After more than 15 months without a permanent city manager, Modesto finally has one.
The City Council on Tuesday evening appointed Deputy City Manager Joe Lopez to the job. He had been filling the position on an acting and then interim basis since April 2017 after City Manager Jim Holgersson lost the support of four of the seven council members and was forced out.
Council members voted 7-0 to appoint Lopez and approve his employment contract.
Lopez will be paid $217,592 annually. The contract also states he will be paid 1.5 percent more than the second-highest paid city employee. Modesto would owe him six months in severance pay if the council removes him without cause.
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The meeting broke into applause as councilmen Doug Ridenour and Bill Zoslocki congratulated Lopez after the council vote.
Lopez said he was honored and humbled the council had placed its trust in him. Lopez — who teared up briefly as his wife and two young daughters sat in the audience — praised the city’s roughly 1,200 employees for their drive and passion to serve the community.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Lopez said, “but I know by working as a team and in collaboration with one another, I’m confident we can make this a model organization and serve the community to our fullest capacity.”
Modesto conducted a nationwide search for the position. The recruitment drew 21 applicants, and 13 met the minimum requirements for the job, according to city spokesman Thomas Reeves. He said the council interviewed six of the applicants. The council hired CPS HR Consulting in December at a cost not to exceed $35,000 to help with the recruitment.
Tuesday’s vote came after the council voted May 8 in closed session to enter into contract negotiations with Lopez. The city has declined to say what the closed session vote was, but the council had been divided over whether Lopez should get the job.
At 42, he is the youngest and least experienced Modesto city manager in about 20 years. He started with the city in January 2012 as its human resources director, then became administrative services director and then a deputy city manager. Before coming here, Lopez worked in human resources for Sacramento County for about a decade.
Council members were united in their support of Lopez on Tuesday evening.
“I’ll do everything I can to support him,” Mayor Ted Brandvold said in an interview. “I want to be positive. We have to move forward. The council will get behind Joe and work toward accomplishing the things we need to accomplish for the city.”
But some former and current employees who have worked with Lopez have raised questions about his leadership. The Bee contacted these employees, who spoke on the condition that their names would not be used. They work or have worked throughout the organization and have reputations for being productive employees.
A couple said Lopez was more than capable of being city manager. Others said he wasn’t ready and Modesto needed a more experienced manager. Some said Lopez can take issues personally, hold a grudge and have a hard time making a decision.
When asked whether the criticisms were valid, Lopez said in an interview: “I cannot tell you whether they are fair or not. I cannot assess who you talked with, the circumstances, my level of interaction with them. But of course, there always will be people who take issue with my style of leadership. All I can do is do the best job I can for the betterment of this organization. I don’t take anything out on anyone.”
Modesto faces challenges, including skyrocketing pension costs, tens and tens of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance in its parks and other facilities, homelessness and affordable housing crises, and high turnover among department directors, managers and supervisors, though the city has made solid hires to fill some of the vacancies.
And the council has been fractured and bickered at times, though recently council members have treated one another with respect.
Modesto also went through several embarrassing months starting last fall when it began to reveal breakdowns in its purchasing practices, which led to the city buying about $16 million more in goods and services than what had been authorized over a number of years.
And an audit released last week by HUD’s Office of Inspector General recommended Modesto pay back the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as much $1.94 million in federal housing money. The audit faulted Modesto for providing HUD with false information, not understanding the rules in how to spend the money, and high administrative costs.
But in an interview Monday, Lopez essentially said Modesto is bigger than its challenges.
“The city has a lot of untapped potential,” he said, “and we’ve started some really great initiatives, and I want to see those initiatives through. I think the city has a bright future ahead of itself as long as we maintain focus on the bigger pictures and be strategic in our thinking.”
He said those initiatives include a proposal the council is exploring regarding Modesto building its own fiber optic network, which would provide super-fast internet service to the city and businesses, and working with Stanislaus County to help the homeless people who cause the most distress to themselves and the community.
Lopez said it’s critical Modesto use its limited resources efficiently and effectively in order to deliver high-quality services to residents. He said that involves paying attention to the basics, including making sure the city uses the right processes in doing its work and reaching decisions based on evidence and data.
“I want Modesto to become a model organization, a world-class organization that other municipalities look to and say, ‘that organization does it correctly.’ “
Ridenour — who was elected to the council in 2015 and retired from the Modesto Police Department in 2013 after 41 years — said Lopez more than proved himself while serving as acting and interim city manager and holding down the job while the two deputy city manager positions remain open, though Assistant Police Chief Rick Armendariz provided some support.
“He was the best candidate, the most experienced candidate for the city of Modesto,” Ridenour said. “... What he went through in the last year, most city managers wouldn’t go through during their entire, four-, five-, six-year career (with a city).”