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August 9, 2010

Ashton: Time for that 'vision thing'

What's next, Modesto? That question was on residents' minds eight years ago as then Mayor Carmen Sabatino announced his plans to run for re-election the following year.

What's next, Modesto?

That question was on residents' minds eight years ago as then Mayor Carmen Sabatino announced his plans to run for re-election the following year.

The answer was not Sabatino, the outsider who scored a surprise win in 1999.

He lost his re-election campaign to Jim Ridenour, Sabatino's polar opposite in style and substance.

Since then, voters haven't had an opportunity to reassess the question. Ridenour cruised to re-election in 2007 without a challenger. The City Council, meanwhile, has kept a steady balance in viewpoints even as seats changed hands.

The result: If you didn't like your city government seven years ago, you don't like it now. If you did, you're probably about ready to see some new leaders step up.

So it's a good time to start asking what kind of mayor should follow Ridenour.

"It might be time to talk about the vision thing again," said former Mayor Carol Whiteside.

Should that mayor be someone who keeps the lights on and the budget balanced, reflecting realistic goals as Modesto emerges from the recession?

Should the city's next leader shake up the powerful, as Sabatino did?

Or should a mayor have that "vision thing" to project a Modesto that wouldn't keep turning up on lists of miserable places to live?

Whiteside's looking for the latter.

"As we come out of the recession, we ought to be talking about quality of life ... the package of things you expect from a city this size," she said.

After seven years, Ridenour's fingerprints are all over City Hall.

During his tenure, the city dealt with unsexy subjects such as a sewer plant expansion while keeping the budget balanced in the worst economy since the Great Depression. He pivoted the city to embrace regionalized and privatized services to save taxpayers' cash.

Ridenour's council also accomplished a couple of political reforms that Sabatino wanted but couldn't build a consensus to execute: raising the pay of elected officials and instituting district elections for council races. Those changes could open Modesto to new political voices over time.

Ridenour did the work without drawing much attention to himself, a counterpoint to Sabatino's years when council meetings sometimes lasted past midnight, for good or ill.

But the council with Ridenour has been the opposite of Sabatino's in another way. Unlike the bunch who sat on the council with Sabatino, the current group can give residents the impression that it's an exclusive body whose members disagree over little aside from zoning disputes.

Two council members likely are going to run for mayor next year, and the field could open up with candidates with business or public safety backgrounds.

City Councilman Brad Hawn has both feet in the mayor's race, and Councilman Garrad Marsh is rumored to be getting ready to run, too. They have virtually indistinguishable voting records on the council, but they have different politics and different bases on which to draw if they follow through.

Hawn is a Republican, an artist, an engineer, and he's the guy who takes on some of the grunt work on utilities and budgets on the council.

Marsh is a Democrat, a supporter of nonprofit groups, the owner of McHenry Bowl, and he's best known for advocating slow-growth policies.

Next year, rake 'em over the coals and get them to tell you, "What's next, Modesto?"

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at or 578-2366.

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