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Sunnyside enacts anti-gang ordinance

After two hours of public comment, the Sunnyside City Council voted 7-0 last night to approve an ordinance cracking down on gangs in the city.

Councilman Paul Garcia said the need for such an ordinance is unfortunate, but added, "It's one that's needed."

During a lengthy public comment session, a standing-room only crowd debated the merits of the law, which makes it unlawful to belong to a criminal street gang.

Some, like Sunnyside resident Nancy Palomino, fear the law will "empower racial profiling".

Some also shared Palomino's view that the problem of gang violence stems from a lack of things for kids to do after school.

In response, Garcia said there are church activities and organized sports and recreation through the Sunnyside Community Center that are not expensive.

Another Sunnyside resident, Mike Cortez, directly challenged council on the ordinance, going so far as to accuse police of being a gang since they wear the same colors.

Comments from the public were divided.

"This is a really good ordinance," Cascade Way resident Paula Barraza told council. "This is the best thing I've ever seen." She said parents and other adults should not let teen gang members run their lives.

Other residents responded to complaints about the ordinance by noting it isn't right to have to live in fear in their neighborhoods because of the presence of gang members.

Alex Santillanes of Yakima-based Barrios Unidos reminded council that many cities are watching Sunnyside's actions with an ordinance that is not only the first in the state but, according to some in the audience, the first of its kind in the nation since it is not limited to targeting repeat offenders.

There were in fact council members from Toppenish and Yakima present at the meeting, as well as residents from those communities who opposed the ordinance in fear it would be enacted in their cities.

Jose Guel is a longtime Toppenish resident and told council he doesn't see how the ordinance will help, noting the ordinance may actually have the opposite effect it's intended to have.

"If this (ordinance) was in Toppenish when I was growing up it would have had a negative impact on me," he said.

The ordinance specifically prohibits criminal street gang activity, punishable by up to 365 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

It further makes it illegal to solicit new criminal gang members or threaten others from leaving the gang.

There were divided comments on language in the ordinance that could fine parents up to $1,000 for a civil infraction if their child is caught in a gang.

John Hughes represented the Sunnyside School District, and told council that all of the school administrators support the anti-gang law.

Some in the audience, though, felt it was too harsh on the parents, while others felt that parents need to be responsible for their children.

Referring to one comment claiming that elsewhere in the Valley 600 parents of gang members said they didn't know their children were in gangs, city councilman Bill Gant opined, "I don't buy that."

Speaking of parents, Gant and others called on parents to take responsibility for their children.

Councilwoman Carol Stone noted that parents don't get a "free pass" from responsibility just because their child is in a gang.

Regarding passage of the ordinance and the lack of action by the state legislature, Mayor Ed Prilucik encouraged other cities to consider the same step.

Prilucik noted, "It's very important to do this as a region where we failed to do it as a State."

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