Modesto investigating city clerk’s allegations against three top officials

Mayor Ted Brandvold listens as council member Bill Zoslocki makes a comment during the Modesto City Council meeting in Modesto, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019.
Mayor Ted Brandvold listens as council member Bill Zoslocki makes a comment during the Modesto City Council meeting in Modesto, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. aalfaro@modbee.com

Modesto is investigating its city manager, city attorney and a councilman after the city clerk made allegations against them.

No one will say what the allegations are, and the city has not provided The Bee with a copy of City Clerk Stephanie Lopez’s memo in which she outlined her allegations. City spokesman Thomas Reeves said lawyers for the city are reviewing the news organization’s request, though California News Publishers Association general counsel Jim Ewert said the document is a public record.

The investigation is expected to cost taxpayers $70,000 because the city has retained two law firms, one to conduct the investigation and another to advise the City Council. Reeves said the investigation of City Manager Joe Lopez, City Attorney Adam Lindgren and Councilman Doug Ridenour recently started and is expected to wrap up within several weeks.

Ridenour said this matter should have been concluded many months ago but has been needlessly delayed because Mayor Ted Brandvold inserted himself in the process instead of relying on human resources to work with the City Council to have the complaint investigated.

“He’s just, I hate to use the word, paranoid,” said Ridenour, who is among the candidates running against Brandvold for mayor in the November 2020 election. “He doesn’t trust nobody. He doesn’t trust city staff. ... This is a guy who has to control everything.”

Brandvold declined to respond to Ridenour’s criticism.

This controversy comes as the City Council has been divided and dysfunctional under Brandvold’s tenure. He was elected in the February 2016 mayoral runoff election. Council members engage in infighting and insult each other during meetings, which can be long, contentious and confusing.

This story starts with Ridenour asking for an investigation more than a year ago of Stephanie Lopez’s allegation against him. Ridenour said in August 2018 he met with Lopez as part of preparing for the City Council to conduct her annual job review.

He said at the end of the meeting Lopez told him he had, at a previous time, made a gesture at her. Ridenour said Lopez would not elaborate and once the meeting was over he reported that to the city manager and city attorney.

“I wanted it investigated,” he said, adding he was not aware of doing anything that would offend the city clerk. Ridenour said he followed that up the next day with a written report to the city manager.

Ridenour would not talk about the allegation in more detail or provide a copy of his report. The city also did not provide a copy. Stephanie Lopez also declined to comment. “I can’t say much because it’s a personnel matter,” she said. “But Councilman Ridenour initiated an investigation regarding me.”

Lopez filed a claim with the city Oct. 7 seeking $5,026 to reimburse her for her legal costs so far in this matter. Her legal expenses are from February though September, according to paperwork attached to her claim. The name of the law firm has been blacked out.

Reeves, the city spokesman, said the city clerk is not being investigated. He said in February the city clerk provided Brandvold with a memo detailing her allegations. He said the city had nothing in writing before that.

Personnel investigations typically are confidential but not when they involve high-ranking public officials, said Ewert, the CNPA’s general counsel.

“I don’t see anything in the (California) Public Records Act that allows them (the city) to withhold (the memo),” he said. “Indeed, there is case law that talks about the relevance of the public in understanding the allegations made against high-level public officials and how the agency, in this case the city, investigates that and the outcome of that. All of that is relevant and more important disclosable.”

Reeves said City Manager Joe Lopez only recently learned the allegations included him. “I look forward to a quick resolution to clear my name,” Lopez said in a statement. Joe Lopez and Stephanie Lopez are not related.

Lindgren declined to be interviewed but in a text message said: “I understand her claims regarding me, and I am personally confident that (the investigation) will conclude that I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Reeves said the City Council in July hired the Ellis & Makus law firm to conduct the investigation at an expected cost of $45,000. He said the council also hired the Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann & Girard law firm to provide it with advice related to the investigation at an expected cost of $25,000.

Reeves said this matter has taken time because the city manager, city attorney and city clerk are charter officers who report directly to the council, which hires and fires them.

He said it also took time because the council needed to hire law firms with no connection to Meyers Nave, the firm the council hired in 2014 to be its city attorney. Besides serving as Modesto’s city attorney, Lindgren oversees Meyers Nave’s Sacramento office.

Reeves said the city manager promptly hired an investigator after Ridenour’s request for an investigation in August 2018 and alerted the mayor. But Reeves said the investigation did not get under way because the city clerk would not file a formal complaint. He added the city manager turned the matter over to the mayor.

Ridenour said he requested an update in late 2018 from the city manager and learned the mayor had gotten involved. Ridenour said he also pursued the matter with the City Council. The city clerk in February filed her memo with the mayor in which she named Ridenour, the city manager and city attorney.

Council members Bill Zoslocki and Jenny Kenoyer grew concerned that the matter was not getting resolved so they sent a letter to the mayor asking him to turn the memo over to human resources so an investigation could get under way. “Nothing was happening,” Kenoyer said. “We wanted to get this started so we can get this behind us.”

Councilman Mani Grewal shared that concern.

“Any allegations made and brought to the attention of anybody in the organization need to be addressed in a timely manner,” he said. “This one seems to me was brought to the attention of the mayor and 13 months (later) we’re still looking at these allegations.”

Zoslocki, Kenoyer and Ridenour have formed one coalition on the council and often are joined by Grewal. The other coalition is Brandvold and council members Kristi Ah You and Tony Madrigal.

Critics of Zoslocki, Kenoyer and Ridenour claim they are too trusting of a city government that gets too many things wrong. Critics of Brandvold claim he oversteps his authority, does not trust city officials, and has tried to set up his own shadow government within City Hall.

Brandvold would not answer questions about why it took so long to start the investigation, other than to say as the city’s top elected official he’s always in the spotlight.

“I’m the mayor,” he said. “I get blamed or get the credit for everything. I’m pretty much used to it. What is really much more important is that this council, including myself, do a better job of working together. It’s in the best interest of the citizens.”

But he did provide a statement that had been vetted by the lawyers involved in this matter that said in part: “This is a unique situation involving all of our City’s current Charter Officers and one of our current Council Members. I had to take every necessary step possible to ensure a fair, non-conflicted and unbiased investigative process.”

When asked to respond to the criticism of him, including that he caused this matter to take longer than it should, he repeated that as mayor he gets the blame or the credit. And when pressed for a response, he said: “I’ve given you what I’ve given you. I’m not going to go any farther.”

Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.