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Council takes ‘Action’ to address homelessness

Council takes ‘Action’ to address homelessness

Visalia City Council authorizes staff to support group of 19 citizens working on solutions to homelessness

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – The Visalia City Council didn’t form a homeless task force last week, but they did throw their official support to a group of citizens already meeting on the issue.

At its Sept. 3 meeting, the council authorized staff to work with a group of citizens calling themselves the Action Group on Homelessness. Visalia Chamber of Commerce CEO Gail Zurek announced the group during the public comment period at the council’s Aug. 19 meeting. The group is being spearheaded by Zurek, former city council candidate Merritt Wiseman and longtime city council commenter Harold Myers. The diverse group of 19 members is a cross section of the business community and includes attorney Robert Ainley, Servicemaster owner Tony Benevento, The Source LGBT+ co-founder Nick Vargas, former Visalia Unified trustee Milton Morrison, Tulare County Association of Realtors’ CEO Brett Taylor, retired attorney Phil Hornburg, restaurateur Kareem Dada, Provoke Salon co-owner Gloria Garcia, pastor Jason LeFaive, as well as Lisa Alvaredo, Doug Berg, Chevella Mack, Don Hutton and Tom Peltzer.

Myers pointed out that the group has already formed, met and come up with an idea in the same amount of time it took the city to discuss the possibility of forming a committee.

“Nineteen well qualified and caring Visalians pledge to work on the homeless problem at no cost to the city,” Myers said. “We just ask to work with your staff. Our goal is to develop long-term private partnerships for every citizen with a home and without a home.”

Prior to supporting the group, the council was provided with three other options, which included appointing a committee, forming an internal task force of staff members, and the wildly unpopular and unlikely option to do nothing.

The only councilmember in favor of forming a task force seemed to be Greg Collins, but he later shifted to the idea of supporting a private group which may have the chance to get more solutions done faster than a city-sanctioned committee.

“These are involved citizens that are interested and want to get involved,” he said.

Councilmember Phil Cox suggested handing off the issue of homelessness to the Citizens Advisory Committee, which he argued was formed to tackle similar issues.

“We could have given this to them a few months ago,” Cox said.

Councilmember Brian Poochigian supported the idea of using the Citizens Advisory Committee but was worried being a city committee would slow down projects. Formalizing the task force by council appointment would subject the group to the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, and the Maddy Act, which requires all appointments to have defined terms and qualifications. Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen said he didn’t want to invest time into another task force tied up in bureaucracy.

“I see this task force as a mirror of the county task force in the sense that nothing will get done,” Nelsen said.

Nelsen also said he was concerned with giving the citizens group “favored nation status” over other citizen groups. He suggested having a monthly work session on homelessness where any individual or group of citizens could bring their ideas on addressing homelessness to the council.

Councilmember Cox motioned to forego a council-appointed task force and instead provide support to a privately-formed organization, including but not limited to Action Group on Homelessness.

Mayor Bob Link suggested having the group report back to council every other month rather than quarterly.

Cox continued with his motion which purposely omitted any mention of timelines, the group’s duties, or staff member responsibilities to avoid any misunderstanding that this group was not sanctioned by the city but rather could be supported by the city on a limited basis. The motion passed 4-1 with Link voting No. The mayor then qualified his vote by saying he wanted the motion to include a frequency of when the group would report to the city council but otherwise approved of supporting the private group.

“This works better in the private sector than the public sector,” Poochigian noted.

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