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California

Kern County grand jury urges Maricopa to disincorporate

The tiny city of Maricopa turns 100 next month, but whether it makes it to 101 is another story.

A Kern County grand jury recommended this week that the oilfield community pull the plug on itself.

In a report titled, “Maricopa, Lots of Past, Any Future?”, the grand jury said that finances in the city of 1,154 have been so bad that an administrator once borrowed money from “private individuals” to meet the payroll.

If a majority of the declining town’s residents vote to disincorporate, it would be only the third time in 48 years that a California city has terminated itself.

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Forty miles southwest of Bakersfield, Maricopa was at the epicenter of one of the great American oil booms. For 18 months starting in 1910, oil spewed out of the Lakeview well outside of town, raining down to form a lake and a river eight miles long. In commemoration of that event — the biggest spill in U.S. history — Maricopa’s community center is called Gusher Hall.

The grand jury first weighed in on Maricopa last week, urging the town to dismantle its Police Department, which it accused of running a speedtrap, improperly confiscating vehicles, losing hundreds of citations and failing to keep track of weapons.

A police spokesman has said that the charges of mismanagement were overblown and that Maricopa officers enforce the law equitably.

But this week’s report, released Wednesday, takes much broader aim.

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Maricopa “lacks internal controls over finances,” the grand jury said, and its debt “imperils the future of the community.” Cash is kept in an unsecured desk, records are spotty and past administrators “have misled or failed to inform the council of the true financial state of the city.”

The city has owed Kern County’s Fire Department nearly $61,000 for more than three years, the report went on. For more than a year, it has owed residents $24 a parcel over an illegal trash fee.

“As distasteful as the idea may be to some citizens of Maricopa, the city no longer has the resources to maintain the status and duties of an incorporated city,” the panel concluded.

Councilman Virgil Bell declined to comment on the details, but said he wasn’t a bit surprised.

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Bell served on the council 12 years before being voted out in 2008. He was reelected last year.

“I was kind of shocked at how screwed up things were,” he said.

He and Cynthia Tonkin, another longtime former council member reelected in 2010, said some overspending occurred during the tenure of former city administrator Robert Wilburn and his successor, Daniel Ayala, who resigned earlier this year.

Neither could be reached for comment Thursday.

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Ray Watson, the Kern County supervisor whose district includes Maricopa, said he doubted that any mismanagement was intentional.

The administrator’s position has been part-time, he said, and the city could seldom afford legal counsel.

Watson said the county could provide services in Maricopa if residents were to decide they’d had enough of cityhood. The county would pay Maricopa’s $200,000 debt — after selling the city’s few assets and charging property owners “a couple of hundred dollars” per parcel, he said.

The alternative, he said, could be bankruptcy.

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“It’s sad,” he said. “When you drive down the street almost all the businesses are boarded up. It could be a quaint little place, but investors would want to know that the city was going to be liquid and provide necessary services.”

steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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