By C. Jayden Smith
Months after the San Clemente City Council voted to implement tangible efforts for city staff to make in attempts to prevent human trafficking, the city may soon be ready to take another step.
On May 25, the council authorized action items for the Code Compliance Division to carry out as part of the first of three priorities the Public Safety Committee recommended the city follow.
The next phase, Priority 2, stipulates that the city “educate and reward hotel and motel business compliance,” according to the May 25 staff report.
At the PSC’s latest meeting Tuesday afternoon, July 26, Human Trafficking Subcommittee member Charlie Hightower presented how the city could address and work with hotels and motels within its borders, with the help of I-5 Freedom Network Executive Director Brenda Wells and Program Director Alejandra Baker.
Hightower said that the committee’s—and therefore the city’s—goal should not be to punish those business owners but to incentivize them to help solve the issue by highlighting their compliance in some fashion.
“Basically, you’d like to see (the city) somehow recognize that,” Hightower said. “That’s really why we’re here today: talking about how can we go about defining Priority 2, the next step.”
San Clemente Police Services Chief Tony Benfield affirmed that hotels and motels across Orange County are places where prostitution and trafficking can occur, and Wells referenced a recent case where such activity was discovered at a Lake Forest hotel.
Deputies from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department performed an undercover “John sting,” a common practice across the country in which law enforcement personnel go undercover to receive solicitation as a prostitute.
“The owner of that hotel also owns a hotel in San Clemente, and he’s willing to do something like that here when the time’s right,” Wells said.
She added that the I-5 Network has received reports of activity for multiple hotels within the city.
Alejandra Baker helped Hightower present to his committee members bills within California’s legislature that do affect lodging businesses, but when asked for comment on them, she and Wells agreed that they did not do much to penalize violators or solve the problem of human trafficking.
Wells said there were virtually no consequences for violating Assembly Bill 2034, which became law in 2018 and required hotels and motels, among other businesses, to post a notice encouraging those who are aware of a person being forced to engage in an activity to call a human trafficking hotline.
The penalties for violating AB2034 include $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for each subsequent offense.
“Most hotels are willing to pay that because they don’t want the sign, And I don’t even know who gets the dollars and who the poster police are out there enforcing it,” said Wells. “As an organization, we actually find that to be an ineffective action.”
Senate Bill 970, which was also signed into law in 2018, required specified hotels and motels to provide at least 20 minutes of training regarding human trafficking awareness every two years.
Given the debated positive effects of the bills, Hightower said the city must take a differing approach to the 15 lodging businesses in San Clemente, and hopefully get them excited about receiving an award or other recognition from the city.
After the PSC determines the criteria necessary for hotels to meet to receive an appropriate recognition, the I-5 Network staff recommended that the city coordinate with managers and owners to tell them what they could earn.
Additionally, by reaching out to get local media outlets and political candidates, such as current Assemblywoman Laurie Davies or 74th District candidate Chris Duncan, involved in the process, Hightower said that the hotel owners would know they would receive positive feedback in the community for complying.
New Committee Chair Rick Loeffler suggested that as the PSC develops its new work plan for Fiscal Year 2022-2023, he and Hightower work to define how to move Priorities 2 and 3 forward.
“I think we should get together with (Brenda Wells), maybe (Chris Duncan), you and I, and figure out a wording and the strategy for Priority 2 that we can bring back to the committee,” Loeffler said. “If it gets approved, then we can move to the city council.”
Deputy Community Development Director Adam Atamian said the council had already directed city staff to move forward with the next phases. He clarified that the city’s strained resources was the main reason all three priorities were up for approval at once.
Atamian added that if Priority 2 turned out to be a program where there was a checklist for hotels to accomplish in order to receive a displayable object in their front window, and the program didn’t require a council action, staff could move forward.
Loeffler said he would prefer to meet and determine the next steps before presenting their findings at the PSC’s next meeting on Aug. 23.
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.