Pete Flores from One Community Action Coalition speaks to the Santa Maria City Council about its plans to hire a community outreach coordinator. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

In a discussion that became unusually heated and drew emotional comments, a divided Santa Maria City Council on Tuesday decided to hire its own anti-gang czar.

The 3-2 vote means the city will hire a community outreach coordinator to work with youths involved in gangs in an effort to quell violence and declined to join with Santa Barbara County to create a youth safety task force similar to one in the Santa Barbara area.

The city’s approach drew criticism from council members Jack Boysen and Terri Zuniga who voted against the motion, but said they support the ultimate goal.

Community members also urged the city to make the position an executive-level job.

Councilwoman Etta Waterfield said the city’s outreach coordinator would provide “boots on the ground” and be someone who understands gang members.

“Someone that’s not going to go to them in a coat and tie and say this something that we want you to look at, and can relate,” Waterfield said. 

“We all want the same thing and we all want to be able to curb the gang violence here,” she added. 

“I think we need to get started some place,” Mayor Alice Patino said. “The community wants us to get started some place and I think this is a good start. That doesn’t mean we have to stay there.”

Other communities that started similar programs later made adjustments as needed, she added.

City Manager Rick Haydon said the disagreement involves philosophical differences.

“The intent of the position is to work the plan, but not plan the work,” Haydon said. 

A policy committee would have multiple members representing lawmakers, schools, nonprofits, faith-based community, social service agencies and law enforcement. 

They should create the strategic plan and make policies, he added.

“Again, the goal is to work in partnership with other community partners in an effort to reduce youth violence,” Haydon said.

Council members earlier rejected a proposal to combine city funding with $75,000 from Santa Barbara County for Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino‘s proposed North County Task Force for Youth Safety, modeled after a similar task force on the South Coast.

While the budget initially called for a part-time slot, the City Council decided at previous meeting to set aside more funding to make the position full-time, with $48,000 for the remainder of the current fiscal year and $75,000 for 2016-2017.

The new coordinator, housed in the Recreation and Parks Department, would work with the City Manager’s Office and Police Department. The job will pay between $46,000 and $56,000.

To fund the strategic plan, the city will seek money from school districts and community groups.

Council members earlier balked at having the employee work for nonprofit agency as the South Coast coordinator does. 

“I would be very upset if this person didn’t belong to us,” Councilman Bob Orach said.

Haydon said a shared position didn’t seem viable as they discussed details with the county.

But he maintained the effort still involves collaboration with the city coordinator and county counterpart working side by side at the Abel Maldonado Community Youth Center. 

Council members earlier expressed a desire to remain in control of position.

Zuniga said the plan to have separate coordinators will be a communication nightmare. 

“We have to show a united front,” she said. 

Boysen recommended the city attempt to reach a middle ground with Santa Barbara County to provide synergy for the position and “make a true impact.”

After an earlier heated exchange involving her colleagues, Zuniga reminded council members they were elected to represent the community and should treat each other with respect and operate with some dignity.

Members of One Community Action Coalition lobbied for the city to join forces with county. 

Pete Flores, who led the formation of One Community Action, chastised the city for worrying about control.

“I’m worried about saving lives,” Flores said.

Speakers said the city should look for someone with a master’s degree. Instead, the proposal calls for someone who has an associate’s degree.

“Will this position have the ability to get to the root problem, the root problem being domestic violence, drug abuse, neglect in the home, abuse in the home and lack of culturally proficient service?” asked Patty Cantu, a Nipomo resident who spends a lot of time in Santa Maria.

“This is not a gang issue. This is a human issue,” Cantu added.

Mary Jacka from League of United Latin American Citizens said she was insulted at what she called chump change.

“We’re in crisis mode,” Jacka said. “You need to act that way. If we had a flood or a devastating fire I’m sure you would find the money somewhere. You’d be calling the governor. You’d be calling the president. …As Santa Marians we want protection. We want our youth to survive.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.