Why claims of racism, grand jury probe made their way into Modesto council meeting

Modesto City auditor Monica Houston outside the City of Modesto offices in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018.
Modesto City auditor Monica Houston outside the City of Modesto offices in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. aalfaro@modbee.com

A discussion Tuesday night over the Modesto city auditor’s job evaluations led to a series of allegations, including claims of racism and illegal closed-session hearings.

Those flashpoints were part of an emotionally-charged Modesto City Council meeting that included:

  • Councilwoman Kristi Ah You’s claims that the timing of auditor Monica Houston’s job evaluations has been conducted in an illegal manner.
  • Mayor Ted Brandvold’s suggestion that city staff falsified documents and that City Manager Joe Lopez waited days before informing him of a Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury investigation into a city purchasing scandal that involved about $16 million in over-spending.
  • Councilmembers Doug Ridenour and Jenny Kenoyer asking for an investigation into Ah You’s allegations and the unrelated claims made by Brandvold.

Houston has been the ongoing subject of job evaluations since early August, the first coming just three days after she requested information regarding a large city project. Ah You called the timing “highly suspicious.” She said she considers “illegal” the manner in which the evaluations have been held.

The sparks began to fly during the meeting’s public comment period, when residents scolded officials over Houston’s evaluations. Just six months ago, she was hired as the city’s first in-house auditor in eight years.

The residents said Houston was more than qualified to uncover inefficiencies in city operations. They asked the City Council why the auditor’s performance coming into question only several months after she had been hired.

Wendy Byrd, former president of the local NAACP chapter, and others who spoke in support of Houston, who is African-American, suggested the evaluations were the result of racism and retaliation for what she might have already uncovered.

Byrd told the council that if they want to get rid of Houston after only being on the job for six months, then “you are part of the problem.”

Houston claimed Wednesday that there is an “undertone” of racism and sexism that has resulted in the call for these job evaluations. She could not identify a particular incident, but she said she is certain that she is being treated differently than a white man in the same position.

Brandvold said Houston’s job evaluations have included “hostile overtones” against her. He said “transparency” has now become common, empty rhetoric, and government needs honesty, integrity, morals, ethics and the fear of God.

“Our city is broken, and we must take appropriate steps to fix it,” the mayor said during the meeting.

Houston said she was not invited to participate in her three most recent evaluations. She doesn’t know what was discussed in those meetings.

“I do feel they are not appropriate,” Houston said about the process. “I feel that the underlying factor is retaliation.”

Thomas Reeves, a Modesto spokesman, said evaluations are called to review the merits of job performance. The city auditor is hired by the City Council as a charter officer, reporting directly to council members.

“There was no racial motivation whatsoever in calling for the evaluation of the City Council’s charter officer,” Reeves said.

Ah You said she had been cautioned not to speak publicly about Houston’s evaluations, and she has not revealed anything that has been discussed during close session. But she has raised her concerns about the process.

Councilman Tony Madigral said Ah You was just speaking up, and for councilmembers to call for an investigation into Ah You’s claims can be viewed as an attempt to silence her.

“I just have to say this feels wrong,” Madigral said. “Please take another approach. It sends the wrong message. We ought to be able to govern.”

Houston also spoke during the meeting. She said it’s her duty to investigate and report acts of fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement of public resources, and she finds strength to maintain her integrity in the standards of her profession and state law.

“However, when all else fails, there is nothing more uplifting or powerful than the letters, voices and presence of concerned citizens,” Houston read from a written statement illustrating the support she’s received.

Frank DeMattos was one of those who came to her defense. He was hired in September 2008 as the city’s first independent auditor. He was fired 18 months later by another council after a difference of opinion of what direction the auditor needed to take.

DeMattos urged the council to start working on creating an audit plan for Houston. He said she was hired by the council to find waste and make city operations more efficient.

“The city auditor is not here to get you in trouble,” DeMattos told the council members. “She’s here to help.”

There was nothing to report publicly after Houston’s fifth evaluation, which was held Tuesday afternoon in closed session. Houston still has her job, and she continued her duties Wednesday at city hall.

Grand jury investigation

Brandvold also discussed the city’s breakdown of its purchasing practices, allowing the purchase of about $16 million more in goods and services than what had been authorized. The overspending was first announced a year ago, and officials have stressed Modesto’s review did not turn up evidence of fraud.

The mayor revealed Tuesday that the grand jury had asked for documents to investigate the over-spending in a letter to the city manager. Brandvold questioned why Lopez waited a few days before informing him of the letter.

Lopez said the letter was marked confidential, so he first asked the city attorney what he should do before informing the council. He said he didn’t want to harm the integrity of the grand jury’s investigation.

The city manager also said the over-spending was a serious matter, and that he and his staff took numerous actions to make sure it didn’t happen again. He said he’s glad to review anything his office did.

“I’ve shared that information with the city auditor,” Lopez said, adding that he looks forward to hearing Houston’s perceptions.

Meanwhile, Ridenour asked for an investigation into the allegations the mayor made, which included claims that city staffers falsified documents that could affect future funding from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Kenoyer said the mayor made “severe allegations” against people who sit on the council dais, and the city needs to investigate the allegations made against the city manager. She said the over-spending is an old issue, and she questioned the mayor’s motives for discussing it Tuesday.

The council did not vote on Ridenour and Kenoyer’s request for investigations into Ah You’s claims or the mayor’s allegations.

“We’re clearly doing more than council comments and reports,” the mayor said during the meeting. “We should move on.”