Concerns aired about Waterfront Park safety

MARTINEZ, Calif. – A resident, whose concerns were echoed by members of the Park, Recreation, Marina and Cultural Commission, described finding needles and seeing people urinate in public at Martinez Waterfront Park, particularly near Ferry Point.

Bill Nichols, who for 35 years was on the board of the East Bay Regional Parks, said he became concerned when Tony Jetland, often nicknamed “the kite man,” said in an online posting he would be flying his enormous kites in Vallejo instead of Martinez, because of conditions at the park.

“I’m tired of stepping on needles,” Nichols said. He’s also tired of seeing feces from both dogs and humans littering the park. He also told the Commission of loud music and drinking in parking lot parties.

“People are urinating openly in front of families,” he said. “There is no regard for decency or rules.”

Nichols said an officer had spent Tuesday in the park, “but this can’t be one and done.”

Martinez Police Chief Manjit Sappal said Wednesday it wouldn’t be. But, he added, incidents need to be reported to his department, not just mentioned in online postings.

“Both the city manager (Brad Kilger) and I became aware of the breadth of the issues at the waterfront and marina areas just recently,” he said. “Apparently, much information has been posted on social media sites, and while I am sure some people have called our dispatch center, I can say that no one contacted me or our staff to express the seriousness and the degree to which the problems are occurring.

Nichols said situations have gotten similar to conditions that took place in the 1990s, when he said it was easy to obtain welfare in Contra Costa County. “Transients came in box cars,” he said.

The city’s waterfront area, especially the Waterfront Park that is being upgraded with $8 million in Measure H bond money, “is a world class facility.”

But a section near the duck pond has become inaccessible because of defecation that could be reduced if there was a restroom nearby, “chemical toilets, at the very least,” he said. He said he had been worried that the situation was so threatening that ducks and geese might not raise babies in the pond, although he has since seen a few waterfowl families recently.

Signage at Ferry Point needs to be improved, he said. “Ferry Point has a lopsided sign,” and it only states the prohibition of littering and use of fire pits.

He blamed two recent fires in the area on transients, and said when winter rains ceases and the grassy areas dry out, new fires could spread swiftly and damage or destroy homes and businesses.

Martinez residents deserve better, he said, and some people have been talking about forming vigilante groups to patrol the park themselves.

Nichols urged the Commission and other city officials to set a meeting with Martinez Police and other city departments “to take ownership” of the park during all hours it is open to the public. “People need to be in the park when the public is there.”

He also asked for better maintenance of areas where gophers holes pock the ground. “It’s an ankle injury waiting to happen.”

Nichols said the problem isn’t limited to this park, or Martinez in general. And regarding the waterfront area, he said that the problems extend to the adjacent East Bay Regional Park District land.

Since Nichols was speaking during a public comment period and the matter wasn’t part of Tuesday’s published agenda, Commissioners were unable to take any formal action.

However, during the meeting’s period dedicated to panel comments, Commissioner Rob Parolek said he had heard troubling reports, and had visited the park to view its construction.

He said he has seen people living in the area’s swamp grass. This saddened him, since the city has spent “a lot of money to make it a nice waterfront area.”

Parolek continued, “I asked why the picnic area isn’t used,” and was told homeless people use it as a hangout.

“I hope it doesn’t fail because people are afraid to go down there,” he said. “It’s really sad.”

Commissioner Satinder Malhi agreed. “It’s troubling to see the deteriorating state,” he said, and the situation shouldn’t be allowed to fester. “Public safety has to come first.”

He pointed out, “It’s not an issue the city on its own can solve.”

He said Oakland and San Francisco face the same issues on a greater scale. Martinez needs to work with other local and regional agencies if it’s to get a handle on the problems.

Those agencies need to work collaboratively to make corrections. “The status quo is not acceptable. The residents of Martinez deserve better.”

He said the Commission should ask representatives of Martinez Police to describe what they have done to mitigate the issues and the challenges they face. He also suggested adding more restrooms and improved lighting.

Vice Chairperson Karen Bell-Patten told how a friend had been dropped off not far from the railroad, and had been harassed by panhandlers. As a member of the Commission, she has toured the park, only to become alarm when an altercation broke out in front of her and one person urinated near her.

“I felt unsafe,” she said.

Commissioner Brian Eychner asked what consequences people face for violating city codes in the park. He wondered whether people simply faced fines that were brushed away in court. “You can have all the signs in the world and the police there, but nothing happens. I’d like to know what options are available to us.”

Park problems aren’t just caused by the homeless, Nichols said. “There are doughnut spinners,” he said about those tearing up the ground with vehicle tires. People use drugs behind the park’s bait shop, and music is played loudly in the parking lots. The problems get worse once the school day ends, he said.

Alcohol isn’t allowed in the park without a permit, Chairperson Dylan Radke said. Exceptions are made for the Martinez Bocce Federation’s league events.

He said the city has hired contractors in the past to clean up the area. “There’s recognition on behalf of the city, but there needs to be more coordination, a broader effort. It’s pretty alarming.”

Sappal said construction at Waterfront Park may be the reason homeless people have been congregating in other areas of the marina, including the East Bay Regional Park District property.

“While we are facing staffing challenges, we do have a plan in place to work on this problem,” he said.

Then he outlined that plan.

“We have already increased foot patrols into the marina to look for criminal behavior and will increase patrols,” he said.

“While our community resource officer was moved back to patrol due to staffing issues, he is still working on homelessness issues when he can,” Sappal said. He will be working in this area and will be working with other officers to deal with this criminal behavior as well as trying to work with our CORE Team to assist the homeless that wish to receive help.”

CORE is the Coordinated Outreach Referral Engagement program that sends two-member teams to contact homeless people and encourage them to enter helpful programs.

Sappal said he already has spoken with East Bay Regional Parks Police Department Police to request patrolling assistances in the parks in their jurisdiction.

He also has asked for District officers to work with Martinez Police jointly in identifying what he called “problem people” and in dealing with park situations.

“We will be working together to address the issue,” Sappal said, adding that Martinez Public Works also would be joining in the cleanup of the area. “They have been extremely responsive on addressing clean ups.”

Sappal reiterated his request for public help in reporting behavior, “so we can respond and deal with the problem.” The dispatch number is 925-372-3440.

Addressing the matter after the Commission meeting as well as Wednesday during the City Council meeting, he said, “If you do not get a satisfactory solution, then ask for a watch commander to follow up, so we can ensure that we can look into the problem.

“While I know it can be easier to report issues on social media, often times it does not reach us or does so long after a problem has escalated.”

Those noticing a trend in problems also are being asked to call police, he said. “Feel free to call us and ask for a watch commander, typically a supervisor, or for our patrol commanders.

“While I cannot guarantee an overnight resolution to this issue, we are aware of it and we are working on it as best as we can.”

In other matters, the Commission unanimously agreed to waive fees and allow the 11th annual Beaver Festival at Susana Park.

Heidi Perryman said the festival is moving to Susana Park from Beaver Park, in part because it has been a longtime goal and, fortuitously, a family of beavers are active nearby. The date is earlier than in years past to take advantage of open days at the park.

The festival will be from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 30.

Cub Scouts Pack 420 also received permission for waived fees when they use Hidden Valley Park Sycamore Picnic Area June 2 for its graduation.

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