Investigation clears Modesto officials but reveals City Hall turmoil

Clouds are reflected in the glass windows at Tenth Street Place, the city/county building in downtown Modesto, Calif. on April 9, 2019.
Clouds are reflected in the glass windows at Tenth Street Place, the city/county building in downtown Modesto, Calif. on April 9, 2019. jlee@modbee.com

An investigation of the Modesto city clerk’s allegations — including that she had been called a liar, excluded from meetings and subjected to crude sexual gestures — substantiated little but revealed political turmoil at the top levels of city government.

Modesto released the investigation to The Modesto Bee after the City Council met in closed session Tuesday to accept the report. City spokesman Thomas Reeves said the matter has been concluded.

The investigation conducted by attorneys not connected to the city substantiated one allegation: Councilman Doug Ridenour likely referred to City Clerk Stephanie Lopez, former Auditor Monica Houston and Kathy Espinoza, the executive assistant to the mayor and council, as the “Mayor’s Girls.”

“Based on a preponderance of the evidence, the investigation substantiated that Council member Ridenour likely referred to Ms. Lopez and her colleagues as the ‘Mayor’s Girls’,” attorney Eli Makus with the Ellis & Makus law firm wrote in his investigation. “There was little dispute on this matter.”

Makus wrote that although Ridenour “did not recall making the comment specifically, he acknowledged his belief that Ms. Lopez, Ms. Espinoza and Ms. Houston were strongly aligned politically with Mayor (Ted) Brandvold and he likely commented on this fact.”

Ridenour recently announced he is running for mayor, one of several candidates challenging Brandvold in the November 2020 election.

Lopez believed the comment was degrading and offensive, according to the investigation. She is 59 years old and has worked for Modesto for nearly 19 years, including the last 11 as city clerk.

The investigation did not substantiate the allegations that Ridenour had made sexually crude gestures at Lopez, including during City Council meetings; that he had engaged in threatening and abusive conduct toward Lopez; that Ridenour and City Attorney Adam Lindgren had called Lopez a liar; and that City Manager Joe Lopez had inappropriately excluded Stephanie Lopez from meetings. (The two are not related.)

The 32-page investigation includes several attachments filled with documents and allegations. The attachments include a Sept. 19 statement from the city clerk in which she writes that she believes City Manager Lopez and Lindgren would use an investigation as a way to have her fired because they perceive her as a whistle-blower.

“I would like to add that there appears to be a culture in the City of Modesto of dismissing/firing/threatening employees who are willing to bring forward information or question practices that may be unethical, illegal or viewed unfavorably by the public,” Lopez wrote.

Lopez wrote that this happened to Houston when she raised concerns about Meyers Nave, the legal firm that Modesto hired for city attorney services and that employs Lindgren, doing legal work on the city’s Highway 132 project, though Caltrans eventually said using Meyers Nave did not jeopardize the project’s state and federal funding.

“... I strongly believe this investigation is politically motivated and is retaliation by the City Manager and City Attorney who believe I am a ‘whistle-blower’ because I have raised concerns and shared information with Mayor Brandvold over questionable expenditures, overspending/extension of contracts, purchasing practices, costly legal services, etc.”

Reeves provided statements from the city manager and city attorney.

City Manager Lopez wrote: “I appreciate the resolution to this issue by the council’s outside attorneys. The council has tasked me with advancing this agency toward a more effective and efficient provider of city services, and I am committed to working toward achieving that objective.

“I firmly believe a core function of that is to rebuild the culture and employee experience at City Hall. I am working hard to add to, not detract from that culture, and fully reject the notion that I have been involved in a discriminatory act in any way, as confirmed by this investigation.”

Lindgren wrote: “The investigation confirmed that I have acted professionally and appropriately with the City Clerk. I look forward to continuing our work to advance and protect the interests of the City.”

Additionally, the investigation concluded that the city manager did not exclude the city clerk from some meetings because of the perception that she is aligned with the mayor or because of her age or gender.

“Rather, he was reasonably concerned that she would not contribute productively ...,” according to the report. “Further, he understood, correctly, that he could not direct her to follow his lead and he feared that her presence would undermine his efforts.”

The city manager, city attorney and city clerk are charter officers and report directly to the City Council.

This matter has eaten up time and could cost the city as much as $70,000 for outside attorneys to conduct the investigation and advise the council, though Reeves, the city spokesman, said the cost is expected to be less because the investigation took less time than expected.

Ridenour asked for an investigation of the city clerk’s allegations against him 14 months ago, but it did not start until recently. He had asked for the investigation after meeting with the city clerk in August 2018 ahead of her job review and she raised concerns about his behavior.

Ridenour has blamed Brandvold for the delay, claiming the mayor does not trust city staff, in this case human resources, to work with the council to get the allegations investigated. Brandvold has said he “had to take every necessary step possible to ensure a fair, non-conflicted and unbiased investigative process.”

Another reason is the city clerk did not file anything in writing until February, when she wrote the mayor about her concerns, including the need to use attorneys outside of the city to conduct an independent investigation. Stephanie Lopez and Ridenour did not respond to requests for comment.

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.