Accusations flew and tempers flared as all nine mayors in Stanislaus County gathered to decide if one of their own should continue representing them on a growth-guiding panel that suddenly doesn’t seem so obscure.
For 3 1/2 hours Wednesday, some of Hughson Mayor Matt Beekman’s counterparts accused him of traitorous conduct for discounting their wishes in a March vote on farmland preservation, while most speakers in a full audience stridently defended him and charged his accusers of manipulative politicking.
“This meeting is really about what puppet you’re going to put on the dais to say what you want him to say,” said audience member Lina Alldredge of Wood Colony.
The mayoral majority ultimately decided to decide later. In two months, they’ll reconvene to weigh whether Beekman will have done enough to redeem himself and continue serving as a city representative on the Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission, which rules on cities’ annexation requests.
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Beekman, who feels he did no wrong, remained puzzled Thursday morning at what the other mayors want, and frustrated that Wednesday night’s fireworks seemed to accomplish little.
“We should have been able to figure it out, either way,” he said, adding, “I don’t feel like I got clear direction.”
County Counsel John Doering advised the mayors that their sole duty as members of a selection committee was to choose who would represent them on LAFCO, not to give Beekman marching orders to save his LAFCO seat. The mayors largely ignored that, the majority voting to pursue a compromise and return in 60 days.
At the heart of the controversy was LAFCO’s 3-2 approval in March of a formula for calculating how much money developers should pay cities when replacing farmland with homes or other buildings. Cities say the price is too high and the formula challenges their authority over land-use decisions, while farm advocates contend it’s fair and represents only one of three options that cities can choose for preserving farmland.
Beekman joined county representatives to narrowly approve the formula, prompting the mayors to call for Wednesday’s meeting to consider replacing him on the commission. Some mayors said the LAFCO vote should be reversed; others said it’s water under the bridge, but wanted to address Beekman’s failure to follow the direction of most mayors.
“We selected you thinking you would fairly represent us,” Riverbank Mayor Richard O’Brien told Beekman. “When seven cities say, ‘Don’t go forward with this,’ and you did, it shows disregard for our opinion, that you’d already made up your mind.”
Waterford Mayor Mike Van Winkle said, “Having this rammed down our throats is what I’m upset about. There should have been more discussion.”
“People were saying, ‘Time out; we need to slow down,’ ” agreed Patterson Mayor Luis Molina. “That’s not what happened.”
Two audience members agreed, but they were outnumbered by 24 people standing up for farmland preservation, Beekman or both. The room broke into applause at comments supporting the mayor of Hughson, the county’s smallest city.
“God bless you, Mayor Beekman; thank you for representing all the cities and citizens,” said Katherine Borges of Salida.
“No one has the right to take those convictions away from him – no one,” said Hughson’s Marie Assali.
Modesto’s Christopher Aggers said, “If you vote to remove him, you’re feeding that cynicism in the community.”
Mayors of the county’s two largest cities – Modesto’s Garrad Marsh and Turlock’s Gary Soiseth – also defended Beekman.
“Here we have someone who did not do anything illegal, immoral or unethical and is very qualified to represent all cities on LAFCO, and he made a judgment call,” Soiseth said.
Marsh noted that “angry emails” were “flying” among “perturbed” mayors “the day after the vote.”
“I believe Matt and the LAFCO body were following the law,” Marsh said. “They saw a major loophole (in farmland preservation policy) and were trying to give a remedy for that, though it may not have been reached in a collaborative process. I think it could have been done better.”
Beekman acknowledged that going slower may have been wiser, as did County Supervisor Terry Withrow, a LAFCO member who spoke from the audience.
“This is a bad spot we’ve gotten to. It’s become emotional and way past the issues,” Withrow said. “If we had known there was that much angst and more time would have eased it ... I would have been willing to put this off,” he said, adding that a delay might not have changed his vote.
Several speakers said the ugliness of the high-level skirmish overshadows progress made by leaders.
“These are pretty dark days for us,” Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra said, pondering how to patch hurt feelings.
County Supervisor Vito Chiesa said the mayors’ group had gone from “most functional” to “most dysfunctional” with an economic price to pay. “This is going to be a black eye for the community as we’re trying to attract business,” he said.
“It seems absurd,” said Amanda Sorensen of Salida, comparing the mayoral majority to “a 16-year-old girl who got a BMW instead of a Mercedes for her birthday.”
Barbara Swier of Hughson said, “To find out this great idea devolved into this embarrassing fiasco is too sad for words.”
Rhett Calkins of Hughson had a different take. “This is what politics is supposed to be about; we’re supposed to disagree and have it out in public,” he said.
Garth Stapley: (209) 578-2390