By Michael Hernandez
VENTURA—The City Council approved in a unanimous 6-0 vote a motion to remove the Junipero Serra bronze statue from in front of the City Hall and the wooden statue from the City Hall atrium. Councilmember Erik Nazarenko (District 4) made the motion seconded by Councilmember Jim Friedman (District 5). Mayor Matt LaVere was recused (absent) from the special meeting on the statue.
Councilmember Friedman claimed that city council members had received over 2,500 emails, 2,000 pages of written comments and seen 3,000 comments on Next Door and Facebook that were split 50:50 on the issue. Four petitions on change.org also generated almost an additional 17,000 signatures. The City Council also heard 96 public comments during Wednesday’s meeting.
The motion considered by the City Council stated that both statues would be permanently relocated to a place that city staff deemed feasible and appropriate with the intent that the bronze statue be given to the Mission San Buenaventura.
Pope Francis renames mission to Basilica San Buenaventura
Earlier in the day, the Catholic mission became Basilica San Buenaventura (elevated by Pope Francis) in an announcement made by Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez who with Los Angeles auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron celebrated Mass at the site with Father Thomas Elewaut whose efforts to make it a Minor Basilica began with a petition in 2014.
The active parish serves approximately 1,400 families and was founded by Junipero Serra on Easter Sunday 1782 and was the ninth and last mission established by the Franciscan missionary priest. Serra was canonized by Pope Francis during a visit to the United States in 2015.
City staff give history of the three Junipero Serra statues
Original Concrete Statue:
1936: Installed, product of Works Progress Administration (New Deal)
1974: City Council Resolution – Landmark #3
1989: Replaced (due to restoration costs, moved to off-site storage)
2020: Historical Preservation Committee finds original statue renames Landmark #3
Displayed in the Atrium of City Hall
Carved to serve as mold for replacement (bronze) statue
1989: Installed, but no council resolution assigning historic status
2020: Historical Preservation Committee finds replacement does not qualify for historic status
City Attorney outlines 10 legal issues facing council prior to public comments
Issue 1: City Council Agenda does not properly list all actions. Failed to include California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) action. Meeting rescheduled to July 15 with corrected agenda. The City Council will
- Keep the Bronze Statue and/or Wood Statue in its present location; or
- Authorize staff to store the Bronze and/or Wood Statue in a safe location pending a further determination on its disposition at a later date.
Issue 2: No Brown Act violation.
Issue 3: Presidential Executive Order (June 26) concerning vandalism or destruction of monuments or other memorials precludes City action.
Issue 4: The Presidential Executive Order (July 3) sets up a federal committee to create a National Monuments Garden and the possibility of donating statues to the Monument Garden and precludes City action.
Issue 5: Mayor Matt LaVere signing a joint letter between the city, mission and Chumash leaders prior to City Council action demonstrates bias and the need for him to disqualify (recuse) himself from City Council action on the statue (Bias Allegation 1).
Issue 6: Attendance by city council members at protest events concerning the statue shows bias. City staff determines bias is established if attendance is as a participant not as an observer (Bias Allegation 2).
Issue 7: Social media postings of councilmembers in regards to June 18 joint agreement engineered by Mayor Matt LaVere only shows bias if councilmembers do not discuss the outcome of statues (Bias Allegations 3 and 4).
Issue 8: Councilmember attendance at the protests show bias and should require recusal in statue vote (Bias Allegation 5).
Issue 9: City action adopted in May regarding Emergency Ordinance which streamlines and fast-tracks the decision-making process that previously required review of the Historical Preservation Committee, the Planning Commission and the City Council (from three hearings to one hearing).
Issue 10: A decision of the Historical Preservation Committee is not appealable because it is only a recommendation and under the municipal code and under the emergency ordinance the role of the Historical Preservation Committee is only advisory and does not result in a formal decision.
City states bronze, wood statues not historic; environmental report not needed
Ventura Community Development Director Peter Gilli made two recommendations:
- The Bronze Statue does not meet the requirements for historic designation, based on the recommendation of the Historic Preservation Committee and the report prepared by the Historic Resource Group. As the Wood Statue was a part of the molding process for the Bronze Statue, the Wood Statue also does not meet the requirements for historic designation.
- Determine that the common sense exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) found in Section 15061 of the State CEQA Guidelines applies and adopt said exemption based on the fact the determination to remove or relocate a non-historic statue will not have a significant impact on the environment.
Council reaffirms bronze Junipero Serra statue has no historical landmark status
Councilmember Lorrie Brown inquired what is the historical landmark designation criteria the city was using:
- A period of history was reflected
- An embodiment of a time period or method of construction
- Work was done by more than one designer
- High artistic value
City staff told Brown that a threshold of 40 years was the usual standard. The original statute was 80 years old—well over the 40-years threshold. The City used the opinion of both a consultant and the Historical Preservation Committee to state that the bronze statue did not have a historical landmark status which would have had to be established by a city council resolution.
The Ventura City Council reaffirmed 6-0 that the bronze Junipero Serra statue did not have any historical landmark status which would have required additional city review (slowing down the process to remove the statue).
Councilmember Jim Friedman argues removal of statue is ‘safe” way to go
“I don’t want to be emotional. This subject is so emotionally charged so I will be pragmatic,” said Councilmember Friedman. “I am not afraid but realistic of tearing down (the statue). In Sacramento, a (Junipero Serra) statue was ripped off its pedestal and destroyed and not put back up. In 2017, a Father Serra statue in Santa Barbara was decapitated. That is wrong. I can say to these people, ‘Leave it up,’ but if it gets ripped down what has been accomplished?
“If you truly care for the statue; as do many people, let’s move it to a place where it is better protected. There is no guarantee that we can give it to the mission but that is our intention. We will be sued no matter what we do. We will deal with that. We have a litigious society.
“We can take a breath—a deliberate pause. We have a chain link fence (which) is not a method of protection. How do we protect it 24 hours a day? We have video cameras on it. But all it takes is someone with a sledge hammer; or to throw a chain around it and rip it off the pedestal.
“To me this looks like a great compromise. People who want the statue to remain will get it four blocks west in a spot where you can enjoy it. Those who do not enjoy the statue won’t have to see it.”
Other councilmembers give rationale for their position to remove statues
Deputy Mayor Sofia Rubalcava (District 1): “As a child, I grew up going to the mission quite a few days a week. I remember playing in the mission garden as a child. I never knew the other side of history. It wasn’t until becoming an adult and taking classes in college, did I learn about the Chumash perspective. For me, it shed a lot of light on who writes history? How do we learn history?
“To my Chumash brothers and sisters, we are in this together. We will take all voices into account. When one person suffers trauma, we are called to do something to heal. We will step forward for healing in our community. By removing (the statue) from city property we are standing in solidarity with the Chumash. We hear you and in taking action we begin the healing process. We will take it to the mission for viewing where it fits better and where a parish and visitors can support it.”
Councilmember Cheryl Heitmann (At-Large): “This has been a complex issue we have carefully deliberated. I did a lot of research about the history of our city as well as Chumash history. They came here 12,000 years ago and their rich history is not celebrated.
“Things change. In 2020, we must keep the statue safe so nothing happens to this beautiful piece of art. We need a more appropriate place (such as the mission) that can share what it means?”
Councilmember Erik Nasarenko (District 4): “Who is Father Serra? Is he the best representative of the City of Ventura? I did some research and in 2013 the Huntington Library in San Marino did an exhibition on Junipero Serra. The curator of the exhibit was a University of California Riverside history professor so I read his book and learned the following:
“Junipero Serra grew up impoverished but was a remarkable youth who became a theologian and a professor at a university. He was deeply devout and a pious Franciscan. He sought to evangelize or spread the gospel to souls who did not have the opportunity to hear and might be wayward and lost. He had an incredible devotion to Catholicism. He set out as an apostolic missionary to carry faith to a new land and new people. As he encountered Native Americans, he sought to convert them. He became a pioneering religious icon. He came here in 1782 and died in 1784.
“Now what shall we do with his statue? Today, Ventura is more diverse and more embracing of different cultures and different faiths. His statue should be on religious property but not on city property. We will recognize the attributes of Serra as well as those (forces) that released the devastation of the Chumash people.”
Councilmember Christy Weir (At-Large): “As a child, I was taught to admire Serra but now I have been on an interesting journey with our Chumash brothers and sisters. I have heard their stories and their feelings. I have done my own research as well. Most history is complicated.
“Statues tell stories about people like Serra. They reflect our values. They teach history. We have Chumash history. We have mission history. We need to make a decision and take responsibility and do this with honor and dignity so that we may: honor the Chumash, honor Catholics; honor the artists talents and contributions of those making the statue.”
Emotional Public Comments given at City Council meeting
Some 140 speakers sought to make public comments at the July 15 City Council meeting with 96 actually making comments. Those seeking to remove the Junipero Serra statue outnumbered those wanting to keep the statue: 53-43. Many speakers voiced support for placing this issue on the ballot (the city said it was too late to do so with pro-con statements; but admitted the item could have still been placed as a stand-alone measure).
According to one comment, the voices heard represented the young and not seniors because of the difficulty in using technology (computer) to voice comments. This comment received some support from Councilmember Jim Friedman: “Believe me, this is no fun for us, sitting in our little rooms with technical problems all the time.”
Four comments from those wishing to remove the statue:
Dana: “We need to be vulnerable to the pain and trauma of Native Americans. When they see the statue, they are traumatized. We have seen the genocide of a people. I see my tribe, my tribal chair having sat down with city leaders to do the right thing in building bridges. Our words are falling on deaf ears. This is not a hard call. Prove me wrong. Do Chumash need to run for office? If you don’t remove Serra, someone else will.”
Julie: “This is about American genocide. This is about violent intrusion of human rights. Thousands died after exposure to foreign diseases. No one is listening. This is painful and emotional.”
Veronica: “Remove this statue permanently. This is disrespecting Chumash Indians. It is an object that causes so much pain. Move it to the mission or the museum and keep it no longer in public space. It preserves dominance over indigenous people and people of color. It marginalizes voices not represented by acts of oppression.”
Naomi: “This is Chumash territory. We lived in concentration camps. Remove the Serra statue tonight. Many people don’t know the real history of the indigenous people. I offer a moment of silence for the indigenous and for those who were killed.”
Four comments from those wishing to keep the statue:
Michael: “We can raise a new monument to Chumash Indians and unite the community instead of grossly dividing the community. The City is making a mistake on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and on the Brown Act. You are going to lose in court and pay our fees.”
Jonathan: “We honor this man, the founder of our city. Father Serra is our own founding father. We are a Spanish-speaking Catholic County where half of our religious people are represented as Catholic. You want to minimize and erase Father Serra. Our city’s promotional material comes from this man, this statue. Why not elevate the Chumash by highlighting two statues: a statue of Junipero Serra and those he loved so much, side-by -side.”
Greg: “The role of civil leaders is to take actions based on facts not emotion. Let’s go forward by all of Ventura voting. Let’s respect history. Let’s add a Chumash statue on the same plaza or at another prominent place. We model democracy not by tearing down history but building up and affirming history. They can co-exist. Let’s place this as a ballot measure.”
Kayla: “I am 10-years-old and I go to school at Holy Cross. It is wrong to remove the statue of a saint. I am the future. Hear my voice.”
City Attorney expects litigation on council action
“We’re prepared to see a legal battle,” said Ventura City Attorney Gregory G. Diaz. “We’re not suggesting that people can sue us.
City Council members up for re-election in November
- Cheryl Heitmann (at-large) who was first elected in November 2011 and has
served as both Mayor and Deputy Mayor. She is a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice for 18 years and has served eight years on the Ventura Community College District Board (including two terms as President).
- The council seat of Mayor Matt LaVere (elected to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors District 1 with 18,041 votes or 59.83 percent of the vote) elected in 2016 and principal of LaVere Huff LLP, a law firm based in downtown Ventura. LaVere has served on the executive board of the Ventura College Foundation.
- Christy Weir (at-large), first elected in 2003 and has served as Mayor. She has been a school teacher and a freelance editor and writer. She served at one time as Managing Editor for Gospel Light Publications.
Catholics celebrate Saint Bonaventure Day on July 15
Catholics celebrated Saint Bonaventure Day on July 15. The Franciscan priest (born John but took the name Bonaventure when he was became a Franciscan at the age of 22) lived from 1221 to 1274 and died suddenly on July 15 while participating in the Second Council of Lyon. Pope Gregory X named him as a Cardinal and appointed him Bishop of Albano. As a small boy, he received a healing of a serious illness after Saint Francis (who died when he was five) prayed for him.
(Editor’s Note: To see the July 7th Citizens Journal story on Ventura City Council go to:
Michael Hernandez, Co-Founder of the Citizens Journal—Ventura County’s online news service; editor of the History Makers Report and founder of History Makers International—a community nonprofit serving youth and families in Ventura County, is a former Southern California daily newspaper journalist and religion and news editor. He worked 25 years as a middle school teacher in Monrovia and Los Angeles Unified School Districts. Mr. Hernandez can be contacted by email at [email protected].