Riverbank has had more political and financial tumult than any other city in our county over the past four years. Many of the issues are still at play in this election, when voters will choose a mayor and fill two council seats.
The Bee's editorial board met with the two candidates for mayor and will offer a recommendation for that position only.
Incumbent Virginia Madueño is being challenged by Councilman Richard O'Brien in what is basically a rematch from 2009, when there were six candidates in the field. Madueño narrowly defeated O'Brien that year, and then he went on to run successfully for the council in 2010, coming out first in a field of nine candidates.
As is usually the case, both candidates have strengths and weaknesses.
Madueño, who owns a public relations firm, has been something of a cheerleader for the city, working directly with existing businesses and prospective businesses. She's also been heavily involved with other mayors in discussions about growth and regional cooperation on services. No one can deny the time she devotes to her city, both as mayor and in a variety of community activities.
We're troubled, however, by her defensiveness about some of the city's serious financial problems, which relate to decisions that she participated in. Those include the decision to walk away from the debt the city ran up as a redevelopment agency with the purchase of the Del Rio Theater and downtown improvement projects.
We also disagree with the $53,000 that the council majority spent in legal fees to try to oust troubled young Councilman Jesse James White from office. O'Brien was the lone councilman to vote against that expenditure. Today the point is moot as White's term is up and fortunately he is not seeking re-election.
She erred in the preparation of a video that used businesses at the Riverbank ammo plant testifying to their success. They should have been fully notified up front that this was a campaign video, not something to promote the city.
O'Brien, a former Navy commander who works as a store manager for his family's supermarket chain, has a much narrower view of the role of mayor and he wants to focus on the city's finances and, like Madueño, encourage job development.
His candidacy is being supported by some people, including a former mayor, who have been trying to undercut Madueño for years. A Riverbank chapter of a group called Citizens For Accountability invites tips on corruption or stupid decisions by the city. There's no doubt that Madueño is its target as her photo and only her photo appears on the group's Web site.
Is race a factor in this tension? Some think so. We're not sure, but there's no doubt that Madueño has detractors who are as passionate as some of her supporters.
Our more serious concern about O'Brien has to do with something that has gotten no attention in this race: The potential for a real or perceived conflict of interest if O'Brien becomes mayor and is working with or against his nephew, county Supervisor Bill O'Brien, on the many issues that the county and all of the cities address together.
During our editorial board meeting with the two candidates, Richard O'Brien dismissed the suggestion of any conflict. We disagree, especially with the county and cities needing to hammer out tax sharing agreements and with decisions on growth boundaries likely to be tied to those agreements. The county works closely with cities on regional roads, such as the North County Corridor, and other services. The potential for conflict is not short-term and isolated, but ongoing and broad.
Madueño has shortcomings as mayor. We would like to see her be less thin-skinned and more pragmatic about the challenges that her city faces. But there's no doubt of her dedication to Riverbank and to seeing it improve, and we recommend her re-election as mayor.