose J. Mendoza took their oath of office Tuesday during a special ceremony at Bell Gardens City Hall. Aceituno replaces Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez as mayor. The swearing-in ceremonies were followed by a performance by Mendoza’s dance team in the City Hall courtyard.
When 14-year-old Veronica Flores would belt out a song by the now deceased Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera, she secretly hoped that one day she too would perform to large audiences, but believed her dream was probably out of reach.
“I would never sing at school because I thought people would not like that I sang,” the Bell Gardens teen told EGP last week.
That changed when she found Heroes of Dreams, a nonprofit group that teaches 7- to 15-year-olds how to perform on stage.
Through the group, Flores has met other young talented artists who like her love mariachi and ranchera music. Most of them are from Bell Gardens and all are interested in singing, dancing or acting.
Hours of practice each week honing their craft has given Flores and the other participants the confidence they need to succeed.
“My biggest challenge was dance, I just didn’t like it,” said 14-year-old Ashley Romero. “But dancing was just [another] skill very hidden” inside me, she said, beaming with pride.
Bell Gardens Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez, Councilwoman Maria Pulido and award-winning composer Toby Sandoval founded the group last November in response to the growing decline in arts programs available in underprivileged areas.
“We noticed the budget cuts [at schools] and a lot of programs not available in our areas,” explained Rodriguez.
The group meets for a few hours two to three nights a week in the Bell Gardens Veterans Park dance room. They start by stretching their muscles and then do exercises to strengthen their vocal chords. The rest of the evening could involve singing alongside Sandoval’s keyboard or going over choreography and stage presence.
“It’s really an intro to the performing arts, at no cost,” said Rodriguez.
Cost was an important factor for the mother of ten-year-old Mariana Martinez. The young Banda singer travels from South Los Angeles to take part in the group because there are no programs like it in her area.
“This helps her as a singer and has helped her learn how to dance,” said her mother Teresa Morales in Spanish. “And because it’s free it helps us too.”
The nonprofit’s mission is to mentor underprivileged-youth who have an interest in the entertainment industry.
Since its inception, the group has been dedicated to discovering talented youth who otherwise would not have access to the performing arts.
“In reality, these types of lessons are not in their reach,” said Sandoval, before listing the separate classes each student would have to take including piano, singing and acting to equate the lessons taught at Heroes of Dreams.
In predominately blue-collar community Bell Gardens, the high cost of lessons offered elsewhere often prevents parents from encouraging their children to explore their passion, explains Pulido.
She said parents work hard to pay their bills and usually have to think long and hard about where they will spend any “extra money.”
“Should they spend it on singing or buying clothes for their children,” Pulido told EGP, explaining “That’s why in a city like Bell Gardens we want to keep it free” to attend.
The stars in the making have overcome shyness and stage fright while singing along to Mexican folk songs like “La Bruja” (The Witch) and “La Llorona” (The Weeping Woman).
“I saw many of my shy friends come out of their shells because they didn’t feel judged,” said Andania Barraza, 13, who went from singing behind closed doors to singing and dancing in front of an audience.
While not all the participants are interested in a career in the entertainment industry, those who are feel that working with a well-known composer like Sandoval is a definite advantage.
Sandoval has worked with Paulina Rubio, Black Eyed Peas, Laura Pausini, Pilar Montenegro, Pedro Fernandez, Banda Macho, Manny D and Sergio Vega, and other celebrities.
“He has connections that maybe we can later connect with,” ventured Alex Escopeda, 14, who dreams of being an actor.
A handful of the participants have already had experience competing for starring roles as part of “Voz Kids,” the Spanish-version of the music competition show “The Voice Kids,” popular in Germany, Holland and Finland, but postponed indefinitely by NBC for broadcast in the U.S.
Half of the Heroes of Dreams members have already gone on auditions for commercials, TV shows and dance teams with several landing gigs on Spanish-language network shows such as “Sabado Gigante” and “Despierta America.”
The group is like a family, says Rodriguez, pointing out that they leave competition at the door, creating a place of support and inspiration.
“Toby is helping me prepare to sing but hearing Veronica [Flores] and Ashley [Romero] sing makes me want to become a better singer,” notes Rodriguez’ 9-year-old daughter Genesis.
Those who initially felt like outsiders, say they now feel like fit in.
“The first day I didn’t want to meet anyone,” recalls 8-year-old Michael Orozco. “I was nervous, I was by myself, but I made new friends.”
The nonprofit’s goal is to continue to offer free lessons to children while trying to raise the money to pay for a full time studio, costumes, lighting and more instructors. Currently, everyone who works with the children volunteers their time.
“It’s our obligation to make a difference in the lives of these children,” Sandoval told EGP in Spanish. “There isn’t a child here that has not changed since they first stepped in.”
A Bell Gardens man accused in the shooting deaths of two brothers at a county park in East Los Angeles last November pleaded not guilty last week to murder charges.
Pedro Vasquez, 23, was charged April 6 with the Nov. 22, 2015, killings of Antonio Aguilar, 33, and Juan Aguilar, 28, at Ruben Salazar Park.
The murder charges include the special circumstance allegation of multiple murders, but prosecutors have yet to decide whether to pursue the death penalty.
Vasquez allegedly approached the two men at the park and opened fire on them, with both suffering multiple gunshot wounds.
Juan Aguilar had once dated Vasquez’s sister, according to authorities, who have not disclosed a motive for the killings.
Vasquez has remained jailed since his April 4 arrest. He is due back at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse Aug. 11, when a date is scheduled to be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to require him to stand trial.
Authorities Wednesday identified a man who was fatally shot while riding a bicycle along the Los Angeles River bicycle path in Bell Gardens in an attack investigators believe was gang-related.
The victim was Joseph Barela, 33, of Bell Gardens, said Los Angeles County coroner’s Lt. Ed Dietz.
The shooting was reported at 6:26 p.m. Monday along the bike path west of the Long Beach (710) Freeway and north of Firestone Boulevard, said Deputy Crystal Hernandez of the Sheriff’s Information Bureau.
The victim was riding a bicycle on the dirt path adjacent to the Los Angeles River just west of the Long Beach Freeway when “the suspect approached him on foot and shot him,” Hernandez said.
The victim was pronounced dead at the scene, she said.
The suspect was described as a man wearing dark clothing who ran to a vehicle on the Long Beach Freeway and rode off southbound and out of view, Hernandez said.
“The incident appears to be gang-related,” she said.
The opening of the highly anticipated hotel at The Bicycle Casino turned into a $1 million jackpot for the city of Bell Gardens, which wagered on the success of the project to increase city revenue.
It was only a couple years ago that the city faced a $1 million budget deficit resulting from the economic recession and state closure of its redevelopment agency (RDA), which had contributed millions of dollars to rehabilitate the city’s blighted areas.
Bell Gardens’ luck has since turned around and the city is anticipating a $1 million dollar surplus in its 2016-2017 Fiscal Year Budget of $29.7 million. $200,000 of the surplus will go to the city’s reserves – a fund set aside for emergencies or unexpected expenses.
Mayor Pro Tem Pedro Aceituno credits the surplus to staff being frugal and holding the line during troubled times.
“We didn’t overspend,” Aceituno said.
Bicycle Casino profits continue to play a major role in the predominately Latino blue-collar community’s financial health, with nearly half of the city’s general fund revenue coming from Casino fees.
In 2012, Casino revenue dwindled to an all-time low of $9.3 million, sparking a budget deficit that year. Now on the rebound, Casino revenue is expected to reach $13 million this year, $1.8 million more than in 2015-2016 and $170,000 more than its peak in 2008.
“For years, we were losing players to other casinos with hotels, [but] now we are able to keep them here,” City Manager Phil Wagner told EGP, referring to the opening of the Casino’s new hotel.
However, “It’s not just the economy doing better or hotel improvements, but a lot of it was that we managed our money very well,” he said.
The added revenue will offset $234,000 in lease revenue lost when the city was forced to sell of two city-owned shopping centers, as part of a settlement with the state over the closing of its redevelopment agency. Wagner believes the city is in the “9th inning” of the RDA ordeal, “it’s over when the state says it’s over,” he added.
“The key thing is the loss from the RDA negotiations could have been much bigger.”
Staff worked hard to minimize the damage, which could have reached up to $4 million, said Director of Finance Will Kaholokula.
Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez also credits city staff and elected officials for Bell Gardens’ “thriving” economy. “We’re one of the cities that had a plan to get us through rough times,” she told EGP.
Unlike some neighboring cities, “we have worked efficiently together without worrying about the politics,” she pointed out.
That’s a major step forward from years past when Bell Gardens City Council meetings were often the scene of loud political bickering. Rodriguez and Aceituno, both longtime councilmembers, believe the lack of political turmoil is why food retailers like Dunkin Donuts and Chipotle are now flocking to the city, despite its predominately Latino, working-class demographics and being only 2.4-square-miles in size, factors that have been deterrents to investments in other cities.
As a result, sales tax revenue is up and unemployment is down.
Like neighboring Montebello, the Bell Gardens City Council will continue to grapple with its aging and money losing water system.
After years of putting off a decision, plans are in the works to hold workshops and public hearings on the water utility’s future. Experts say the 50 year old infrastructure needs costly long term repairs, but the utility does not generate enough revenue to even cover current operating expenses. Purchased in 1991, the Bell Gardens water system services about 30% of city residents. Rates have not been raised in over 20 years.
The city can continue to offer the low rates but it will require long term planning, according to Wagner. “The city council will have to decide whether they want to maintain the system, sell the system or increase water rates,” he explained.
Another bright note in city finances has been the significant reduction in golf course related losses, from a deficit of $90,000 per year to $18,000 after turning the facility over to an outside management company.
“We do a lot that doesn’t make money but we want to be able to make enough to cover the costs,” said Wagner.
The rising cost of California Public Employees’ Retirement (PERS) obligations will continue to challenge the city, but Wagener says there’s not much the city can do except save up. City staff has proposed starting an irrevocable trust fund to cover future pension obligations as part of a long-term solution.
Like most southeast communities, Wagner says Bell Gardens must address infrastructure and general capital improvement projects including streets, alleys and parks.
Turf on the soccer field at Ford Park needs be replaced at a cost of $1 million, notes Assistant Manager John Oropeza.
“Now that we have a little surplus we can make sure that comes back to our residents,” said Aceituno who would like to see some previously cut programs return.
But Rodriguez believes a surplus does not translate to a party.
“We can’t start splurging just because there’s a surplus,” she told EGP. “Before we even touch the money we have to exhaust all other options and continue to plan ahead.”