RIVERBANK -- After Rizo Lopez Foods left town with its more than 230 employees, Mayor Virginia Madueño helped bring in Compass Foods, a chicken processor that could employ as many as 50 workers by the end of this year.
Madueño, who is running for re-election Nov. 6, has touted her economic development record and has pointed to Compass Foods as one of her successes.
But here's the rub: Compass Foods is leasing a building owned by Rizo Lopez, which gave $2,000 to Madueño's re-election campaign and used her public-relations firm when it held its open house last month at its new Modesto location.
An expert in government ethics said this relationship raises questions about the mayor.
"The question mark for me is how all of this fits together," said Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
Nadler also is a former Santa Clara mayor. She said it's important for Madueño to explain the nature of her relationships with people who do business with the city and give her money. Besides the $2,000 contribution from Rizo Lopez, the owner of Compass Foods and one of Rizo Lopez's owners each gave $500 toward Madueño's re-election campaign.
"Perception is everything," Nadler said. "Some would say it's great that she's bringing in jobs. Others would say there's the perception that she's doing stuff that benefits her, and that erodes the public's trust."
Nadler also is troubled by Madueño's recent filming of a video at the former Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant, which the city is developing into an industrial park. The video stars Madueño as she interviews officials from five businesses at the plant.
Madueño has said that her campaign made the video to promote the plant and that the video would have a disclosure saying it does not constitute an endorsement of her by the businesses. But Madueño planned to put the video on her campaign Web site and Facebook page, as well as hand out copies to voters.
"As you have described it, to me it looks and sounds like classic campaign material," Nadler said. She said if the mayor's intent were to promote the plant, then the city should have produced the video.
"The problem," Nadler said, "is the mayor is not speaking on behalf of the city, but as a candidate for re-election. A promotional video about this plant would logically come from the city and be on their Web site."
After saying last month that the video would be used in her campaign, Madueño said in an e-mail Friday that she was not sure whether the video would be finished before the election.
The mayor elaborated about the video in another Friday e-mail: "As for the video, I'm proud that Riverbank has brought new business to the ammunitions plant. The businesses showcased in the video are clearly proud as well. The video will be used to bring new business to our community and share the success that the ammo plant has become.
"That was the intention when it was made, and it will be used in that way. My sole focus is getting our community back to work. I look forward to an engaged dialogue on the urgent, legitimate issues that face our region."
Nadler said Madueño's remarks answered no questions. "It's just a statement of her platform," Nadler said.
Madueño said she did the public-relations work for Rizo Lopez for free and as a favor to one of the owners, who she said is a friend.
Regarding the campaign contributions, Madueño said questions should be directed to those who made them. Rizo Lopez officials did not return a phone call seeking comment. But Compass Foods owner Thomas Mathias said there is nothing underhanded or untoward in his relationship with Madueño.
Mathias, who recently relocated his business from Waterford to Riverbank, said that more than two years ago, he told one of the Rizo Lopez owners that if the Riverbank building ever became available, he wanted it. Mathias said that was before he ever met Madueño.
He added that Madueño helped him by getting city staff to be more focused in working with him and that no corners were cut or rules skirted to help him. Mathias said before Madueño got involved, he was considering relocating to Turlock because of the difficulties he faced with Riverbank officials.
Mathias said he gave to Madueño's re-election campaign because she understands the importance of City Hall working with business.
But Nadler said there still are questions for the mayor to answer, such as exactly what she did to help Compass Foods and whether she offers that help to all businesses.
"I'm not saying there is anything wrong, but it raises questions," Nadler said.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.