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October 25, 2021

Community outreach lead quits Watsonville policing committee citing ‘dismissive’ behavior

WATSONVILLE—The person tasked with creating a bridge between the community and the city of Watsonville’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity resigned earlier this month.

Joy Flynn, a community activist who sits on the boards of various organizations in Santa Cruz County, says she quit because the city has stonewalled her efforts in gathering community input for the committee and made it “clear that the voice of the community is not wanted,” she wrote in her letter of resignation obtained by this publication.

According to the letter emailed to City Manager Matt Huffaker on March 2, Flynn made “simple and direct requests” while trying to coordinate outreach programs with Assistant City Manager Tamara Vides, but was instead met with “frustration and hostility.”

“I was also told that [Vides] had to fight for me to be here and that the group did not initially feel I was needed for the effort,” she wrote. “Multiple times during that call I was told that I needed to do some self-reflection….This was one of the first overt ways it was made clear that my perspective and input as a consultant for community engagement was not wanted, let alone valued.”

Flynn’s three-page letter also states that every initiative she brought forward was “met with resistance, dismissed or thwarted somehow,” and that she felt undermined during a recent community meeting in which the city brought in Watsonville police Capt. Jorge Zamora as a facilitator.

Before that meeting began, Flynn said she was ignored by Vides and about five other city employees who were speaking Spanish. That was despite the fact that, “in an effort to be equitable,” she had asked them to speak English. After the meeting was over, she, Zamora and the city employees came to an understanding, according to the letter, but she resigned shortly after because of the “dismissive” behavior from that meeting and other instances.

“From where I sit I see that the only people that are treated with respect and whose voice is met with consideration are those who are agreeable with the way the city operates,” she wrote. “The attitude that I’ve sensed is that the city is fine and that the people are the problem and they need to change.”

Huffaker in a Tuesday phone call did not directly address the claims in Flynn’s resignation letter against the city or Vides, but did acknowledge that Flynn and the city had “very different expectations” in the ways they would be conducting community outreach for the committee.

“Unfortunately those differences proved insurmountable and Joy made a personal decision to not continue with the work,” Huffaker said. “But we continue to have great respect for Joy, and we know she’ll continue to do great work throughout the county on this topic.”

The Ad-Hoc Committee was created last July by Chief of Police David Honda alongside then-mayor Rebecca Garcia. A total of 12 community members sit on the committee, along with three Watsonville City Council members—Mayor Jimmy Dutra has taken Garcia’s place—and three Watsonville police officers, including Zamora.

Spearheaded by Garcia, Honda, Huffaker and council member Francisco Estrada, the committee’s aim was to address the calls for equity from last summer’s global outcry after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It hoped to do that by exploring Watsonville Police Department’s connection with the community it serves, and creating solutions to resolve the shortcomings that might arise.

Thus far, the committee—the only one of its kind in the county—has met three times in public sessions. It also meets every other Monday in “home group” meetings, where committee members can learn more in closed sessions about the topic areas at hand. It is scheduled for at least two more public meetings in the coming months, and will continue to meet in private for the “home group” meetings and other smaller community “listening sessions.”

In all, Huffaker said, the committee will hold roughly 30 outreach events in the coming weeks. That will include upcoming virtual meetings for each of the city’s seven districts, and in-person outreach efforts when Santa Cruz County moves through the state’s Covid-19 reopening plan and restrictions on gatherings loosen. The city also plans to have a presence at the weekly farmers market and other events that might return in the coming months.

“There will be no shortage for our community to participate and engage in this process if they’re interested in doing so,” Huffaker said.

Huffaker said that Liz Padilla, a Senior Administrative Analyst with the city, is set to take over the community outreach efforts with Flynn gone—she led the city’s Census 2020 campaign last year. He also said the city is bringing in “several other” community outreach facilitators, and working with Applied Survey Research to make its community surveys more robust.

All of those plans, Huffaker said, were in the works while Flynn was still with the city.

As one of the original members of the committee, Estrada said he was saddened by Flynn’s resignation but that he was encouraged by her words as she left.

“Joy, the thing that she left me with, was that she was proud that the community of Watsonville was talking about this issue, that it was doing this process,” Estrada said. “Even though we couldn’t make it work, she wished us well. That spoke highly of the person Joy is.”

Estrada said he was still “all in” in the committee’s future and its ability to make positive change. He also said that despite the skepticism the group has faced since Flynn’s resignation, he believes they are having “eye-opening” conversations of what the future of public safety can be in the small agriculture community.

“I still think something positive can come from this committee,” he said. “I know that it hasn’t been the easiest process, but I also understand that no one has ever taken a step like this—no one has ever taken a process like this.”

But those skeptical of the committee’s work—a small but vocal group that has followed the process closely and has emailed this publication with concerns over the past few weeks—say that Huffaker and Vides are too controlling of the public meeting process, and that public participation in the those meetings has remained low because the city does not publicize them.

Among their list of complaints: the city’s decision to disable the meeting’s chat feature for people not on the committee, and to require pre-registration to participate in the Zoom meeting.

Huffaker said those changes were made because some committee members and others who attended the meeting found the chat function distracting, and the conversations in the chat often strayed from the topics being discussed.

He also said those public meetings were not originally designed to run as “town hall” meetings aimed at gathering input from the community. Instead, they were supposed to be meetings in which the Ad-Hoc Committee could hear from experts, ask questions and have conversations about what is possible.

“In the spirit of transparency, we held those as meetings that are open to the public…but I think there’s been an expectation among some of the community participants that those are really to take on a town hall, community outreach format,” he said. “That was really never how those meetings were intended to be structured. There are lots of opportunities for that outside of the Ad-Hoc Committee meetings.”

Tony Nuñez
Managing Editor Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor for five years before entering his current role in 2019. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus, he covers the city, business, housing, entertainment and more.

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