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How simple tasks reveal a big rift among Modesto council members

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has reduced Modesto’s federal funding to help the poor by $385,135 after the city failed to meet timeliness guidelines in spending it. Tenth Street Place, the city-county administration center in downtown, is pictured.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has reduced Modesto’s federal funding to help the poor by $385,135 after the city failed to meet timeliness guidelines in spending it. Tenth Street Place, the city-county administration center in downtown, is pictured. jlee@modbee.com

The Modesto City Council’s Tuesday evening meeting included two seemingly routine items: approving the mayor’s pick to a new countywide homeless panel and council members’ assignments to the various committees and boards they serve on.

But the discussion was anything but routine. It included acrimony and accusations and revisiting the November departure of City Auditor Monica Houston, who left after less than eight months on the job after accepting a $225,000 settlement that was approved by council members on a 4-3 vote.

Houston is African American and had been subject to a series of job evaluations. She claimed that there was an undertone of racism and sexism that resulted in the call for those evaluations. But Councilman Bill Zoslocki at Tuesday’s meeting read from Houston’s settlement agreement, which stated she was making “no claim of discrimination or harassment” and did not support any such claims made on her behalf.

The flashpoints from Tuesday’s meeting included:

Councilwoman Kristi Ah You stating that opposition to her serving on the council’s Audit Committee was “retaliation and retribution because of my loud voice in fighting for keeping our auditor. So I’m just going to go ahead and let that be known. Thank you.”

Zoslocki said he and council members Jenny Kenoyer, Mani Grewal and Doug Ridenour faced false accusations during the auditor controversy based on inaccurate information leaked to the public from the council’s private discussions. “I think the person on the auditor (Audit Committee) should not have any dirty fingers of having been part of the context of misrepresenting what was being said in closed session,” he said.

Councilman Tony Madrigal later urged his colleagues to remember the commitments they made to treat one another with civility and said a line was crossed in attacking Ah You’s integrity. Zoslocki said he agreed about not making accusations and said: “I’m reminded in the scriptures. It says do not bear false witness. Those are very important to me.” He added that standard should apply to all council members.

The discord started over Mayor Ted Brandvold’s recommendation that he represent Modesto on the newly formed Stanislaus Homeless Alliance. The alliance would have elected officials from throughout Stanislaus County as well as housing and homeless officials and would “align homelessness services, planning and funding,” according to a city report.

Brandvold said it appears most of the other city officials on the alliance will be mayors. He added that nearly every member of the City Council expressed interest in serving and picking one would disappoint the others. He also expected the alliance to eventually rotate its leadership, giving council members the chance to serve.

But Councilman Ridenour wanted a discussion regarding the council’s expectations for the alliance and to ensure that the mayor was fully aware of the council’s consensus on homelessness.

The mayor has been in the minority among elected officials in not supporting more shelter beds and services downtown. Modesto and Stanislaus County are working to open another shelter with services at The Salvation Army’s Berberian Center at Ninth and D streets near downtown.

“My concern is you’ve made a public statement that (homelessness) is not our problem here in Modesto,” Ridenour said. “And you’ve made a comment that it should be outside the city limits of Modesto. I don’t know that’s the consensus of the full council. In fact, I don’t think it is.”

Ridenour said Wednesday that Modesto needs to solve its homelessness problem by working with the county and other partners to provide services in the city.

Brandvold has said officials should consider other locations, including a former county hospital near Highway 99 in Ceres, the former animal shelter on Finch Road near the Modesto Airport as well as along Hackett Road, where the county has its Public Safety Center, Community Services Agency, Sheriff’s Department and other services.

After more discussion, including Zoslocki suggesting Kenoyer would be a better choice because of her longtime advocacy on behalf of the homeless, a frustrated Brandvold said:

“It’s unbelievable because I’ve never not advocated for the homeless in this community,” he said. “And it comes down to the fact that all I ever advocated for is I don’t believe the shelter should be in our downtown. That’s it. I’ve always advocated for helping the homeless in our community.”

Ah You and Madrigal said the mayor had their full support. Grewal said the decision to provide additional services at the Berberian Center has been made and is being carried out so it doesn’t matter that the mayor had advocated for other locations.

Ridenour faced a claim from Modesto resident Emerson Drake that he was engaging in electioneering because he planned to run against Brandvold in the November 2020 election. Ridenour said Wednesday he is considering running but that does not make the issues he raised any less valid and worthy of discussion.

Council members voted 7-0 to appoint Brandvold to the Stanislaus Homeless Alliance.

The City Council then moved on to Brandvold’s recommendations for council members to serve on committees, boards and other bodies. Besides Brandvold’s recommendation that Ah You serve on the council’s Audit Committee, the council hit a snag over Brandvold’s recommendations for the Stanislaus Council of Governments, the regional transportation planning agency.

Brandvold said he had to do some juggling because he had promised the StanCOG seat being vacated by Grewal to both Madrigal and Kenoyer. Brandvold proposed solving that by giving up his StanCOG seat so both could serve.

Kenoyer said she found all of this interesting because she said she spoke with Brandvold at the beginning of the year about replacing Grewal and thought that had been settled and now found out that Madrigal also wanted the seat.

“In the beginning of the year, you promised it to me,” Kenoyer told the mayor. “And now you say you promised it to the two of us.”

Grewal said he was “a little bit astonished” when he saw the mayor’s proposed StanCOG assignments and did not see Kenoyer’s name as he expected. “I’m glad that’s been addressed, and she has been appointed,” Grewal said about the mayor’s solution.

The council was expected to vote one time on all of Brandvold’s proposed appointments, but Ridenour asked for a separate vote for the Audit Committee. Brandvold declined, and the council voted 4-3 to accept all of the appointments, with Kenoyer, Ridenour and Zoslocki voting no.

Ridenour wanted to hold off on the Audit Committee vote until questions he asked several months ago were answered. He and Grewal followed up those questions with a March 20 memo asking for a closed session discussion.

The memo requests several things, including defining the responsibilities of the auditor and Audit Committee and a full City Council discussion about how to fill and recruit for the position.

Brandvold issued an email Wednesday saying most, if not all, of the issues can be discussed in public and will be done at the next City Council meeting. He said he would defer to the city attorney if any items need to be discussed in closed session.

Ridenour then responded with a statement saying the request for closed session “was limited to investigative items that the former auditor had initiated, but not concluded ... We have asked for that information for months but have not received it.”

Ridenour also said it was long overdue for the council to have a public discussion about filling this important position.

Houston was Modesto’s first in-house city auditor in about a decade. At Brandvold’s request, the council replaced the consulting firm Moss Adams, which had served as city auditor, with an in-house auditor. The mayor has said an in-house auditor would find more inefficiencies.

But Houston stumbled when she advised city officials in a July memo not to use Meyers Nave — the law firm Modesto hired in 2014 to serve as its city attorney — for the legal work on a roughly $100 million project to realign and upgrade a stretch of Highway 132.

In her memo, Houston said it could expose the city to risk of fraud, waste and abuse. She based her memo in part on a review of emails among Meyers Nave, Modesto and the California Department of Transportation. But Caltrans later told The Bee that Modesto could use Meyers Nave for the legal work, a position Meyers Nave had consistently held.

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