Jeff Jardine

January 29, 2014

Jeff Jardine: Wood Colony, Salida residents send loud message to their elected officials

Actions by the Modesto City Council and the Oakdale Irrigation District board fired up their constituencies in ways they haven’t seen in a while.

In the days when the Giants played at Candlestick Park, staff would hand out a little orange button to reward each fan still there at the end of an extra-inning night game in the cold and windy concrete edifice.

Known as a “Croix de Candlestick,” the badge of honor represented perseverance, loyalty to the cause and, just maybe someday, a collector’s item.

Tuesday night, those who stayed until nearly 1 a.m. deserved a Croix de Council as they exited the chamber at 1010 10th St. after a meeting that lasted nearly 71/2 hours, though such a mere trinket would have made a lousy consolation prize.

More than 300 people from Wood Colony and Salida came to the meeting to make impassioned pleas and, as it turned out, a futile attempt to keep their respective communities out of Modesto’s long-term growth plans. As expected, the council ultimately voted against them.

A long night, indeed, made longer because their agenda item didn’t take center stage until more than two hours into the meeting. The city’s presentation included a PowerPoint shell game of displaying in rapid succession an array of maps and alternative maps that confused some of the council members and sent heads spinning in the gallery as well. And with dozens upon dozens of speakers pouring their hearts out while pleading for the city to leave them alone, the meeting dragged into Wednesday morning.

But that meeting, along with a water district meeting in Oakdale, sent messages to the local policymakers that they would be fools not to heed. Impose your will enough upon the people you serve, or want to, and you risk riling them in ways you’d have never imagined.

Over the past decade or so, government agencies that are supposed to be visible and accessible and do their business in public have instead become increasingly reclusive, inaccessible and in some cases, deceitful and arrogant. Some claim they welcome and appreciate public input, yet find any excuse to make the real decisions in closed sessions (see new Stanislaus County Courthouse site selection). Information once easily available now requires a formal Freedom of Information or California Pubic Records request, and then officials complain about the staff time, in an era of reduced staffing, that it takes to provide the information.

And for the longest time, residents seemed reticent about stating their opinions, if they had any at all. That changed Tuesday night, and for the better.

For months, farmers in Wood Colony and residents of Salida repeatedly and unequivocally told Modesto they don’t want to be part of the city, nor to have their neighborhoods designated for industrial or commercial uses. The city is forging ahead anyway. That more than 100 people spoke against the plan and only three spoke in favor of it Tuesday night was telling. The crowd filled the council chambers and spilled into the overflow room. That many of the speakers promised payback either in the form of recalls or voting council members out of office in the next regular elections didn’t go unnoticed. Council member Jenny Kenoyer, the most obvious target of their anger, prefaced her voting at the night’s end by telling the gallery she couldn’t be influenced by threats of a recall.

Meanwhile, the Oakdale Irrigation District wanted some of its farmers to let their fields go fallow, then sell their water to farmers in Fresno and Kern counties, and wanted to make the decision in a hastily called special closed-session meeting Jan. 23. But when The Modesto Bee discovered and reported the plan that day, farmers and ranchers came out in force. The parking lot was filled with pickups, their beds laden with hay and grain sacks, and one towing a trailer tank of liquid feed. They, too, overflowed the chamber and clogged the hallway to make their opinions known.

They had more success in reaching the electeds than did the Wood Colony and Salida folks. The OID board voted to send out an informational flier describing the fallowing program and sale. A few days later, they called another special meeting to re-vote on the flier and rescinded the decision. They grounded the flier and, at least for the time being, the water sale as well.

What’s important here is that public participation made for a couple of really uncomfortable meetings for the elected officials and staff. That’s what happens when they threaten a way of life or try to sell their constituents’ water in closed session. They riled once-sleeping folks who happen to have great memories, and who stayed to until the end.

If that didn’t have a chilling effect, it should. Croix de Council buttons all around? No, thanks.

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