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Judge names overseers for Duroville

Appointees will take partial control of the migrant camp. U.S. attorney still says it should be closed.

February 12, 2008|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge took partial control of the Duroville mobile home park Monday, appointing three overseers, including a former diplomat, to investigate conditions, make emergency repairs and temporarily take over all financial operations of the Thermal shantytown.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson in Riverside could have closed the park but decided instead to give the experts two months to make recommendations.

"After 60 days I want to be able to make an intelligent decision," he said. "Based on information I have before me, I can't make that decision now."

Larson appointed Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former U.S. ambassador who investigated war crimes in Rwanda, and Jack Shine, president and chief executive of First Financial Group, as special masters at Duroville, located on the Torres Martinez Indian reservation.

They will collect information about conditions and monitor activities there.

Los Angeles attorney Mark Adams was named temporary receiver and charged with making emergency repairs to water, electricity and sewage systems that the government says represent an imminent threat to the health and safety of the nearly 6,000 farmworkers who live in the trailer park.

Adams, who said he learned about Duroville from stories in the Los Angeles Times, has been appointed as a receiver by 15 judges in the past, handling 21 troubled properties.

For Duroville, he has drawn up a 30-day plan that includes moving 80 families, hiring an electrical contractor to eliminate jury-rigged wiring, erecting barricades around propane tanks, making dirt roads accessible to emergency vehicles and hiring professionals to assess water and sewage needs.

"The problems at Duroville were years in the making, and it would be naive to think they can be corrected in short order," he said in court documents filed last month.

To do the work, Adams is being extended $150,000 in credit by a consortium of banks who make community development loans. The trailer park's owner, Harvey Duro, eventually will be billed for all emergency repairs.

The judge's ruling was opposed by the U.S. attorney's office, which stuck by its original contention that Duroville was too dangerous to operate and should be closed.

"I think the special masters will find emergency situations in 90% of the homes," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Leon Weidman.

"Are they going to be authorized to spend money to bring all these mobile homes up to code? Are they going to be authorized to bring up the sewer system, the electrical system, all these systems? If that's what emergency means, $150,000 wouldn't start, $1 million wouldn't be the beginning, $10 million might not be sufficient."

The U.S. attorney's office maintains that only the federal government has authority over Indian lands, not court-appointed receivers.

Curtis Berkey, lawyer for the Torres Martinez Indians, said the tribe supported the plan.

"They think it is reasonable and sensible," he told Judge Larson.

Attorney J. Scott Zundel, who represents Duro, agreed to the plan but asked that his client, a Torres Martinez member, be allowed to evict tenants who haven't paid rent.

Duro says he is owed over $250,000 in back rent from residents who are withholding money because they fear the park will close.

The park has no formal eviction procedure; tenants are simply told to leave.

If they don't, often their electricity is often turned off and their trailers are moved, Zundel said.

Shutting off power and towing trailers is no way to evict tenants, said Arturo Rodriguez, directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance in Coachella, who supports the receivership plan.

"At the very least we expect due process for these people," he said. "I'm just speechless, your honor."

Larson said he would decide whether to allow the evictions in a future court order.

Outside court, Duro, wearing his trademark head scarf, appeared resigned to his fate.

"I think the deal is reasonable and I hope we can work through it," he said.

Duro, who opened the park in 1999, called allegations that he is running a Third World slum "a bunch of hooey."

He said he was considering closing the park rather than having to endure constant investigations and fines.

"At a certain point it's like beating a dead horse," he said. "I'd shut the place down if they would take the people, but I care about the residents. We are all people. They are like brothers to me."


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