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Controversy No Stranger in Valley Town of Visalia : Setting: Local residents, who pride themselves on being innovative, aren't surprised that their town produced the Norplant decision.

March 03, 1991|Burton Swope | Burton Swope is opinion-page editor of the Visalia Times-Delta

VISALIA, CALIF. — That Visalia would be a setting for a court decision that could end up as a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court isn't that surprising to the people who live here. The town prides itself on being innovative, on being different from other Central San Joaquin Valley farming communities.

Visalia is about an hour's drive north of Bakersfield and about an hour and a half away from the giant redwoods of Sequoia National Park. On a clear day, the snow-blanketed peaks of the Sierra give the town a picturesque backdrop. But because of growth and air pollution such days are increasingly rare.

The town of 75,000 people, which straddles California Highway 198, has a community college, two hospitals, an airport, convention center and an eight-story Radisson Hotel, completed last November. There are also three theaters where local thespians perform, a symphony, a Creative Center for the handicapped and a Cultural Arts Commission.

Although agriculture is the community's economic lifeblood, Visalia is also an important regional retail center. The city has aggressively courted and been able to attract light industry and businesses in the service sector.

City officials are proud of Visalia's small-town atmosphere, its sense of community and tidy appearance. However, many long-time residents fear that what makes Visalia unique is slipping away as newcomers arrive. The city is expected to more than double in population in the next 30 years.

Despite its changes, Visalia remains a basically conservative town. So when Superior Court Judge Howard Broadman ordered a birth-control device implanted in a woman convicted of beating two of her four children with a belt buckle and an electrical cord, he drew cheers from many of his fellow Visalians.

"Hooray for Judge Broadman," one local resident wrote the Visalia Times-Delta, the town's daily newspaper. "Women who abuse their children should be strongly discouraged from having more." Another letter writer declared that Broadman should have ordered Darlene Johnson's Fallopian tubes tied. Similar sentiments were echoed in dozens of conversations.

But Broadman also drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and women's rights groups. A local attorney took the judge to task in a letter to the editor for going overboard in his "creative sentencing." The Times-Delta, which had supported the judge's past attempts at innovative sentencing, editorialized that he had gone too far. The paper argued that the courts had no business deciding who should or should not have children.

The editorial appeared with an accompanying dissent from the two community members of the newspaper's five-member editorial board, Jose B. Ochoa, a social welfare worker, and Elainea Scott, chief librarian for the Visalia Unified School District. They applauded Broadman for giving Johnson "a time out" from having children. Scott disagreed with Broadman on only one point: He should have left the means of birth control up to Johnson.

The town producing these diverging opinions is a mixture of haves and have-nots, even though farming and retail sales have made Visalia economically richer than most of its neighbors. At any one time, roughly 30% of Tulare County's 300,200 residents are on welfare.

Because of the seasonal nature of agriculture, double-digit unemployment is the rule rather than the exception. Agencies that help the poor are almost always swamped. The poor are not especially visible but are evident in communities nearby, such as Goshen and Farmersville. Johnson, the subject of Broadman's ruling, is a black high-school dropout, on welfare when she was arrested.

Visalia's population is overwhelmingly white--nearly 77%; about 20% is Latino, 2% Asian and a little over 1% black. But, overall, 34% of Tulare County's population is minority.

Lifestyles in Visalia are diverse. It's not unusual to see a BMW parked next to a muddied pickup truck at a gourmet restaurant, or businessmen in suits rubbing elbows, in bars, with men wearing down vests, billed caps and cowboy boots.

Visalia was founded in 1852 by an eccentric frontiersman from Kentucky named Nathaniel Vise, who gave it its name. The town was the major stop between Tejon Pass and Stockton for the Butterfield Overland Stage. It later was a milling site for logs hauled down from the mountains. In 1879, Visalia Delta editor George Stewart launched the movement to save the giant sequoias and establish Sequoia National Park.

Visalians may squabble verbally over growth and other issues, but during the Civil War they were violently divided. Union soldiers sent to quell restive Southern sympathizers destroyed an anti-Union newspaper and fought with civilians in the town's Saloon Row. A feud between rival newspaper editors in 1860, over the issues that led to the Civil War, ended with one editor being shot and killed by the other, who was then acquitted. The ruling: justifiable homicide.

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