Modesto resident Sebastian Jones talked to the City Council this week during public comment about the injustice of car washes that require customers to buy tokens and then don’t give refunds for the unused ones. Jones raised the same issue with the council a few months ago.
Councilman Tony Madrigal updated Jones on the city’s efforts to resolve this and thanked him for keeping the matter before the council.
“I haven’t forgotten about this,” Madrigal said. “I’m still on topic. ... Keep coming back until you get an answer. That’s what we are here for.”
It looked and sounded like the typical interaction between a city resident and a council member. It’s during public comment that residents can address the council with their concerns.
But Jones is a volunteer field representative for Madrigal, who was elected to Council District 2 in November. That means Jones attends events that Madrigal cannot and serves as an extra set of eyes and ears for the councilman. Jones figures he has attended 10 events on behalf of Madrigal, wearing a name tag identifying himself as the councilman’s representative.
No other council member has a field representative.
Jones and Madrigal said they don’t see anything wrong in not disclosing their affiliation when Jones speaks during public comment. Jones has spoken at other council meetings, including last month, when he spoke on behalf of his sister because she was having trouble with the nonprofit agency that provides her with housing.
Madrigal said it’s up to speakers to decide how much they want to disclose about their connection with a person or issue. He said there can be a tendency for people to give more weight to the messenger and not enough to their message. “People want to focus on who is saying it and not on what they are saying,” he said. “When people come to public comment, they want to be listened to based on their concerns and not who they are.”
Jones said he is a longtime community activist and when he speaks before the council, he is raising his own concerns, not Madrigal’s. The two said the comments and their exchanges are not orchestrated, and Jones does not get special treatment.
In California, the principle is for speakers to disclose their affiliations or connections, said Larry Giventer, professor emeritus in the department of political science and public administration at California State University, Stanislaus, though he added that can be difficult to enforce.
But Giventer said this instance is a wobbler for him.
He said a cynical person could view Jones and Madrigal not disclosing their affiliation as being similar to a politician putting someone in the audience to ask him flattering questions. Giventer said someone less cynical could conclude that Jones does not have to disclose his connection to Madrigal because he is an unpaid volunteer and has the same right to express himself during public comment as anyone else. “My personal preference is I’d rather see the affiliations,” Giventer said. “But I can see both sides on this issue.”
Madrigal said Jones is one of seven unpaid, volunteer field representatives who attend events on his behalf and keep him updated. Madrigal said sometimes he and some of his field reps will attend the same event. Madrigal said he got the idea for field reps from his experience serving as one for Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, in 2011-12.
Madrigal said Maggie Mejia, with the Latino Community Roundtable, is his only other rep to speak before the City Council. She spoke at the council’s Jan. 28 meeting in favor of a proposal to set aside more land for business parks and similar development for their job potential. She did not disclose her relationship with Madrigal.