Imperial County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Jones at a March 5 hearing postponed until March 13 the city of Calexico’s motion to seek a temporary restraining order to force closure of the fire-damaged Santo Tomas swap meet.
That hearing is scheduled in Department 7 of Superior Court at 939 W. Main St. in El Centro at 8:30 a.m.
Calexico filed the action against Santo Tomas, Inc., on Feb. 26, according to court documents. The action, which also lists as defendants parties yet to be named, is an effort to shut down the operation of “an unlawful swap meet” in violation of numerous city and state codes, the suit states.
During the hearing the swap meet’s attorney, Sandra J. Brower of San Diego, argued for two opposition documents she filed on March 1. One challenged the jurisdiction of the court to rule on the case, and another opposed the facts of the case as stated in the city’s suit.
Jones ruled the court does have jurisdiction, but continued a decision on the city’s closure request so its attorney, G. Henry Welles of Indian Wells, would have adequate time to review the defense’s opposition filing.
Welles said the city has until March 8 to file a response.
The suit against Santo Tomas states it stems from inspections and code violations from January 2018 to failed inspections after the Dec. 8 fire that destroyed numerous vendor stalls at the popular outdoor marketplace at 1102 V.V. Williams Ave.
“It’s very unfortunate that it’s come down to this, and we’re still open to working with them (Santo Tomas). But now it has to go through our legal department,” Calexico City Council Member David Romero said when contacted by telephone on March 1.
The cause of the fire was ruled “accidental and caused by faulty electrical wiring,” a Calexico Fire Department inspection report released Feb. 25 stated.
The swap meet was fully closed until Dec. 21 when the city issued a temporary permit for partial operations to be conducted in its parking lot until Feb. 28.
Santo Tomas manager Juan Carlos Gonzalez said in a March 4 interview he was surprised and very upset with the city when he received the lawsuit. He alleged the city is trying to damage a family business that has long supported the community and local programs.
”It's really disappointing to see the city taking these extreme measures against a business that from day one had an upward trajectory and has worked with vendors with lots of passion for 40 years, ” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said the swap meet has always worked with the city when it comes to addressing violations of the city code. Gonzalez said the last time the city approached Santo Tomas was in June 2018.
Gonzalez said swap meet officials met with the city to answer all of its concerns and asked the city for direction, but Gonzalez said there was no communication with them until the day of the fire.
”We have changed our business model and we cleaned up the affected area. It's beyond me how we ended up in this situation,” he said.
Gonzalez said the swap meet will defend itself in court and will work to protect the vendors.
“We will defend ourselves against the city since it's not fair that the city is trying to shut us down and affect the families that work at Santo Tomas who are the bloodline of our business,” he said.
The lawsuit was listed on the agenda for the March 6 City Council meeting under existing litigation to be discussed. The meeting was held after this newspaper’s deadline.
The complaint states the city seeks “A temporary restraining order or writ of injunction, and a preliminary and permanent injunction is necessary in this case to abate all CMC (Calexico Municipal Code) violations, California Building Code violations, California Electrical Code violations, and California Fire Code violations by Defendants and their agents, officers and/or employees, to close Defendants’ unlawful swap meet to abate and prevent the continuance of these nuisances.”
The city’s code enforcement department inspected Santo Tomas on Jan. 8 and 9 and the city fire department inspected the property again on Feb. 4, the lawsuit states. As a result of those inspections, according to the lawsuit, a public nuisance was declared and the city made it known to Santo Tomas operators that said nuisance was to be abated or remedied.
Santo Tomas reopened to the public Feb. 6. On Feb. 11 city Code Enforcement Officer Ralph Morales attempted to re-inspect the property and was asked to leave, according to the complaint.
“Despite actual or constructive knowledge of unlawfully operating the swap meet, Defendants, and each of them, have done nothing to abate the unlawful activity and have allowed the unlawful operation to continue, to the detriment of the City’s public health, safety, and welfare,” the lawsuit states.
Furthermore, the complaint states, “The City has no plain, speedy, or adequate remedy at law, and unless a temporary restraining order and injunction is issued, the City will be unable to enforce its well-established right to control land use within the City and to enforce its local and state laws, which prohibit Defendants’ unlawful swap meet operation.”
City fire inspection documents recently obtained by this newspaper under a public records act request showed the swap meet was cited for fire code violations in 2010 and 2012. City officials declined to say if there were any more recent citations.