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Publication Date: Friday, October 19, 2001

"The city, the county, and the state provide undocumented workers with loads of services"

City Attorney Michael Martello

City to Day Worker's Center: Give us your last, best shot City to Day Worker's Center: Give us your last, best shot (October 19, 2001)

Facing the threat of lawsuits from opposite sides, the city struggles with the impending loss of the center Facing the threat of lawsuits from opposite sides, the city struggles with the impending loss of the center (October 19, 2001)

By Bill D'Agostino

Under the threat of two potential law suits, the city council is giving the St. Joseph the Worker Center (commonly called the day workers center) one last shot to find a solution before the center closes at the end of the month.

The Center is set to lose the lease on its El Camino Real home in Los Altos on Halloween.

If the center closes, many of the workers who use the center would be left without a place to secure employment, since solicitation of work on the street is currently illegal by city ordinances in Mountain View and Los Altos.

Since the announcement of the closing, day workers and those involved in the center's operation have been asking city council members to help find a solution to the impending crisis, but no feasible answers have been found.

So, at Tuesday night's city council study session, Vice Mayor Sally Lieber offered the center one more chance to propose a solution before the center is scheduled to close: at the Oct. 30 council meeting, the council will hear proposals put forth by the center, and vote on them.

Steve Pehanich, the executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the nonprofit that runs the center, attended the Tuesday, Oct. 16 meeting even though it was his wedding anniversary.

After the meeting, he said that he expects to put something before the council on Oct. 30, but is unsure what it might be.

Pehanich said the two proposals the city offered the center earlier this year were unsuitable, as one was too expensive for the center to purchase and the other was not close enough to El Camino Real.

Pehanich said he believes the landlord of the El Camino site did not renew the center's lease because of increasing demands placed on the center last year when Mountain View and Los Altos passed their anti-solicitation laws.
Legal questions

John Rinaldi, a lawyer who works with the center, believes the city's no-solicitation ordinance may be legally nullified if the center goes out of business.

Rinaldi has cited a Los Angeles Superior Court decision that struck down a similar ordinance Los Angeles on the basis that it violated the first amendment of the U.S. constitution.

Rinaldi has threatened to sue the city if they continue to enforce the ordinance after the center's closing.

City Attorney Michael Martello said he believes the ordinance is legal as long as the center is open. However, without the center, the city risks a lawsuit that could declare the ordinance illegal since there are no another avenues for the workers to meet and find employment.

Police chief Michael Maehler said it is also questionable whether the city could enforce such an ordinance, since the department has only two traffic officers working the city in the morning rush hour, typically the time workers seek employment on El Camino.

But if the city council decides to help the center, it risks a law suit by local attorney Gary Wesley.

Wesley asserts that federal law prohibits encouraging people to come or stay in the U.S. illegally, and contends that many of the people who use the center-which does not check the legal statues of workers-are here illegally.

Martello said the federal law Wesley cites does not apply to the center. It was written, he said, to prosecute people trying to smuggle and harbor illegal immigrants.

Cities, Martello noted, are not prohibited from providing services - such as education and protection from fire - to people of unknownwhose immigration status is unknown. "The city, the county, and the state provide undocumented workers with loads of services," Martello noted.

Still, Council Member Mike Kasperzak said that the threat of lawsuit by Wesley - who has sued the city numerous times - produces a "chilling effect" on whatever the council might hope to do for the center.

About two-thirds of those who use the center to find jobs live in Mountain View, said Pehanich. In addition to helping find work, the center also provides ESL classes and other service referrals. It operates on a $120,000 annual budget, with two to three full time staff members.
Means of support

The center currently gets $3,600 of funding from the city of Los Altos. The center was recently given $10,000 from the city of Mountain View for space renovations.

Recently, the center applied for a $400,000 grant form the county board of supervisors to help purchase a new home on Old Middlefield Way. The supervisors, however, only approved a $90,000 loan for the center- not enough to purchase the site, according to Pehanich.

Council Member Rosemary Stasek said she was "dismayed" that the center rejected an earlier proposal by the city to put relocate the center onto a city owned site on Terra Bella Avenue which served as an office for Foothill Disposal Company.

Pehanich said many employers would not go to the site since it is far from El Camino; he also objected to the symbolism of forcing workers to go to a former garbage dump to find work.

Stasek disagreed, noting the building housed professionals and was not a garbage dump. "Sometimes philosophy has to take a back seat to practicality," Stasek said.

Still, Council Member Mary Lou Zoglin - who noted at the meeting that helping people find employment is not her "top priority" - added there is no such thing as a "perfect site."

Lieber, however, said she believed the Terra Bella site would not help the situation since workers and employers would be dissuaded from using it.

Before the council meeting, Lieber said that the day workers center has "been one of the more difficult issues that we've had to deal with on the council."

"I couldn't see letting a major community resource fall ... without at least making a good faith attempt to do whatever we can," said Lieber. "I don't think it's going to work out, but we need to try."


 

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