Eye On Modesto

Thoughts and observations about Modesto and Stanislaus County

S.N.A.F.U. The Modesto City Council

By Emerson Drake  

Situation Normal All Fouled Up otherwise known as SNAFU,  okay I admit one of the words usually used is harsher, those having served in the military understand, but this version will do for our conversation.  The Modesto City Council sometimes reminds me of the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  Tuesday’s early meeting started out at 3:00 PM for a workshop on choosing what options to offer the Citizens of Modesto to move to even year elections because of low voter turnout during the odd years.

We couldn’t attend the early meeting so we watched it live online.  The first thing that jumped off the screen at you was that the people that work in the little room behind the screen, yes there are literally one or two people working behind the screen you see when looking at the dais to make the video possible,  thought the date was June, 3 2014, because that was on the screen the entire time during the meeting.

What many people are unaware of is the Mayor and Council have an agendized meeting on the day before the regular Tuesday night meetings.  These meetings are open to the public and any and all questions the Council, Mayor, or public have are answered.  So when the Council started asking questions in a befuddled manner I was taken back to the John Gunderson days when coming prepared for a meeting was a waste of time because John wouldn’t have a clue what the meeting was going to be about.  And many of the Council members, Doug Ridenour and Bill Zoslocki especially, couldn’t seem to understand the choices being offered.  Mani Grewal was more concerned that they choose an option that would allow him to serve as many years as the ones elected this year.  Strange for a man that was seeking and accepting donations to run for the California Legislature this year and will most likely do so at the next opportunity.

To make a long story short they voted 4 to 3 for ◦ Option 2: Place proposal on November 2018 ballot to consider one-time extension
of four-year Council terms to five years for Council terms beginning in 2015 and 2017 .  So yes, just like MID, they are awarding themselves 5 year terms, subject to the public’s approval, to allow the public to vote as required by the Modesto Charter to make the necessary changes.

But why didn’t they offer us more options than to approve or disapprove of just one idea?  They had four to choose from so why not allow Modesto’s voters a real choice?  Why not include Option 3: Place proposal on November 2018 ballot to approve one-time reduction of
four-year terms to three years for Council terms beginning in 2019 and 2021 would seem like a choice people might make, but maybe that is an answer in itself.

They also suggested they could let voters choose to not change the charter and wait to be sued.  Funny that they didn’t mention that when Modesto choose to ignore the law regarding district elections versus at large elections and it cost taxpayers $3 Million in legal fees to defend at large elections.  And yes, we the  taxpayers,  were finally allowed to capitulate and move to district voting.  Interestingly enough the same people that fought changing to districts were the same ones behind allowing only one option (can you hear me George Petrulakis)?  Those who follow politics know Modesto’s politicians rely on the voters notoriously short memories.  Even the vaunted Modesto Bee with their limited institutional memory has overlooked this.

And during the early session the Council voted to appoint Acting City Manager Joe Lopez to act as their property negotiator for two properties.  The problem was that they hadn’t agendized this.  Later when challenged the City Attorney claimed it wasn’t necessary to have it on the agenda since it was such a small item.  We keep looking through the Brown Act to find this exemption but haven’t been able to find it.

When the City Council, with the help of the City Attorney start playing fast and loose with the rules and the law it’s Modesto’s voters and taxpayers that pay the price.

 

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“The House” Panics and Takes Down The Infamous Video

By Emerson Drake  

The House Modesto take Three:  We’ve all heard the bluster from Pastor Glen Berteau and others regarding his and the church’s endorsement of Stu Gilman for  the MID Board.  The Pastor claims they’ve done nothing wrong and that all the attention for violating IRS regulations and the Johnson Amendment he and the church has been receiving is unjustified.   We’ve done nothing wrong he’s stated.  Yet the good Pastor refuses to go on camera or return our phone calls

But it has become obvious that both the church and the Pastor have blinked.  When you go to the link to the sermon we provided in an earlier story you’ll find that  “This video has been removed by the user” sign on their YouTube page.  If the video proves their innocence why did they remove it?  Sounds like they’re trying to hide the smoking gun.  Last Sunday, 11/5,  we couldn’t help but notice the live 11 am service was a rerun from the week prior.

Channel 40 out of Sacramento finally caught wind of the scandal and has run with the story.  Our only surprise it that it took so long and that others haven’t followed.

This endorsement by a church, a nonprofit 501(c)(3), brings shame on Stu Gilman, his supporters, The House, and all of Modesto.  If you want to endorse candidates for political office pay taxes like the rest of us.  You shouldn’t  pretend to be a church if you’re going to act like a political organization.

 

Complaint Filed Against The House

By Emerson Drake  

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF)  has filed a complaint against Modesto’s ‘The House’.  IN it they allege  The House, being a 501(c) (3), violated I.R.S regulations.  And we believe they violated  the Johnson Act, but that would be for another arena.

Why Pastor Glen Berteau choose to go against the law is something only he can answer.  He has not returned phone calls.  Here is the complaint click on it to enlarge:

 

We don’t believe ANY non-profit 501(c)(3)s  should be endorsing candidates. Both the church ‘The House” through the law, and the candidate (Stu Gilman)  by the ballot box, should be held accountable.  How about you?

Why This MID Election is Important to You

By  Emerson Drake  

Having gone to Modesto Irrigation District (MID) meetings regularly for more than ten years, researched their past, and following them with interest for more than twice that time, that there is no doubt that this election is crucial to MID’s and our future.

When you start to talk about MID people’s eyes have a tendency to glaze over after about 30 seconds, that is unless you are talking to them after they pay an electric bill during a hot spell when they have been using their air conditioning.   The fact is that MID was mismanaged for years by Tom Van Groningen (1993-2013) ,his cohorts on the Board and Allen Short, MID’s General Manager, during those same years.

A short look at MID’s history of business decisions shows an absence of, shall we say, critical thinking. It’s been suggested more than once if they’d flipped a coin instead of being led around by the nose or making the decisions themselves  they could have saved us about $500 Million dollars by the simple chance of the flip. From the geothermal fiasco, to a potential garbage burner to the overpriced (by 30 percent)  McHenry Ave solar farm contract north of town, it was one debacle after another.

Another fact is that a small group of business people led by Bill Lyons, yes the Bill Lyons of Mapes Ranch that wanted to sell our water to San Francisco, have controlled MID’s Board for this same period.  Bill has written checks for $5,000 to his special MID candidates (2 per election)  during contested election years. While his business partners, this year both developers and farmers,  took care of the third MID seat to the same fiscal level. His most recent beneficiaries were Paul Campbell and Jim Mortenson.  Campbell was elected and Mortenson was defeated by Jake Wenger four years ago.

So after they drove into almost $1 Billion dollars in debt what happened next?  Well first of all Larry Byrd, Nick Blom, followed by Jake Wenger two years later,  were elected to the MID Board.  Secondly the cost of natural gas plummeted.  This gave us the profit that people point to.  And what was the prudent course to take?  They started to pay down the debt.

Just as most of us learned as we matured you can’t live off of credit forever so the MID Board did the prudent thing.  It’s not sexy but it is necessary, you have to pay down the debt.  In the past MID, since they aren’t governed by the Public Utilities Commission, had the ability to our raise rates whenever they felt like it.

Our electric rates have been the same since 2011 so if you are feeling the effect of a high electric bill it means you used, like most of us,  a lot of electricity during the 31 days of 100 degree heat recently.

Now we’re faced with the decision of who to elect to the MID Board.  Both men are church going family men and business men.  But politically speaking that’s where the similarity ends. Stu has aligned himself with developers like Paul Zagaris, George Petrulakis, Mani Grewal, and special interest groups like Bill Lyons and company.  Jake has aligned himself with his friends, family, and the average working family.  Stu is a johnny come lately that admits to knowing little but what he’s read in the Bee, and has a penchant for making promises he can’t back up.  Jake has been fiscally responsible when it comes to being our voice on MID and is the most available person I’ve ever known in politics.  As an example if asked a question in person or online he’ll answer it immediately if time permits, and if it doesn’t or you have more questions he’ll give you his personal phone number and either give you the answer or get you the answer to your questions.  Unfortunately Stu isn’t knowledgeable about water or MID at all.  He’s like a one trick pony that looks nice but won’t take you anywhere.

The sound decision to make is to get up off you chair or couch and make sure you vote for Jake Wenger.

 

We Deserve a Better City Council

By Emerson Drake    

Prior City Councils helped to guide us through the recession created by the 2007-2008 financial crisis.  Recently we’ve been  faced with the need to chart a new course for Modesto.   Unfortunately the current council seems to be taking a step backward.  In the last four years we’ve had transparency replaced with obfuscation and thriftiness with a spend-it-like-you’ve-got-it mentality. The most tenured council members are Bill Zoslocki, Jenny Kenoyer, and Tony Madrigal and they just happen to be up for re-election.

No Council oversight:  City staff has run amuck with contracts.  An example is with the Garrett Thompson contract for soft patch, first being signed in 2012, then being doubled in 2014, then tripled from its original numbers in 2016, and the most recent increase was without Council approval.   And Acting City Manager Joe Lopez, tried to slip it in under the radar under a consent item at a recent Council meeting.  He blamed it on human error and accepted no responsibility.

Most recently we’ve been informed about a second contract where we paid $426,452 more than the contract called for.  Again… no real answer as to why this happened.

Should this surprise us?  Probably not since Joe Lopez says more of these financial bombshells will be coming. When will they be coming?  After the election.

Now they want to buy a city block:  The senior three council members, Zoslocki, Kenoyer, and Madrigal, all want to but a city block for $3.1 Million.  They want to use money (steal it would be more accurate) that earlier councils from 1998 to 2008, and we the taxpayers put aside, to build a fleet maintenance facility.  A facility we need since the one we were using was on the land we overpaid for and subsequently sold to the state for the new courthouse.  It doesn’t matter to these three that the same block has been up for sale for years and several developers have been pitched the deal and everyone of them walked away because they determined it wasn’t financially feasible.  When asked what they intend to do with the property, to paraphrase,  their answer was “we don’t have a clue, but it sure sounds like a good idea doesn’t it.”

The Red Lion will never go bankrupt!  As a reminder to put it short and sweet… in Modesto’s past, the city bought and then used the property under what’s now called (oops spoiler alert) the Double Tree as collateral for the Red Lion hotel to be built. It went bankrupt and the city lost the land.  But maybe it’ll be different this time! After all Ryan Swehla and Benchmark have already been offering their management services (for a price) to the city.  Even Craig Lewis offered his services for financial management. Local businessmen always want to get their fingers in our pockets.

Don’t they say that doing the same thing over and over is a sign of insanity?

Under the senior three we watched former City Manager Ted Holgerson threatened to terminate then Fire Chief Slamon which would result in him losing his retirement, if he gave the benefit of his experience and his opinions rather than giving the party line that Holgerson and the senior three wanted.  Because of this, Chief Slamon eventually resigned from his position and took a position with a city half the size of Modesto.

Under the senior three Zoslocki, Kenoyer, and Madrigal, over 14,000 emails weren’t applied to Public Record Requests.  Using private email accounts instead of city accounts to conduct city business is unethical and obfuscating.  These emails went missing during their term in office.  The city attorney has delayed his response to requests for these emails for the last six months.  To date we’ve received approximately six months worth out of three and a half years.

Under the senior three the City’s situation with CalPers and the union retirement accounts has become more dire.  The issue is so serious that according to some the City could possibly face bankruptcy in the next five years.  But the senior three intend to keep on spending like there’s no tomorrow.

The senior three’s experience hasn’t made Modesto more financially sound.  They seem intent on having us crawl further and further out that proverbial limb and refuse to provide the accountability and guidance staff obviously requires.

The senior three have had their chance it’s time for a new starting line-up.

 

 

Is “The House” Breaking the Law?

By Emerson Drake  

During The House’s church service on October 1, 2017 Pastor Glenn Berteau took a few minutes at 36:30 into the service to allow Stu Gilman to ask for the congregations’ support and vote.  Pastor Berteau acknowledged he wasn’t aware that MID had a Board of Directors that the public voted on.  He reminds the congregation Stu is a personal friend of his and a friend of The House along with being a board member of The House.

The church has a large beautiful stage and video system with huge screens which works well for power point presentations in their sanctuary.  During the church service, Stu was invited up on the stage where Pastor Berteau said Stu deserves our support.

One of the first comments out of Stu’s mouth is to say “No one else is running for MID seats this year”.  Which is an outright lie, but hey lets cut him some slack, after all he wants to be a politician.   The Pastor uses Modesto Bee Videos to attack MID employees’ high rate of pay across the board but then claims not to be going after the working man just the Staff and Board.  But in reality the numbers cited in the video are bolstered by the working man, especially linemen, while the  Board makes only $1,000 a month. I guess it shows Stu’s supporters can talk out of both sides of their mouths too.

Stu offers ratepayer rebates (just pie in the sky) but isn’t willing to simply offer lower electric rates.  When pressed, Stu admits to having NEVER attended a MID meeting.  Now we realize working your schedule around meetings can be tough  but come on, Stu owns his own company so it begs the question, not even one meeting?  Why do people keep recruiting members of the public to run for the MID Board that don’t have a clue about what MID does but still think they know how it run it better?  So at the end of his political commercial in the middle of the weekly meeting Stu asks for volunteers to make phone calls and knock on doors and would they please join him at his table at the back of the room.

The big sendoff:  Pastor Berteau says “This is church.  Is this a church you say?  Absolutely! It’s not just in this building. We care for our city and the people in our city. I tell politicians that as a Pastor, I know more about this city than you do.”  He goes on to ask Stu to let him know when the other districts come up for a vote so he can let the congregation know so we can get the right people in there.

I don’t know about you but we don’t like non-profits to be telling people which candidate to vote for.  If they want to support a cause that’s fine but if you want to run a candidate or a slate of candidates then start by giving up your non-profit status and start paying taxes.

In the video the Pastor says he doesn’t shy away from controversy. But unfortunately Pastor Berteau was did not return our calls for comment regarding this article.  We will follow-up if he has anything  to say.

Addendum 10/18/2017:  The Freedom from Religion Foundation has been contacted and they will be filing a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service ( IRS ). So yes what The House and Pastor Glen Berteau  are doing IS illegal.

 

Modesto’s Police Chief Used Public Funds to Hide Energy Theft By Chamber CEO

By Emerson Drake   

In a Public Record Request (PPR) just received yesterday it was revealed that Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll is using taxpayer  money from his budget to pay for electricity being stolen by Chamber of Commerce CEO Cecil Russell for his gated community’s security cameras.

We’ve told this story before but the recent developments are disturbing to say the least.  In July/August of 2016, Cecil Russell fronting for the his Chateau Provence Homeowners Association, used Rank Security to mount three cameras from city light poles and then had Rank’s workforce illegally tie into the poll’s power supply without Modesto Irrigation Districts’ knowledge or approval.  This theft of electricity went unnoticed until a sharp eyed MID worker spotted the illegal cameras and power hook-ups.

In an email to the city December 6th, 2016, MID pointed out the theft and asked the city to make the appropriate disconnect.  In a series of emails obtained through a PPR it was learned that city staff was preparing to unhook the illegal instillation until the MPD Chief Galen Carroll intervened.  This was all documented in our 3/3/2017  story.  We also learned that Chamber lobbyist and CEO Russell had not applied for any of the easily available permits despite suggestions to the contrary by Chief Carroll.

Why the deception?  As Dave Boring (member of the Chamber of Commerce) told the Council a few weeks ago: “We’re the movers and shakers, you need to take care of us”, talk about self entitled. The way we see it the only thing that makes sense is they just didn’t care.  After all if you have the Police Chief pulling strings to keep your little project afloat (by avoiding being arrested and by paying for electricity) and away from the public eye, why bother following the law. And don’t buy the story that there should be an easier way to get this approved because only an elitist wouldn’t even bother to pull the necessary paperwork to apply, which by the way was discovered in another PPR.

Grand Theft?  Well if you total the monies owed to MID  and now the city for the illegal instillation, electricity theft, meter instillation and having to rewire at least one of the connections for being faulty, it comes to significantly more than the $1,000 threshold required by law for Grand Theft.

The most current claim they are making, which we’ve only heard since this malfeasance of using public funds to pay for a politically connected, well-to-do gated community’s electric bill,  is the city is going to create a program where the city will have the camera’s bill sent to them for the gated subdivision to pay.  But why the delay you ask?  After all the theft has been going on for over 14 months and the city has been paying for over 6 months.  We don’t have the answer to that but the city started paying the bill in May and is still paying the bill and yet there’s no program for reimbursement.  It seems the only thing moving them forward is us exposing what’s been going on.

So you probably won’t surprised to learn the Graceada Park camera bill has been going to the city and hasn’t been being paid by Rank Security like you’ve been told (yes the Bee was given erroneous  information too).

Just so you know the City Council has been made aware several times of the electricity theft by the Chamber’s CEO.  It is one of the reasons Councilman Bill Zoslocki melted down at a recent City Council meeting and started attacking the citizen informing them.  But we can’t say for sure if they were aware of the MPD using taxpayer money to support certain ‘special’  neighborhoods electric bills.  We do know that Joe Lopez has been aware the whole time and it’s just another reason to pass on him for the Permanent City Manager position.

It’s time for the silence to end.

Modesto, Transparency, and City Attorney Adam Lindgren

By Emerson Drake  

Every time we have a change in regime change in politics,  local or national the incoming politicians promise transparency in government.  In this regard Modesto is no different.  But promises from candidates are many times forgotten as soon as the votes are counted.

Sometime the promises are just so much hot air and sometimes the recently elected have no idea the challenges they’ll face trying to make staff holdovers understand their true commitment.  After a short conversation with Mayor Brandvold I came away with his desire for more openness in Modesto’s government.  At the time I expressed concerns about this NOT happening  because of City Attorney Adam Lindgren.

After a somewhat longer conversation with the City Attorney we feel our concerns were well founded.  The topic was the recent Ethics Workshop held in council chambers with Council members, the Modesto Police Department higher ups, and the decision makers on city staff.

Workshops, especially Brown Act Workshops, (meaning three or more members of the council are scheduled to attend) have been a touchy issue for years.  The City liked to schedule the workshop meetings in smaller venues than the council chambers.  Whether it’s the small room under the stairs in the basement of 1010 10th or on the second floor, room 2005, these rooms aren’t setup for video recording.

Attorney Lindgren reminds us that in the past (already a resistance to change or an desire to maintain status quo?) the city hasn’t recorded and then made available to the public ANY workshops.  For the record we’ve protested this decision repeatedly.  Why is this important you ask?  The groundwork for many of the decisions the Council will be making comes from these workshop/meetings.

Just one example is since December of 2013 and Bill Zoslocki, Jenny Kenoyer, and Tony Madrigal taking office more than 14,000 pieces of correspondence (read emails) have been kept from public scrutiny.  We wondered if this was due to the ethics training they received from the City Attorney so we made a Public Record Request.  At first we were told even the most recent one would not be available to the public.  This seemed strange since they had created a ‘lending library’ of copies for any city employee to sign out that missed the training.  But we wanted to be able to compare the instructions they received recently to the ones they received when they first took office.

The City Attorney’s office finally relented and agreed to give us a copy of the most current disc but the only other disc that could be found (surprise, surprise) is from 2012. Notice that’s from before the current occupants of the council seats were present.  Adam actually said the city doesn’t have to give or make available to the public copies of workshops.  Lets think this through.  Brown Act meetings, workshops,  paid for by the tax payers that are none of the citizens business?

Lets compare this to the Modesto Irrigation District.  The MID has ALL of their workshops scheduled for after regular meetings, which the public can attend, can participate in, and  are streamed live and available to be watched 24/7/365 online.  Now that’s transparency.

In Modesto the City Attorney says (paraphrased) these are workshops and they don’t need to be recorded and if you can’t make the meeting that’s just too bad.  This includes all of Modesto’s workshops from Finance, Community and Economic, to Parks and Rec, to the Utility Dept.

Is this Transparency?  We don’t think so.  Do you?

 

City Staff’s SNAFU or is it something Worse? The $2.1 M Boondoggle

By Emerson Drake  

The Council meeting last week 9/12/17 was confusing and disconcerting so lets go over the numbers, so we’re all on the same page.

On 9/25/12 the Council authorized a five year contract with Garrett Thompson for hot patch work (street repair from water meter installation and small water main repairs) for $749,700 per year totaling $3.748 Million. Within two years the city had spent 75% of the money. So on 12/9/14 two years into the contract staff came back and asked for and received another $3.1 Million to be added to the original agreement.

On 12/15/15 the Finance staff increased the purchasing authority to $9.6 Million WITHOUT the Council’s approval.  And last week staff tried to slide a $2.2 Million catch-up/increase on the consent calendar on a week when it was known it was going to be a short meeting because the Council had to be in Riverbank for joint meeting with the Riverbank City Council.

First of all it’s almost the old bait and switch. Staff tells the Council that $3.748 Million will pay for five years of hot patches and then the amount spent goes up 250%.  It wasn’t cost overruns or because of change orders like Tony ‘the clueless one’ Madrigal  wondered.  Yes, Garrett was the low cost bidder but the contract was by the square foot and that price didn’t go up, city staff just kept ordering more patches and spending money that hadn’t been authorized.

Deanna Christensen claimed someone had entered erroneous numbers multiple times into the city’s Oracle financial system.  The Oracle system was purchased in 2010 at the cost of $7.4 Million and was supposed to prevent just this kind of problem. And to protect the citizens the questions of whether inducements were offered to make the mistakes or could the missing contract language and oversight be intentional?

Among other questions we have are did staff intentionally put out to bid a RFP that could never cover all the worked scheduled/planned?  Was easier to get Council’s buy in for a much smaller amount than was needed figuring then it would be easy to up the approval in the future? If it was the latter then it worked.

Talk about a lack of trust.    Kristi Ah You asked Mayor Brandvold how the search was coming for an in house auditor. His reply was he’d been working on it the last few weeks. But why the questions about an auditor?  We already have an independent outside firm, Moss Adams, auditing anything they’re asked to audit.  The Council wants someone that reports to them at more than twice the cost and not to the City Manager.  If you don’t trust Joe Lopez, and we don’t, then get rid of him and look outside for someone else.  As an aside you might not want to hire someone that works for the headhunters you hire like you did the last time.

Zoslocki, Kenoyer, and Madrigal all voted for the second expansion of the contract and have been there during the boondoggle.  All of them seemed concerned but appeared to be willing to vote to pay the $306,000 that night (but only Kenoyer was willing to verbalize her thoughts).  Doug Ridenour made some of his usual comments that he doesn’t believe in emotional decisions or feelgood proposals but never actually said what those might be.

Zoslocki claimed he talks with respect and doesn’t let emotion enter into his thinking.  That would have drawn a laugh from the audience the night of the General Plan discussion after he melted down and verbally attacked a speaker who showed Zoslocki was hiding his council communications from the public.  And talking about Kenoyer, there is still the video where she rants “If you work for the city, I’m the boss of you”.

The bottom line is it doesn’t take 10 to 12 weeks to discover how and when the erroneous changes were inputted.  It doesn’t take 10-12 weeks to know who was involved.  You don’t get a contract from the city and not know how much it’s worth. For trying to slide this by on consent, Joe Lopez should be gone.  Zoslocki, Kenoyer, and Madrigal by their actions and disconnect don’t deserve to be on the Council.  All three would like nothing better than to have this be swept under the rug until after the elections. And last but not least Garrett Thompson should not be allowed to bid in the current RFP.   People need to be held accountable starting with our elected officials.

 

 

 

EyeonModesto is coming to the Airwaves Near You

By Emerson Drake  

In order to help the residents of Modesto and Stanislaus County stay better informed  about what is going on in local government and maybe even more importantly, why it’s happening, we’ll be going on the air on 93.3 FM KPHD Modesto and 104.9 FM KGIG  Salida.

 

This answers the burning question of  “Who Will Tell The People?”   With,  “We will tell the people.”

 

We’ll be interviewing on air, politicians and candidates for you to get to know and giving you our honest opinion supported by public record requests and actually being at or viewing the MID,  City Council,  and County Board meetings, and talking with our elected officials.

 

A big Thanks to Brad Johnson and everyone involved in bringing the show to a radio near you.  Details to follow.

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