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Orange County Focus

WESTMINSTER : Tree-Planting Plan Escalates Dispute

September 23, 1993|BERT ELJERA

A proposal by a nonprofit agency to plant trees in the Little Saigon area under a state grant has become the latest issue in the escalating labor dispute between the city and the Westminster Firefighters' Assn.

In April, the City Council endorsed a plan by the Los Angeles-based Economic and Employment Development Center to seek $40,000 from the state's urban forest program to plant trees in the Vietnamese business section east of the city.

Earlier this month, the firefighters union criticized the proposal in a flyer, saying that the city is planting trees in Little Saigon at a time when it is trying to cut expenses in all departments, including the Fire Department.

The flyer accompanied a petition circulated by the firefighters opposing the planned reorganization of the Fire Department. Last month, the city laid off six firefighters as part of the reorganization.

City officials denounced the flyer, claiming the singling out of the tree program for Little Saigon showed prejudice.

"This racist attitude is appalling," said Mayor Charles V. Smith at a recent council meeting. "There are no trees being planted in Little Saigon, and no trees will be planted, at least for the moment."

He also described it as an attempt by the firefighters to turn residents against the Vietnamese community.

These comments upset members of the firefighters union.

"When we respond to a call, we don't look at the color of the skin," said Mike Garrison, a director in the firefighters union.

And Councilman Tony Lam called it unfair to drag the Vietnamese community into the dispute between the city and the firefighters. He said the Vietnamese community is not getting preferential treatment from the city because of the planting program. (The state has yet to approve the grant request, which the city made in May.)

"These racist tones should not be tolerated," Lam said. "That kind of language (in the flyer) divides the city."

The labor dispute stems from an attempt by the city in August to reorganize the department. An Orange County Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction in late August blocking the layoffs and ordered the city to negotiate with the firefighters union.

The city has since placed the firefighters on leave with pay while the two sides continue negotiations.

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