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Hour of Decision Near on Dayworker Center : Malibu: Critics complain that the hiring center violates zoning laws. The county has ordered it to close by Friday, but proponents hope for a reprieve.


Rutilo Perez, a dayworker in need of a job, has spent at least part of his mornings the last several weeks playing checkers at Malibu's Zuma Beach while hoping for work.

He is among dozens of men, mostly from Mexico and Central America, who pass the time at checkers and soccer, or by casting bemused glances at the surfers who show up like clockwork to battle the early morning waves.

So it goes at Malibu's first-ever hiring center for day laborers, where the American Dream and the Third World meet.

For dozens of men who congregate there each day, the center provides a chance to land a job that pays $5 an hour without the risk of being arrested by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which has agreed not to conduct raids there.

But in a community where the rich and famous far outnumber the homeless, and where even a mobile home can cost $500,000 if it has a view, not everyone is happy with the arrangement.

After receiving complaints from nearby homeowners that the center violates county zoning laws, the Department of Regional Planning has ordered that it be shut down by Friday.

Meanwhile, its private sponsors have asked county officials for a 90-day reprieve from the shutdown order while they try to find another location, and they say they intend to keep the center open at least until county officials respond.

"We're going to operate the center over the Thanksgiving weekend and hope for the best," said Honey Coatsworth, who heads the Artifac Tree, a nonprofit thrift shop that is the center's chief sponsor.

A county planning spokesman said that officials will probably decide on whether to grant the extension by early next week. Malibu's unofficial City Council is on record as supporting an extension, and Councilwoman Carolyn Van Horn said Wednesday, after talking with an aide to Supervisor Deane Dana, who represents Malibu, that she was optimistic that one will be granted.

The center opened six months ago as an experiment aimed at helping the area's day laborers at a time when merchants and others were complaining that some of the workers were harassing their customers and passersby while congregating on Malibu street corners and in parking lots.

An estimated 150 day laborers commute to Malibu from Los Angeles each day in the hope of finding jobs clearing brush or helping at construction sites in the area.

Many of the workers come on Southern California Rapid Transit District buses, getting off in front of the center, which occupies part of a parking lot at the east end of Zuma Beach.

Modeled on a similar facility set up last year by Los Angeles in Harbor City, the center provides day laborers with English instruction, access to public restrooms and a noon meal. Employers seeking workers are asked to register, and a minimum wage of $5 is requested although not required.

"It's worked out to be a real blessing for many of these men," said Victor Rivera, one of two paid staff members at the site. "They don't have to be worried about being arrested. They don't get exploited the way they often do working off the street corners. And they have a little dignity here."

But almost from the time it opened, the center has had trouble with its neighbors.

Detractors insist that a public beach is no place for an immigrant hiring facility, and contend that the center has served as a magnet for men with no place else to go who camp overnight in the brush near the center, posing a fire danger.

Critics contend that a house trailer used as the center's office, which had been donated by a local real estate broker, was placed on the site illegally, without a permit from the California Coastal Commission, something the center's sponsors do not deny.

"They get an 'A' for effort, but low marks for common sense," said a nearby homeowner, of the center's supporters, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

In recent weeks, however, the public debate over the center's future has been charged with accusations by supporters that its opponents are motivated by racism.

That, in turn, has outraged those opposed to the center's location.

"Such accusations serve no useful purpose," said Eileen Kinloch, who is among those who wants the center shut down at the Zuma Beach location. "I'm not opposed to a dayworker center. But I feel it is in an inappropriate location. That doesn't make me or those who feel as I do racists."

She was among about 100 people who signed a petition several weeks ago asking that the center be moved from Zuma Beach.

However, there are widespread differences in the community over what should happen next.

"There are basically three groups," said attorney Frank Buck, who signed the petition. "There are those who want it to stay where it is, those who want it moved, and those who don't want to see a day laborer center in Malibu, period."

Although Perez and his companions professed little knowledge about the community debate swirling about them, they are not without a contingency plan.

"If we can't come here anymore," said Perez, who sends part of what he makes to his wife and six children in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, "then we will have to go back to the streets again."

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