Some Hot Action In Needles During & After This Week’s City Council Meeting

Summer was officially over on Labor Day in San Bernardino County’s smallest and without a doubt hottest city, but temperatures were on the rise again at the Needles City Council meeting on Tuesday, September 13. In a packed room that included most of the nine candidates running for three seats on the city council and their supporters, some ugliness emerged in what was supposed to be a topic concerning beautification of the town. An ignited debate ensued about how to literally clean up the town’s blight and unsafe conditions using the county sheriff’s department to enforce city codes.
Shawn Gudmundsen, who requested the discussion item be included on the agenda, suggested that a path to obtain the assistance on the county sheriff’s deputies on code enforcement be found, especially in consideration of the amount the city is now paying them over and above that which was budgeted for. Earlier in the evening an agenda item had been voted on to increase the payment on the Sheriff’s contract by roughly $140,000 due to salary increases as an outcome of the negotiations with the union over payroll.
Rick Daniels, city manager, explained that in anticipation of pay raises this year, the city had budgeted for an extra $60,000 to $70,000, but that amount was insufficient. Both council members Louise Evans and Shawn Gudmundsen voted against the increase, reasoning that $2.4 million dollars for police services on a total town budget of just a little over $5 million was more than the city can afford. Gudmundsen added an objection to the effect that he knew of activities the sheriff’s department was engaged in at the Needles substation that were unrelated to the city’s service needs he did not think the city should be paying for. Councilman Tom Darcy, on the other hand voted for the increase even after making the pronouncement “They should be doing a better job closing the excess over what we budget for.”
One un-uniformed deputy Pat Murch, a former council member, was present in the audience in plain clothes. He took note of Gudmundsen’s suggestion that the deputies begin to enforce local civil codes and indicated his distaste for the idea by approaching the lectern. He let Gudmundsen have it, saying that anyone who thinks that the sheriff’s department is there to enforce civil matters needs to go “get an education. We don’t do civil matters. We do criminal law.” Responding to Mr. Murch, the city attorney, John Pinkney, formerly with Best, Best and Krieger, suggested that he be tasked with looking into the matter with regard to areas of law in which the contracted law enforcement agency might be able to assist with local code enforcement. Daniels interjected that “it is not a crime to have an ugly house, but if the situation rises to a level of public safety or nuisance then local government can do something about it.”
Daniels further asserted that in light of all of the new construction involving the erection of buildings to be used for “grow houses” in conjunction with the emerging cannabis farming industry in the community, the demand upon the city’s sole code enforcement officer’s time is becoming problematic since he also doubles as the building inspector. Daniels reiterated a plan that he had previously presented to the council involving a firm that would be contracted to do just the building inspection for the marijuana industry construction projects, saying that the cost of the contract would be borne by the cannabis growers and cooperatives.
Jeff Williams, whose brother, Dan Williams, is the code enforcement officer for the city, objected to a contractual arrangement that could take from potential local employment. Evans also indicated her desire for more local employment and her objection to contracting the work.
Ruth Musser-Lopez, the administrator for a local association calling itself the “Needles Fire Auxiliary,” suggested that the council consider the potential of returning the fire protection services to a local fire department where the fire chief functions as a code enforcement official enforcing codes pertaining to fire safety and hazards as well as inspecting operations, equipment and appurtenances such as fire hydrants. She said that the hiring of a fire chief would relieve the current code enforcement officer of some of his duties so that he could act in the capacity of building inspector.
Musser-Lopez thanked the council for removing an agenda item concerning the declaration of the city’s fire station as “surplus” and beginning the reception of proposals for lease or purchase of the structure. She said that the fire station cannot be considered surplus until an election takes place on the voter initiative. She claimed that 160 signatures had been collected on the petition and that it those were sufficient to bring the initiative to a vote at the next election but that the auxiliary is considering collecting 80 more signatures to a total of 15 percent of the city’s voters, which by law would hasten that time by forcing a special election. She said that because of the cost of a special election, the auxiliary is waiting to see if a new council in November would approve the initiative on its own authority and de-annex the city from the taxed county fire district while reinstating the city’s fire department. She said that should the new council decide to reinstate the fire department, it would need a fire chief and that the charter requires that the fire chief be responsible for code enforcement as it pertains to the fire protection and safety services. She noted the fire hydrant at the Chestnut Street fire that was non functional and said that this could have been avoided by regular inspections and flushing of the system. Musser-Lopez, one of nine candidates for Needles City Council this November, has made public the pronouncement that the re-instatement of a local fire department was something that she hoped to usher in if elected to the council.
Daniels, in defense of the takeover of the fire protection services by the county fire district said that the county’s fire chief, Mark Hartwig, had begun a program of regularly inspecting the fire hydrants. A retired water treatment and distribution operator has anonymously informed the Sentinel however, that “it is unlikely that county is inspecting the valves since the city’s system is aged and valves in aged systems break with regularity. In most American cities, the water utility is traditionally responsible for exercising all valves in its water distribution system including the exercise and testing of fire hydrants.” In addition, this retired operator suggested that “any testing for minimum fire flow in the Gates Subdivision of Needles would reveal inadequate fire flow in the hydrants. The lack of adequate fire flow would definitely affect the insurance rating of homes in the Gates Subdivision in Needles, causing their rates to increase.”
Daniels maintained at the council meeting that the county fire district will offer work days by prisoners. He said that there will be 18 people on a crew to work 3 days in the community to clean up and remove debris as well as cut back the brush and a carry out a variety of other tasks, including cutting and trimming the hedges at the El Garces train depot. He said that he is working with the fire chief to get those areas cleaned up. Daniels also said that there were 200 illegal dumps in the community that the city has allegedly cleaned up and he also described two programs: a no-cost welfare-to-work county program where the human services department will provide employees to the city at no cost while the workers receive job training; and a bulk trash pick-up program offered to sanitation customers at no extra charge.
As the meeting drew to a close councilman Darcy resurrected the topic of the return of the fire department to the city’s control, counseling those in attendance who would suggest that the fire hydrants were in disrepair. He said it was a problem of a homeowner who kept a disconnected fire hydrant in his yard for ornamental purposes. On at least two previous occasions at council meetings, the issue of problematic fire hydrants at the “Chestnut fire” had been discussed and at this meeting Daniels corrected Darcy repeating that there were two problematic fire hydrants involved at the Chestnut fire—both the ornamental hydrant and another one that was non-functional due to breakage during manipulation of the valve. Darcy shrugged the fire hydrant issue off and redirected his “counseling” saying that the fire station was old and its useful life was gone. He further discouraged the idea of a city-run fire department, saying that the community composition was such that those who volunteered at one time were now old and retired and that a volunteer fire department would cause everyone’s insurance costs to skyrocket because of the lowering of the safety rating. Darcy’s pronouncement made no reference to language in the voter initiative calling for a professional full time city fire department with an ISO rating the same or higher than what it currently has with the county operating it.
After the meeting’s adjournment, a melee broke out after some residents got involved in a heated exchange in which it was alleged that a local news organization was uncritically accepting and publishing one-sided information that originated with government officials, while another contingent suggested that yet another news organization was exhibiting an anti-government bias. At issue in the argument was an accusation that Needles city government is acquiescing in the proliferation of an extremely unhealthy environment in the city’s downtown area, including the so-called “shooting gallery,” i.e., Needles’ skid row where users of the drugs heroin and methamphetamine congregate to share syringes and intravenously inject those drugs. This has led to an AIDS epidemic that is going unaddressed, one resident stated. This circumstance either coexists with or is exacerbated by city officials’ acquiescence in calculated neglect of the area which has redounded to the financial benefit of property owners of the dilapidated property, one individual said. Specifically, it was stated, the owner of one building that was destroyed in an apparent arson fire is a former city official who had the house insured for $500,000 through the Jernigan Insurance Company when the value of the property could not have been more than $50,000. It was alleged city officials were doubly complicit in this fraud by both allowing the underlying conditions that led to the fire and an orchestrated cover-up after the fact. According to this version of events, city manager Rick Daniels ordered that the crime scene be bulldozed before the arson investigator visited the site, thwarting any possibility that the fraud would be uncovered.
All of this talk, including such accusations against city officials, was apparently too much for some of those present to take, and when one of those involved in the heated exchange advanced upon the other, councilman Jeff Williams valiantly waded into the fracas between the two, preventing them from inflicting mayhem upon one another. Both then retreated into the steamy, moonlit desert.
“Red tag” is the term used locally to denote what is done at residences where the electric and water bill has not been paid. A red flyer is left by the city informing the occupants that their electricity and water will be shut off. One dilapidated abode along the shooting gallery had been red tagged.
An informed source told the Sentinel that earlier this week there was a death related to methamphetamine use in a local Needles hotel and that the electricity, which had previously been turned off at one of the properties within the “shooting gallery,” had been turned back on.

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