Taking care of Business

Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour is seen in his office on the 6th floor of 10th Street Place.
Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour is seen in his office on the 6th floor of 10th Street Place. Modesto Bee

Raising water rates, increasing sewer fees, cutting the city budget, withholding funding from a popular tree program -- those aren't the kind of votes that would get a city politician re-elected easily.

But those same votes established Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour's reputation for tackling some of the city's most challenging problems, even among groups that wound up paying more for services under his leadership.

"When you deal with him on an issue, he's real, so you're able to get to the bottom line," said Jan Marie Ennenga, director of an industry group that tried to limit the sewer rate increases.

Ridenour, 66, is cruising to an uncontested re-election next month, a break from the four-way mayoral race he won when he unseated Carmen Sabatino in 2003.

The mayor said he wants to build on the work he put in over his first term by leading regional planning efforts and cultivating a resident-friendly City Hall.

"I hope my legacy will be that things did change and we put things in place that won't go backward," he said.

He ran four years ago pledging to create a civil tone on the council while bringing a business-like sensibility to his votes.

Supporters view that approach as a common-sense style that addresses the city's business. Opponents say Ridenour's leadership squashes debate and scuttles criticism of Modesto's elected leaders.

His goals shaped his early decisions to keep a tight rein on loquacious speakers at council meetings by cutting them off at three minutes and to embark on hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of improvements to the city's water and sewer systems.

"People told me you couldn't run a city like a business," said Ridenour, a former ambulance company executive. "They're right about some things. You can't make decisions by yourself. But the city needs to be thought of as a business, and if we think of it as a business, we'll be fine."

Ridenour took the helm of a City Hall buffeted by internal gender discrimination complaints that had been brewing since 1999. The council settled one claim in March for $3.25 million; a second case is headed to trial Oct. 23.

He also encountered a string of expensive decisions made by former Public Works Director Peter Cowles without the council's knowledge, such as constructing a building and extensively using a single temporary labor firm that didn't have a contract with the city.

Council increases its oversight

Ridenour said the council improved its oversight to correct those lapses, implementing personnel training and requiring more reporting from public employees on their spending.

Those efforts blend with Ridenour's hands-on approach to his elected work.

He's known to take part in weekly discussions with city executives that other mayors rarely attend. Ridenour says he gets straight talk from Modesto's top brass at those Wednesday sessions.

"He's there. He's the mayor, he wants to lead," Councilman Will O'Bryant said. "If you go to him with everything, he'll go to work on it."

Councilman Garrad Marsh shared a similar view, noting the mayor isn't one to grab the spotlight.

"He's just a quiet leader," Marsh said. "He can lead without beating the drums."

To improve employee morale, Ridenour shifted some of the council's work from its televised meetings on Tuesday nights to workshops that draw less attention. Those meetings are open to the public, but it's unusual to see many residents attend.

Councilwoman Janice Keating said those committees give her and her colleagues more authority to set policies. Council members, not the mayor, lead most of those committees.

"It's very different from what we had before," said Keating, who served with Sabatino. "We get to handle a lot of the nitty-gritty, overly detailed matters that flow through the committees, and he's not constantly hovering over us, sort of advocating."

That can spare a city worker an unexpected grilling on camera by an elected representative, and it can create a more even-handed debate at meetings.

But it also gives Ridenour's critics the impression that he reaches his decisions before the council meets. Some said they felt the mayor and council shrugged off their concerns.

"When someone speaks and says something that they do not want to hear, they immediately switch off, and instead of addressing the problem, they attack the speaker," said Eric Reimer, a retired engineer who felt the council and Ridenour dismissed his reviews of the city's sewer and water rate increases. "It's shoot the messenger time."

Reimer preferred the way Sabatino led the council. Reimer said city proposals faced more scrutiny in the open then.

Ridenour said he tries to run meetings in an open, respectful manner. He said everyone has a chance to speak within time limits that were approved by the council in 2000.

Sabatino, meanwhile, contends Ridenour is in the pocket of Modesto's business elite.

"He's controlled by the developers and that's why he got elected," Sabatino said. "This time he had no opposition because nobody wanted to face a quarter-million-dollar campaign."

Ridenour rejected Sabatino's criticism, saying, "I make my decisions from what I believe is right for the city."

Modesto's top developers back Ridenour, but they say the mayor doesn't give them what they want every time they approach the council.

In November, Ridenour cast the determining vote in a 4-3 council decision that denied a Dublin builder a chance to start planning for a 10,000-home subdivision in northeast Modesto. Ridenour said the city had to shore up its plans for water, sewer and drainage upgrades first.

Mike Zagaris, PMZ Real Estate president, who is part of a group planning for a 3,200-home project off Oakdale Road, said he supported Ridenour's decision as a resident, even if it could have benefited him as a developer. The council's vote nixed an urban growth review, which assesses where developers can build in and around the city.

Ridenour broke with Modesto's business lobby in August when he supported rent control to protect residents in mobile home parks.

And, he pursued the water and sewer fee increases despite industry objections.

"It was to (the council's) credit to address these issues," said Zagaris, a Ridenour supporter. "Now it's incumbent on them to start looking at the future of the city."

Maintains strong ties to police

Ridenour keeps strong ties to Modesto's public safety ranks. His brother, Doug, is a Modesto police sergeant. The mayor himself can be seen a couple of days a week in a uniform working for the Sheriff's Department.

He has charted a course to hire more police officers, but budget setbacks prevented that plan from advancing this year. Nonetheless, the Modesto Police Officers Association was one of the groups that contributed to his re-election before it became clear he wouldn't face a challenger.

Filling public safety ranks and patching more roads are two of Ridenour's top objectives for his next term. Either could require the council to ask for a sales tax increase, something voters rejected on a countywide level when Ridenour supported Measure K a year ago.

Beverly Finley, one of Ridenour's opponents in the 2003 race, doesn't want to see the mayor let go of those issues. She said he succeeded in changing the city's political tone, but would like him to carry a measure that would have a lasting impact on Modesto's roads.

Others in town want a broader mission from Ridenour's next and final term.

"He's done the groundwork that had to be done to get the city on its heels," said Balvino Irizarry, a former councilman and the president of the Hispanic Leadership Council. "Now it's time for him to step forward to give the city some direction."

Ridenour intends to continue that work while bolstering some of the city's economic opportunities, he said. The city's sewer and water expansions could open Modesto to industries that had been turned away because there was a deficiency of resources, he said.

He sees the city becoming a regional medical center as Kaiser continues to build its new complex off Dale Road, giving Modesto a third hospital. Ridenour also wants to make sure Modesto has a role in plans for a medical school at the University of California at Merced.

Downtown fits into his plans, too, with two developers looking to capitalize on the city's success in creating an entertainment draw by building condominiums.

"I believe I did very well," Ridenour said of his first four years. "I believe we didn't complete everything. I believe we've still got a lot of work to do."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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