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LA MESA -- City Police Chief Ed Aceves addressed the City Council Tuesday and made it clear that the large gatherings of unsupervised teenagers at Oktoberfest is threatening the safety and security of the event.
Describing scenes of as many as 300 teens facing off against police and security officials on Friday and Saturday nights of the October event, Aceves (above) said it might require officers in riot gear to assure the gatherings can be controlled.
"I'm sure we're capable of handling it,'' Aceves said, "but is that the kind of event this city wants?"
The normally fractious council took little time showing a united front on this issue.
Citing the concerns of residents of nearby condos, council members one after another made it clear significant changes would have to be made in the event before a permit is issued again.
"I hesitate to do anything with a special permit until you are satisfied that something has been done to take care of this,'' Councilwoman Ruth Sterling told Aceves.
Mayor Art Madrid said Oktoberfest has been run simply to maximize dollars with little attention to safety or the quality of vendors who are allowed to rent locations on the city streets.
"It's all about money,'' Madrid said, saying the event is credited with supplying the funds that allow the La Mesa Village Merchants Association and the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce to operate. "But when I am told by a resident that 'I feared for my life,'" Madrid said, "then this is an indictment of the city.''
Madrid said the organizers owed an apology to City Manager Dave Witt who recommended more sweeping changes to Oktoberfest prior to this year's event, but those changes were resisted.
"To his credit, Mr. Witt can tell you 'I told you so,'" Madrid said.
After problems with wayward teens caused disturbances at the 2011 and 2012 Oktoberfests, Witt suggested a number of options, including limiting the event to the streets east of Spring Street so access to the event could be controlled.
While the event organizers agreed to some changes -- including elimination of carnival rides that had attracted teens in the past -- they resisted the more sweeping changes as too drastic and because shrinking the event would isolate merchants on La Mesa Boulevard west of the trolley tracks.
Witt and Aceves said meetings would be held before the end of the year and plans for next year will be brought to council far in advance of the event. City Councilman Ernie Ewin asked for the new plans before the end of March.
The only official speaker on this issue was a spokesman for residents of La Mesa Village Plaza, the condo complex located immediately adjacent to the "trolley fountain" that was the center of this year's Oktoberfest-teen confrontations.
The residents support Oktoberfest, he said, but not this open gathering of unruly teens that challenge the good police officers. He questioned whether the event shouldn't shrink and move away from vendors selling "trinkets from China'' and become a more controllable public event.
Oktoberfest has grown over the years to one of the largest local public events in San Diego County and, with trolley and bus lines offering easy access to car-less teens, social networks have made the event a Mecca for teens with parents who don't keep track of their movements and some San Diego gang members. The discussion of change for Oktoberfest drew TV news crews (see photo right) to a City Council that seldom gets widespread news coverage.
"It is about parenting,'' Aceves said at one point.
More than one speaker described the tense confrontations between police and teens as being "one gun shot or one stabbing'' away from precipitating a public riot.
No one from the Chamber or Merchants Association addressed the meeting, but afterwards, John Vigil, a Merchants Association board member, said limiting the footprint of the event may not be the answer.
"Leaving that entire area west of Spring as an open field for the teens won't solve it,'' Vigil said.
Still, it is clear that in the coming months, a signature La Mesa event, will be facing pressures to change -- from the council and from within the organization itself.
Vigil said that Richard Felix, who has been the paid manager of Oktoberfest for years, has resigned from that job and from the Merchants Association board. Vigil said Felix has been paid $25,000 a year to organize the massive event and the job will be put out for bids.
"Richard didn't get a raise for the last 15 years,'' Vigil said. "I think we're going to find out we were getting a great deal. Other event companies get $100,000 for this type of work.''
Vigil said he is working with Felix to assure that the Merchants Association retains lists of vendors and other event suppliers, but the future management of the event is in flux.
Oktoberfest is a big money maker, raising funds that help support the activities of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce and helping fund other Village events, including the Back to the '50s Car Show and Christmas in the Village.
But that flow of cash through to the organizations comes with the implicit support of the city, which must agree to the permits that allow the closure of public streets and the use of city police and other city services.
One thing is clear: the next Oktoberfest will have to meet tougher city standards before the council members will agree to issue its permit.