Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh got a free pass when no one challenged him in his November re-election bid.
That came as a surprise to the four-year incumbent; he figured he had ruffled enough feathers to draw an opponent in his pursuit of policies that ensure that growth pays for itself.
But Marsh faces a new test Feb. 5, when Stanislaus County voters decide on Measure E, an initiative he helped write two years ago that requires a popular vote before a developer can build on unincorporated land outside a city.
He likens the initiative to a reform Modestans approved 17 years ago that gave voters a say over where and when growth occurred in the city, and he argues that the county's housing track record speaks for itself.
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"If you look at all of the county pockets in Modesto, in Turlock and Ceres, they have the poorest infrastructure," said Marsh, the owner of McHenry Bowl. "They should be fixing those before building new ones."
Critics claim that the measure is ballot-box planning that would put power in the hands of developers who could afford to sway votes. A competing measure, Measure L, would retain more authority for county supervisors in planning decisions.
Measure E is Marsh's priority, but it's not the only government reform he's backing next month. He's behind Measure N, which would bring district elections to City Council races, and he favors Measure M, a package of adjustments to Modesto's charter designed to give elected officials more power to set the city's agenda.
Marsh sat down with The Bee last week to talk about the measures.
Q: You worked to get the Stamp Out Sprawl initiative (Measure E) on the ballot and you're a big supporter of district elections. You're also endorsing M, the Accountability in City Hall measure. Which is the most important to you?
A: I think I've worked the hardest for Measure E. That's really important to have regional planning and good planning. Growth belongs in the city and I feel that every time the county's tried to do housing, they've failed, so I believe that housing outside the city really is sprawl.
Q: The City Council is relatively diverse at the moment with two female members and the second Latino to win a seat there in Modesto's history. Does that undercut one of the arguments for district elections, that they would secure a more diverse council?
A: I never bought that argument. I'm more a proponent of district elections because I think the cost of running for office is too high. When you have to campaign in a city of 200,000 people, you really do have to spend a lot of money to do it properly.
The cost of running a citywide campaign is in the range of $40,000 for a full-scale campaign. One mailing to everybody is $40,000. Also, you really can't walk in a precinct in the full city working full-time. Maybe you'd get to a quarter of the city.
By having districts, you can get out and meet the citizens in your district.
You can campaign that way on the grass-roots level and really bring the cost of campaigning way down.
There are issues in neighborhoods. I think the council has been very responsive to the west side, and yet none of us lives on the west side. So while I am very interested in finding solutions and improvements to the difficulties on the west side, I am not going to be as strong as someone who lives there and has their name out there and knows the issues as day to day.
Q: Measure M, the Accountability in City Hall measure, includes a possible pay raise for the council above the current $800 a month, a requirement for a new auditor, and a number of changes to the city charter that would increase council oversight of city employees. Without those changes, are your hands tied in managing the city?
A: Hands tied isn't the right term. Just as an example, our current mayor sits in on all the senior executive team meetings. He was invited to those by our former city manager. To me, it's almost an affront to have to have the mayor be invited to a senior department meeting. That should be automatic, and this makes it so. That above anything else shows the importance of having Measure M pass.
The pay raises: Right now, I donate my entire salary to community interests and I did that partly so I could advocate for the salary increase.
I want the job open to more people, and as long as you're paying such a low wage, it's really not open to most people. Most people can't afford to donate their time.
Q: Who will the buck stop with if Measure M passes, and where does it stop now?
A: The buck stops at the city manager, and I think the change is I guess you get two bucks. It stops with the city manager and the mayor, they both have the responsibility. It puts more responsibility on the mayor and also puts more responsibility on the whole council to be more involved with the department heads.
Q: Is Stamp Out Sprawl ballot-box planning?
A: I would say absolutely not. The planning still falls on the Board of Supervisors and the county to do good planning. It's just affirmation they're doing a good job, and they have to put it before the people to vote on.
Q: Motives and innuendo seemed to play a big role in discussion on these measures. For Stamp Out Sprawl, people raised the question of whether you would benefit from it because you own property within the city limit. For the accountability measure, some people seem focused on the possible pay raises for elected officials. And for district elections, the council has been accused of delaying the change for its own political interests, even though you've been a clear supporter of district elections. Did any of these accusations surprise you?
A: I have five acres that's still developable land, but I've donated so much more to the city and the community than I ever would make. The cost of Measure E and supporting it is greater than what I would ever get in any benefit, and I'm not sure there would even be a benefit. I just truly believe that's a ruse, and somebody trying to find a negative against E.
On the pay raises, I donate all my salary purposefully so if this did come forward I could be a voice for increased pay for the council and not benefit from it.
On districts, I'm termed out, so there's no value to me in whether districts pass or not.
Q: Anything else on your mind in the run-up to this vote?
A: I would like to see them all pass, but we'll have to see what the electorate thinks.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2366.