Salinas: Economic growth key to peace, Donohue says

Herald Salinas Bureau
Updated: 02/07/2009 01:31:42 AM PST

Vowing to eliminate gangs in the city, Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue had hard words for gang members and those who tacitly support them during his annual State of the City address Friday.

Donohue said he felt it was imperative to address the immediate threat to the city’s welfare posed by gangs and violence as he delivered an often emotional speech before about 200 people at the Maya Cinemas in downtown Salinas.

“I remain certain we will build the great city,” Donohue said, where “every neighborhood is safe and secure … prosperous … (and) attractive.”

“But today is the day to deal with those who challenge that vision. The problem is simple: There are too many gang members and gang associates in the city.”

He added that the situation is being exacerbated by a culture that tolerates or ignores the gang problem.

“We cannot tolerate gang members in our midst anymore,” he said, demanding that relatives and neighbors of gang members come forward with information about their activities. “When you protect a gang member, it’s not an act of love. You’re endangering your family and your community.”

Donohue pointed out that the influence of gangs has affected “100 percent of the city.” And, while he called Salinas one of the “centers of gravity” for the gang problem, he noted that it is presenting a growing challenge for the entire county and the region.

In fact, he said gang violence has become an emerging crisis statewide and is even viewed by some as an issue of national security.

Increased police presence

As a result, he said the city is committed to using all available resources to ensure a city of safe and secure neighborhoods, noting the increase in police presence on the streets and the addition of California Highway Patrol officers through a state grant.

He noted the recently announced plans to dedicate a pair of federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and to collaborate with the Naval Postgraduate School to battle the issue.

But Donohue said Salinas will need more state and federal cooperation and funding to deal with such an immense challenge, especially during a severe financial crisis that is depleting city coffers.

Community meeting plans

Salinas is facing a $12.6 million shortfall the next fiscal year, and city officials are in the midst of planning a series of fee increases, service cuts and employee pay concessions — designed to avoid layoffs — that are expected to affect every department, including the police.

In fact, Donohue said residents should be ready for a “revenue discussion” to figure out how to help pay for bolstering the police force.

“We need more police and that costs money,” he said. “We must break the back of organized crime if we are to live in peace, and that’s a larger than usual task.”

However, he acknowledged there is no law enforcement “silver bullet” that will resolve the problem.

“We cannot legislate or arrest our way to peace,” he said. “Despite the best efforts of police, the violence is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.”

Rather, Donohue said, it’s essential for the entire community to get engaged. He noted plans for a town hall-style meeting on community safety at Sherwood Community Center to address questions about the spike in crime and violence, and how people can help.

Community Safety Alliance Director Kelly McMillin, a Salinas police commander, and a panel of city leaders will lead the session, which is scheduled for 6p.m. Feb. 18.

Most of city safe

Donohue said Salinas residents should continue getting involved with community organizations and neighborhood watch groups, and noted that most of the city is still safe for people going out to dinner or shopping.

“Living in fear will only make things worse,” he said. “The truth is we’re not powerless. This problem comes from our community and it will be stopped by our community.”

In the long run, Donohue said economic revitalization will be the key to eliminating gangs. With former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery in attendance at Friday’s event, Donohue pointed out the success Salinas’ much-larger neighbor to the north had in battling gangs. He argued that it was a direct result of Silicon Valley’s prosperity.

“It’s no coincidence that one of the safest cities in the United States sits near Silicon Valley,” Donohue said, adding that he believes “San Jose has a stake in our battle.”

Green days ahead

Donohue said he believes the Salinas Valley’s economic future will be tied to the Silicon Valley, predicting a “second ‘green’ gold rush” in the years to come as a result of local biotechnology and alternative energy development combined with venture capital from the north.

He pointed to the state’s recent approval of the Salinas Valley Enterprise Zone as an early step toward that goal. The enterprise zone includes Salinas and four Salinas Valley cities along Highway 101, and is designed to boost job creation and provide area businesses an opportunity to qualify for state tax credits and other benefits.

Summing up, Donohue reiterated the importance of addressing the immediate threat of gang violence while looking forward to better days.

“There is no question this is a serious moment in our city’s history,” Donohue said, concluding with a quote from well-known local Chicano playwright Luis Valdez.

“The future still belongs to those who imagine it.”

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