The City of Escondido made headlines again last month, sadly, for all the wrong reasons.
On May 24, the city council voted in closed session to pay $550,000 to settle a discrimination lawsuit brought against Escondido by the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties on behalf of Southwest Key Programs, Inc., a nonprofit organization contracted by the federal government to provide temporary housing for refugee children. Caving to anti-immigrant sentiment, city officials rejected Southwest Key’s proposal to open a group home, in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin.
Notably, the council chose not to announce the settlement during the public portion of the meeting. Instead, news of the settlement was revealed by Mayor Sam Abed to a reporter after the meeting. Abed described the settlement as “a victory,” despite the fact that taxpayers are out half a million dollars – not including legal costs; and despite the damage to the city’s reputation. But then, Escondido residents must bear the cost of these hollow victories (to the city treasury and its character) arising from city leaders’ practice of unjust and discriminatory decision-making.
In 2006, for example, Escondido paid $90,000 – not including about $200,000 in legal costs to settle a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of and other civil rights attorneys after the city approved an unconstitutional ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting homes to undocumented immigrants. In 2012, Escondido paid $7,300 to settle a lawsuit filed by the ACLU to ease restrictions on people’s First Amendment right to protest and record traffic checkpoints.
Referring to last month’s settlement, David Loy, Legal Director of the ACLU of San Diego, said: “Escondido has a history of unjust bias against immigrants. With this settlement, Escondido is on notice that such discriminatory practices will not go unchallenged.”
The lawsuit stems from the city’s refusal to grant Southwest Key a conditional use permit to operate a group home for migrant children fleeing violence and persecution in Central America. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement places unaccompanied refugee children with approved contractors, such as Southwest Key, who provide temporary housing and other services until the children can be united with a parent or another responsible caregiver, pending the resolution of their immigration status. The nonprofit first approached Escondido officials about potential housing sites in February 2014.
Southwest Key has successfully operated group homes for migrant youth in Lemon Grove and El Cajon for years, as well similar facilities in Arizona, Texas, and elsewhere in California. People living near their Lemon Grove site reported having no problems with the home.
Nevertheless, Escondido rejected the project after hundreds of members of the public, many using harsh and hateful rhetoric, opposed the project during public meetings. Hundreds also attended in support of the project but only Councilwoman Olga Diaz voted in favor of the home.
In May 2015, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties joined with Brancart & Brancart, Cooley LLP and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to sue Escondido for unlawful discrimination on behalf of Southwest Key. In March 2017, the court denied the city’s request to throw the case out, paving the way for a trial to determine whether Escondido committed intentional discrimination or created an unjustified disparate impact. In May 2017, settlement was reached that allowed the city to pay $550,000 without admission of liability.
Leadership guru Robin Sharma once described a hollow victory as “success without modesty,” so it comes as no surprise that in Mayor Abed’s ledger, the settlement counts as a victory for the City of Escondido.
It’s a lesson worth learning, but hopefully it doesn’t take another lawsuit to take it to heart.
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