Modesto’s voters will choose among some familiar names when they pick a mayor in a few weeks, and whoever wins will face some familiar problems, including how to grow the economy, make the city safer and provide essential services after years of budget cuts.
The candidates are incumbent Garrad Marsh, who is seeking his second term, architect and former Planning Commissioner Ted Brandvold, Councilman Dave Lopez and former mayor and self-described government watchdog Carmen Sabatino. Lopez is facing questions over how he spent campaign funds when he ran for the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors last year, including an $831 hotel stay at Pacific Grove to learn about efforts to deal with panhandling and homelessness.
Armando Arreola also is on the ballot. The 52-year-old unemployed man garnered nearly 4.5 percent of the vote when he ran for mayor in 2011. He did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
Unless one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote Nov. 3, the top two vote-getters will go on to a Feb. 2 runoff election.
Marsh, who owns McHenry Bowl, has the power of incumbency and campaign fundraising on his side. He has raised more than $120,000 in contributions since last October, which is about seven times more than his opponents.
Marsh said under his administration, the city has been a good steward of its finances by balancing budgets, reaching agreements to have city employees pay more toward the cost of their pensions and enacting other reforms. Officials say having employees pick up more of their pension costs will save the city’s general fund about $2.3 million this year. The general fund primarily pays for public safety.
Marsh said the city is on the verge of finally recovering from the Great Recession. He pointed to Valley Ventures as an example. The Modesto-based developer has two projects in north Modesto: One involves a subdivision of 170 single-family homes near Vintage Faire Mall and the other calls for a medical complex, hotel, restaurant and assisted-living facility on nearly 20 acres across from Kaiser Modesto Medical Center.
He said Modesto can attract companies that are being priced out of the Bay Area, protect farmland by “growing up and not out,” and build on its strength as a regional center for health care. He sees a brighter future for downtown, with a new courthouse and a possible train station in a couple of years. He also sees housing being built downtown in a few years.
He said Modesto will struggle to help its neighborhoods and reduce crime without more funding. That is why he led the effort to put Measure G – a one-half percent general sales tax increase – on the November ballot. The City Council has said it intends to spend the tax on public safety and on neighborhoods.
Marsh’s supporters say he is smart, hardworking and cares deeply about Modesto. But he has stumbled at times because he can keep his own counsel too much and not let others know what he is thinking and some of what he says is subject to scrutiny.
Marsh ignited a firestorm when he talked about Modesto exploring the idea of annexing Salida – the unincorporated community northwest of Modesto – in his first State of the City address because he had not met with Salida residents first. Many of them do not support annexation. “It was a mistake, yes, not to talk to the people first,” he said.
He and some council members ignited another firestorm last year with their decision to keep Wood Colony – the farming community west of Highway 99 – in the city’s growth plans, despite hundreds of colony residents protesting that decision. The backlash over that led to Measure I, a voter-initiated effort to put an urban growth boundary around three sides of Modesto.
Marsh said he does not support Measure I because it does not stop Stanislaus County from allowing development in the colony. He added that he does not believe that would happen with the current Board of Supervisors but could occur with a future board.
The mayor said recently that Modesto has the fewest number of police officers of any city of its size in the United States. The numbers don’t support that. Modesto’s police staffing is comparable to Riverside, Visalia and Bakersfield, three of the seven cities Modesto uses as benchmarks, though Modesto has reduced its number of police officers by about a quarter since 2008.
“I’m a generalist,” Marsh said. “I give you the general interpretation of what I see.”
Brandvold entered the race Aug. 7, the last day on which a candidate could qualify. He decided to run because he does not believe his opponents will change City Hall. “I looked at that list of candidates ... with 24 years’ experience (on the council or as mayor) and I just saw more of the same. The city of Modesto cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results.”
As a former planning commissioner and as an architect who works with the city on his clients’ projects, Brandvold said he has lots of knowledge about city government. He said while some departments work well, others do not. He wants to fix that and make the city more business-friendly.
He said the city needs to do everything it can in terms of incentives and promoting Modesto as a good place to do business. He said economic development is key because it will expand the city’s tax base so it can hire more police officers. He said he does not support Measure G, which he said was a difficult decision because his son is a Modesto police officer. “Taxing (people) is not the way to go,” he said.
Brandvold doubts the city’s finances are in the good shape city officials say they are. He said the information the city provides on its finances is difficult to follow. “There is a lot of information on the (city) website,” he said, “but to sift through it and make any sense out of it is nearly impossible.”
Brandvold said as mayor he would have the city produce a summary on its finances that the average person could understand.
He does not support Measure I because he says it’s too restrictive and flawed. He said city officials could have avoided having voters put the urban growth boundary on the ballot if they had listened to the community when they updated their growth plans. Brandvold said he would do that as mayor.
He admits he does not have proposals to address some of the vexing problems facing Modesto, such as violent crime. “I don’t have all the answers,” Brandvold said. “I want community input and to work with the surrounding communities. I want everyone working together.”
Lopez is an unabashed cheerleader for Modesto, which he calls the “greatest city in the world” and has a record of grass-roots action. He started Partners in Paint, the city’s volunteer graffiti-abatement program, and Council in the Park, in which city officials meet with residents in a less intimidating venue than a City Council meeting.
He does not support Measure G and has not said how he will vote on Measure I.
Lopez is advocating that every resident pick up one piece of trash each day that is not theirs. He said that would mean 100,000 fewer pieces of litter if just half the city did this. He also wants a campaign to educate the public not to give to panhandlers and to direct their donations to groups that help the homeless.
Lopez wants to start a nonprofit that would provide bus tickets to homeless people who commit crimes or get in trouble in Modesto so they could return to their hometowns. He said they would not be forced to leave. He claims Fresno, Chico and San Jose are busing their homeless to Modesto. “I’m going to call them (the mayors of the three cities) and tell them to stop sending us their homeless.”
Officials with the Salvation Army in Modesto, the Modesto Gospel Mission, and the city and Police Department say they are not aware of any community sending large numbers of its homeless here.
Lopez said his initiatives will result in a cleaner and safer Modesto, which will lay the foundation for economic development.
A trip Lopez took last year raised questions for a government ethics expert. Lopez listed on a campaign finance form for last year’s Board of Supervisors race that he had spent $831 for a two-day stay at the Wilkes Inn in Pacific Grove and $243 for a nearly two-day stay at the Best Western in Sonora.
Lopez said he was in Pacific Grove to meet with Mayor Bill Kampe. Lopez said his appointment with the mayor coincided with a festival, which he said made it difficult to find lodging, and he needed to see firsthand what Pacific Grove and Monterey were doing to address panhandling and homelessness. Kampe confirmed meeting with Lopez.
Lopez said he was in Sonora to meet with Sutter Creek officials to talk about his Partners in Paint program. Former Sutter Creek City Manager Sean Rabe confirmed the meeting. “I fully consider that serving the community and helping another community,” Lopez said about his trips.
Bob Stern – former general counsel for the California Fair Political Practices Commission and former president of the Center on Governmental Studies – said he is concerned about the cost of the Pacific Grove trip because the “expenditures are huge and clearly more than needed to be spent for such a trip.”
“(But) I’m trying to understand the underlying rationale for both of the trips,” Stern said. “A phone call or exchange of emails would have accomplished the objectives.”
An FPPC spokesman said his agency does not comment on specific situations unless it has done its own investigation, but he said campaign funds can be spent on political, legislative or governmental purposes.
Sabatino was elected mayor in 1999 and served one four-year term. He is a restaurateur and retired teacher with extensive campaign experience, having lost about a dozen races over about 40 years. He is a frequent critic of local government and has made it his mission to expose what he calls the corruption, backroom dealing and cronyism among local officials.
He beat 10 felony counts in a 2006 corruption trial in Stanislaus Superior Court when jurors could not reach a verdict.
Sabatino’s financial troubles have been documented over the years, including a 1993 bankruptcy filing he later withdrew and tax liens and civil judgments filed against him with the county clerk-recorder’s office from 1979 to 2009. The liens and judgments include $120,000 he owes Union Safe Deposit Bank, $17,752 for a federal tax lien and $24,650 for legal fees to the city for a lawsuit he lost.
A judge ordered him to repay a 1979 loan from his mother, who relied on taxpayer-funded medical care before her death in 1994. He escaped paying a $215,000 judgment when state attorneys failed to collect in a timely manner.
Sabatino said much of his financial woes are the result of investigators seizing his financial records as part of the corruption case and have no bearing on his ability to be mayor. “My record as mayor was outstanding,” he said. “This is a result of my fighting the District Attorney’s Office.”
He said as mayor he would control unnecessary spending and earn the public’s trust by allowing for open debate at council meetings.
His focus on rooting out what he calls wrongdoing includes local law enforcement. He is adamant that the prosecution of prominent Modesto defense attorney Frank Carson, who is accused of orchestrating the murder of a scrap metal thief, is part of that web of corruption. Carson defended Sabatino in his corruption trial.
In a recent candidates forum, Sabatino made no apologies for how he conducted council meetings as mayor, with meetings turning into marathon sessions. “It was tumultuous; it was the greatest show in town,” he said. “I have to tell you leadership sometimes draws fire, and I drew my share of fire.”
Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316
- Age: 52
- Family: Not married
- Occupation: Unemployed
- Education: Attended Modesto Junior College
- Age: 56
- Family: Wife, Jeri; two adult children
- Occupation: Architect, president of Commercial Architecture Inc.
- Education: Technical degree from the Institute of Drafting Design and Engineering, Glendale, Ariz.; associate degree from Glendale Community College
- Age: 48
- Family: Wife, Sheri; two adult children and a 7-year-old daughter
- Occupation: Owner of AtoClean
- Education: Attended Modesto Junior College
- Age: 67
- Family: Wife, Dallas; four adult children
- Occupation: President and general manager of McHenry Bowl
- Education: Bachelor’s in business and MBA from University of California, Berkeley
- Age: 78
- Family: Not Available
- Occupation: Retired teacher, restaurateur
- Education: Bachelor’s from California State University, Stanislaus