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Maricopa slows to a crawl

One long day last week, Tina's Diner in tiny Maricopa served just two customers. The next day, things picked up: There were four.

Business isn't any better down the street at Sandi and Mike Smith's rock and gem shop. It's closing in a month or two — just as soon as the Smiths can sell off their inventory.

And at Bob Archibald's Shell station — well, let's just say this isn't the Maricopa enthusiastically described by a Times reporter who visited the Kern County oil burg in 1909:

"Wages are good, money is plentiful and the town is surging ahead," The Times said. "New houses are being built daily, [and] new business enterprises being started. Oil derricks are to be seen in all directions so that at a distance Maricopa looks like a seaport city, the hundreds of derricks resembling the masts of vessels in a harbor."

Photos: Hard times in Maricopa

In today's Maricopa — population 1,154 — the only thing surging seems to be hard times. The town's finances are so dismal that Kern County's Grand Jury suggested it give up the cityhood it established 100 years ago this month. The same body urged city fathers to pull the plug on the Police Department, which some business owners blame for heavy-handed traffic enforcement that scares away potential customers.

Though many California cities are struggling with finances, Maricopa is in a different league, according to the grand jury. "With a crumbling infrastructure, the financial resources of the city are insufficient to cover current needs let alone retire outstanding debt," the panel wrote in its scathing report.

Blaming past administrators for failed leadership, the grand jury said the city was deep in debt, kept cash in an unlocked desk, maintained poor records, scraped to pay everyday bills and rarely sought legal advice. At one point, the city borrowed from a private party — later revealed to be a towing company — just to meet payroll.

Last week, residents concerned about the grand jury's bombshells packed a City Council meeting at Gusher Hall, a community center named for a colossal 1910 oil gusher, the world's largest. Ceiling fans couldn't dissipate the heat — or the anger. Some people wanted the immediate ouster of Police Chief Derek Merritt; others urged a recall of Virgil Bell and Cynthia Tonkin, council members who have criticized the department.

J.R. Phillips, who grew up in Maricopa and travels the West maintaining oil field equipment, called for neighbors to quit climbing down one another's throats. "We're always going to be the crappy little town on the way to the coast, and I'm good with that," he said. "But let's work together. Let's keep it real, OK?"

But Maricopa these days isn't exactly Mayberry. Much of the discord revolves around the Police Department.

Civil liberties lawyers charge that police target motorists they figure are farmworkers, knowing that some are undocumented immigrants without driver's licenses. When vehicles are towed and stiff fines go unpaid, the city sells them and gets 25% of the proceeds, the grand jury noted.

"Maricopa has been a shining example of impoundments gone wrong," said Jennie Pasquarella, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. "They're essentially creating a racket to steal people's cars."

The city and the police are formulating their response to the grand jury and aren't saying much about anything in the meantime. But that's not stopping residents who say their town feels safer, police response is quicker — and that those big signs that Bob Archibald put up outside his gas station-market-sandwich shop last summer don't speak for them.

"Stop the Maricopa Police Dept. Out of Control Traffic Tactics," one of Archibald's signs reads. "Your Voices Have the Real Power! Speak Up & Tell Them to Stop!"

Archibald, 52, said he acted after seeing "cop cars and tow trucks going crazy in front of our store, impounding cars right and left." He collected customers' accounts of their police encounters — from stops for dirty license plates to confiscation of trucks — and gave two thick binders to the grand jury.

At last Tuesday's contentious meeting, Marilyn Hynson, an ardent supporter of the Police Department, aimed squarely at Archibald, whose business is the biggest in town.

"A lot of nonresidents are stirring up trouble," she said as some in the crowd applauded. "Mr. Archibald, we need your store here — but we don't need you here."

Archibald lives a few miles beyond the city limits. In an interview, he said that his grandfather took the train from Nova Scotia to the Kern County oil fields in 1918 and that his family has been in the Maricopa area ever since.

At the junction of California highways 33 and 166, Maricopa sits in a vast stretch of sagebrush and oil wells. Though the ocean is nearly 100 miles away, the city's motto is "Gateway to the Sea" — a nod to motorists from Bakersfield who drive through on their way to Ventura or Pismo Beach.

In Archibald's view, there have been a lot fewer since the police started eyeballing traffic so intensively. "In a little while, all my farmworkers started bypassing us," he said. "The street rod clubs, the motorcyclists, the RVers — they weren't coming through, either."

Merritt, a veteran of 14 years with the El Monte police, took the top job last year, saying he wanted to lead a small department. Counting him, there are two full-time paid officers. Sometimes his mother helps out on dispatch.

But Merritt also recruited about 25 volunteers, some of them L.A.-area police academy graduates hoping to gain experience. The influx of out-of-town help has irked Phillips and others.

"We've lost the small-town feel," he said. "A town this size doesn't need 27 officers. They don't know who anyone is."

Supporters like Councilman Andy Blakely say only lawbreakers have to worry about the beefed-up force. "The law is the law," said Blakely, owner of Andy's Septic Tank Service. "They're just doing their jobs."

As for disincorporation, Blakely said the grand jury failed to acknowledge Maricopa's accomplishments in recent years, such as securing bus service to Taft, seven miles away, and obtaining state grants that include more than $800,000 for sewer improvements.

"We've proved to the state that we're capable," Blakely said.

But "capable" isn't bringing the crowds into Tina's Diner.

One recent afternoon, Fatima "Tina" Johnson was there alone, except for a rag doll propped on one of the stools.

Johnson has run her restaurant for 38 years and calls Maricopa "my beautiful paradise." But longtime out-of-town customers tell her they don't want to risk a trip there. Whether it's the economy or the police, Johnson said business is down by 60%.

"I love this town very much," she said, gazing out the window. "All I want to do is make a living."

Photos: Hard times in Maricopa

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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