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Mountain Area Merchants Meet To Curb Criminal Behavior

OAKHURST – About 40 members of the Mountain Area Merchants Association (MAMA) gathered for a special meeting last month to address timely and sometimes sensitive topics, including crime, housing, substance abuse and mental health.

After ongoing problems with vandalism to many local businesses, this group of merchants has made it their goal to outline creative solutions to the problem.

MAMA was formed earlier this year by a group of local people looking for ways to positively impact the business climate in the foothills. A self-described “coalition of area merchants whose purpose is to collaborate advertising efforts and create opportunities which encourage locals and tourists to patronize local businesses,” MAMA is open to new members.

Though the group generally talks about business marketing, management and ways to increase traffic into shops and restaurants in the Yosemite gateway community, the April 13 meeting was meant to address more serious concerns.

MAMA invited a panel of community members – representatives from local churches, 5th District Supervisor Tom Wheeler’s office, Madera County Sheriff’s Office, and the Madera County District Attorney – to discuss serious solutions to problems that many merchants face, including ongoing criminal behavior by individuals known to loiter, camp out, use drugs, and commit acts of trespass, vandalism, theft, and aggression.

It’s not uncommon to hear that businesses are broken into, merchandise stolen, security cameras busted, trash dumpsters repeatedly jimmied and rifled through, and hazardous bio-waste including syringes left behind. The litany of offenses is a long one, and merchants have struggled to combat the seemingly increasing onslaught of abuse.

On the occasions when homeless encampments are broken up by sheriff’s deputies, it’s Emadco Disposal Service that goes out on a volunteer basis to clean up the mess. In addition to safely removing bio-hazards like needles, Emadco also offers a drop-off box for syringes and other bio-waste at the front of their building. On the other hand, when a mess of drug debris and trash is left on an individual business owner’s property, they’re on their own to clean it up.

According to MAMA member Colette Goga of Oakhurst Feed & Supply, the group of business owners and managers are determined to concentrate on solutions rather than rehashing the well-known problems with no results.

“The purpose of the Mountain Area Merchants Association is to support each other in a variety of different ways,” says Goga. “The panel was asked to take 30 days and then reconvene to present workable action steps that community members can take to limit the impact of homelessness and criminal behavior on businesses.”

The panel includes Helen Mansfield, Pastor of the New Community United Methodist Church; Michael Baird, administrator for Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church; Legislative Assistant for District 5 Supervisor Wheeler’s office Brittany Dyer; Lieutenant Darin McMechan from the Madera County Sheriff’s Office; and Madera County District Attorney David Linn. They are expected to report back to the merchants association in the very near future.

Among the points discussed, but not yet approved, is the possibility that merchants can take out collaborative restraining orders as appropriate against individuals known to repeatedly trespass at area businesses. Meanwhile, merchants are being educated on ways they can obtain restraining orders individually, if desired.

Two nonprofits are currently being created by the churches involved to help individuals challenged by mental health issues, poverty, domestic violence, and drug addiction. The churches document the meals and shelter they give out and are currently acquiring statistics from homeless individuals in order to better understand the problems and potential for solutions. Work exchange programs may be part of the plan for some churches and even some merchants in the community.

Other ideas floated at the meeting included the prospect that sobriety would be required in order for an individual to take advantage of emergency-only winter housing, four months out of the year. One MAMA member suggested that community members could possibly “adopt” a homeless person for a lunch-style program.

Merchants were asked to contact their state legislature to help promote change at a state level. Back on the ground in town, it was noted that businesses need to have proper signage to discourage solicitation and loitering. It was also suggested that churches might provide funds to support employment opportunities with local merchants.

Another discussion item was the reality that more funding is needed to support additional staff in the Sheriff’s Office, and the building up of the Citizens on Patrol program.

District Attorney David Linn is said to be looking into the possibility of increasing the penalty for starting a wildfire, a subject that remains high on the community’s list of concerns as fire season approaches. He also noted that preliminary conversations are underway to form a Mental Health Court in Madera County.

Linn has opened a satellite DA’s office in Oakhurst in the Sheriff Substation behind True Value HomeCenter, and welcomes calls from the community when problems arise. Business owners experiencing vandalism and vagrancy problems are encouraged to phone the mountain area office at (559) 683-3300, or stop in during office hours 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The mountain area office is also home to Deputy District Attorney Ashley Allred on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The office additionally employs full time investigator David Engstrom. When not in the office, Engstrom is usually out on patrol, and there is a part-time volunteer to field calls.

“Engstrom patrols the properties and talks to property owners, keeping an eye on things,” says Linn, whose team is primed to partner with the community to solve problems.

“Part of their duty is to work closely with area merchants to ensure the homeless and vagrant situation is getting better and not worse,” says Linn. “We have investigators onsite, and the DA and Sheriff’s Office onsite. The message to get out to the population is, if they cause problems, they will be prosecuted.”

MAMA meets on the 1st and 3rd Mondays of the month at Crabcakes Family Seafood Restaurant. There is no cost to join the organization.

Business representatives can request to join MAMA on Facebook.

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