Just how sick is the city of Modesto?
Let’s review the symptoms: First is the $16 million in unauthorized spending. It began when a city revealed a contract for street repairs had been overspent. Then the number grew to nine. Now, we’re told there are 45 similarly overspent contracts due to precious little oversight and, apparently, no accountability.
But this isn’t a seasonal flu; in Modesto it’s a chronic condition.
Remember SCAP, the non-profit that worked with the city and paid $1.5 million for a property valued at $1 million?
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Remember the secrecy surrounding the location of the new courthouse, and a deal that netted Modesto $286,000 on land valued at $1 million?
Remember the city workers who were caught “goofing off” or napping on the job?
Remember Archway Commons, the apartment complex that cost the city $326,000 per unit, or twice as much as they should have?
There’s more – the phantom building that city employees constructed without the city council’s knowledge by spending $49,500 at a time (just below the approval limit). The $2 million spent on temporary employees. The $343,000 countertop that city staff tried to slip through on the consent agenda.
No one is suggesting the current problems result from graft or malfeasance. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important.
“Violating and ignoring the city code gets to the heart … or foundation of this framework for governance,” wrote consultant Bob Deis in a report delivered Tuesday. “In other words, this purchasing issue is a big deal!”
With so many symptoms of a sick city government, it appears interim city manager Joe Lopez wants to be part of the cure.
“There is no reasonable, understandable or easy explanation for what occurred,” he wrote in his report. “In a nutshell, over multiple years, different city employees, holding different titles and responsibilities, allowed for a practice of augmenting contracts without required city council approval.”
Lopez – who as a deputy city manager once had authority over the finance department – has implemented procedures to increase oversight and create additional checkpoints. Instead of a single approval, there will be up to four – ending with the finance director.
When accounts are reaching limits, the computer system will send alerts. Instead of “verbal” instructions, all purchasing procedures – and consequences for not following them – will be put in writing.
It’s hard to believe such steps don’t already exist, leading some to call for Lopez’s firing. We disagree.
As former city councilmember Janice Keating – who helped uncover that phantom building 14 years ago – put it, “He didn’t run from it; he didn’t hide.”
Besides, the problem starts with Lopez’s bosses – the city council. Over the past two decades, Modestans have come to expect some sort of outrage every other year or so. As we said, it’s chronic.
Deis, who helped Stockton emerge from bankruptcy as city manager, now runs a consulting business helping troubled cities. While that includes Modesto, Deis says the city is not remotely as bad off as Stockton, San Bernardino or Oxnard.
He provided nine recommendations, the most important being clear, consistent, written rules and procedures with accountability for every department and employee.
“Everybody’s a janitor,” he said, referring to the Disney model that requires each employee to pick up litter in the park. “In Modesto, that means everybody owns conformance with the law, with professional standards and ethics.”
Every employee must feel empowered to point out irregularities. And residents must feel empowered to address the council. When they have questions or request information, the city should respond quickly. It shouldn’t take 24 days to provide information.
Deis said creating a more stable leadership would help create a shared “value system” – a better culture.
“Think about this when considering what to do with vacant, acting or interim mid/senior level positions in the city organization,” he wrote. Providing stability helps create intolerance for “lapses.”
But any cure starts at the top. When last Tuesday’s council meeting went past midnight, people weren’t talking about the account overruns, they were more concerned with the bickering, snide remarks and lack of understanding of the issue by some council members.
More than one frequent observer called the council “clearly dysfunctional,” adding that bickering leads to “angst” among staff. Angst isn’t the worst of it. This council is too often just plain disagreeable.
When Brandvold suggested the council conduct a “retreat” to find ways to work better together, some disagreed over who will facilitate.
We don’t expect members of any elected body to always agree, but as consultant Deis said, “It’s not how often they disagree, but how they disagree with each other.”
No one expects the council to leave the chamber holding hands, but it must create more opportunities for dialogue. Previous councils conducted more workshops; participated more frequently in committees. And the best city councils haven’t needed 6-hour meetings.
Perhaps when voters are sick and tired of all this dysfunction and acrimony, Modesto’s city council will get serious about curing its ills.