RIVERBANK -- Voters will choose between two familiar names for mayor this fall: incumbent Virginia Madueño and Councilman Richard O'Brien.
While the two agree on many of the issues facing the city, such as the importance of developing the former Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant into an industrial park and bringing more businesses to downtown, they offer voters stark differences in how they would lead the city.
Madueño, 46, owns a public relations, marketing and community outreach firm. She has been a tireless advocate for economic development. She was elected in November 2009 to fill the remaining term of a mayor who had resigned.
Madueño has taken a hands-on approach. For about six months, she's worked with Modesto-based business consultant External Resources to have the company provide free advice to Riverbank firms.
"She really wants to make a difference and bring jobs in," External Resources Chief Executive Officer Stu Gilman said.
Madueño also has worked as a facilitator, helping businesses get through the red tape at City Hall.
Compass Foods owner Thomas Mathias said the mayor was invaluable when he recently relocated his chicken processing business from Waterford to Riverbank.
Mathias said he started running into road blocks with Riverbank officials and even considered relocating to Turlock until Madueño got involved.
"What Virginia was able to do was facilitate the stuff that we needed to get done," said Mathias, who said he expects his business to grow from 17 workers to as many as 50 in a few months once he ramps up all of his product lines.
Madueño said the top issue she hears from voters is jobs. She said voters are telling her they are working in the Bay Area but want to work closer to home, are out of work and need a job, or are working part time and want full-time work.
Madueño said she is using the same approach of being an advocate and facilitator in her work with neighborhoods and community groups to ensure Riverbank keeps the small-town quaintness and charm that has attracted people here to raise their families.
But she also has faced criticism during her tenure, with some of it coming last week when The Bee wrote about her plan to put on her campaign's Facebook page and Web site a video promoting the former ammo plant and starring her.
The 12-minute video features Madueño interviewing officials from five ammo plant businesses. Four of the officials told The Bee the mayor did not tell them the video would be used in her re-election campaign.
Madueño insists she told the businesses the video would be part of her campaign and took responsibility for any misunderstandings.
She also was part of the council majority that voted last year to use the courts to try to remove embattled Councilman Jesse James White from office. O'Brien opposed spending taxpayer money on the court fight.
White, 23, has been a political embarrassment since his November 2008 election. He has been arrested twice in incidents involving drugs or alcohol and has feuded with city officials. He survived a county civil grand jury report that called for his ouster because he was not a registered city voter when he took out his papers for council.
In February, the council abandoned using the courts to oust White after spending $53,000 in legal costs. The council concluded the matter could end up costing the city more than $100,000 and White's council term may have expired before the matter was resolved.
White is not running for re-election.
Madueño also was part of a council majority that voted in January to not assume the responsibility for the $15.4 million in debt issued by the city's redevelopment agency. Riverbank issued the debt in 2007 to eliminate blight and spur economic development, such as rebuilding downtown and buying the landmark Del Rio
But the agency's finances nose-dived in the real estate crash, and it was not bringing in enough property taxes to meet its annual debt payments. A council majority voted to abandon the debt when given that choice as part of the state's plan to abolish redevelopment agencies across California.
A board appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown is unwinding the former Riverbank agency's financial affairs. The board faces defaulting on the debt in 2013.
O'Brien, 61, said voters are telling him Riverbank has an image and credibility problem, in part because of the council's decision regarding its redevelopment agency debt.
He said that decision will have consequences. "There will be a time when we will have to borrow money again, and people will remember that," said O'Brien, who is a retired Navy commander and manages one of his family's three grocery stores.
He was troubled that the council did not talk about restructuring the debt or contacting the debtholders before voting to abandon it. He favored Riverbank attempting to repay its debt, saying that the city had benefited from redevelopment and had an obligation to honor its obligations.
Madueño defended her decisions on White and the redevelopment debt. She said White's behavior has not honored the trust voters placed in him when they elected him and it has detracted from the city's efforts to recruit business. She said walking away from the debt was a very difficult but necessary decision to safeguard funding for essential city services.
Madueño said she has kept her promise to voters to restore integrity to the council and bring in jobs. She said under her leadership the city is gaining momentum. "We as a community are moving forward," she said. "We have a vision and a plan and we need to cultivate that vision and plan to create vibrancy. People are looking for opportunities. And the train is moving in a forward direction."
O'Brien seeks shift
O'Brien, who was elected to the council in November 2010, said he's also troubled by what he sees as a series of poor decisions by the city in the past few years, such as spending $1.7 million for the Del Rio Theater.
The city planned to turn it into a performing arts center. But it did not have the money to renovate the 1940s-era theater and eventually condemned the building. Madueño served on the council that approved purchasing the Del Rio in 2006.
O'Brien said Madueño is a formidable opponent. "She's very charismatic," he said. "She's very good at presenting herself. I'm clumsy and she's very fluid."
But O'Brien said he has analytical and problem-
solving skills honed during his more than quarter-
century in the Navy, where he was tasked with getting projects done on time and on or under budget. He said those skills will help the city avoid repeating the mistakes it made in the past.
O'Brien said he wants to spur economic development, in part, by looking at lowering Riverbank's development fees. He also wants to improve the customer service and business skills at City Hall.
"We have some of the greatest employees, but they are not always attuned to the customer's needs," he said.
For instance, O'Brien said that when he had solar energy installed at his home, it took the company about six weeks to get Riverbank to approve the plans. O'Brien said the firm told him it typically takes three to five days to get plans approved by other valley cities.
O'Brien said that as mayor, he would explore using solar energy to power city operations. He said there might even be enough power to provide electricity to Riverbank homes and businesses.
He proposes borrowing the millions of dollars the city has in its system development fee accounts to install a solar energy system. The city could repay the loan through the savings it would generate by eliminating its electric bills.
He said the project also would help Riverbank in its efforts to transform the former ammo plant into an industrial park featuring clean and green technology businesses.
"I think we need a new direction and I can lead the city to create job growth," he said. "I have a clear vision of where the city can go."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2316.
The League of Women Voters of Stanislaus County will hold a candidate forum Oct. 11 in the Riverbank Community Center, 3600 Santa Fe St. The forum is scheduled to run from 6 to 8 p.m. and features Virginia Madueño and Richard O'Brien in the race for mayor and the seven candidates running for two City Council seats.
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