Jeff Jardine

Big crowds, big issues burn ears of electeds in Modesto, Columbia

The southeast corner of Parrotts Ferry Road and Howser Lane in Columbia was the proposed site for a Dollar General Store.
The southeast corner of Parrotts Ferry Road and Howser Lane in Columbia was the proposed site for a Dollar General Store. Modesto Bee file

At a school board meeting Tuesday night in Modesto, roughly 500 people joined forces and combined their causes to make their collective voice heard. Whether Modesto City Schools board of education members will ultimately give them what they want remains to be seen.

No matter, when teachers want raises and other folks want to stop bullying and amalgamate their emotions, they create a formidable horde.

The same night about 50 miles away in Columbia, 200 folks showed up for a Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors meeting at Columbia Elementary School. They came to rail against the proposed Dollar General Store less than a mile from the entrance to Columbia State Historic Park. They won. The supervisors voted 3-0, with two stepping down due to conflicts, against allowing the store.

Go back to January 2013, when 300 people came to the Modesto City Council to loudly oppose annexation of the Wood Colony, and last summer, when scores of people went to the State Capitol and wrote letters to Gov. Jerry Brown to protest the parole of convicted murderer Jeffrey Maria. They made their points well.

Meanwhile, Modesto’s recent vote-by-mail mayoral election – so simple that folks needed only to open an envelope, mark one of two boxes, stuff the ballot back into a return-addressed, postage-paid envelope and put it into the U.S. mail – drew responses from only 29 percent of the city’s registered voters.

What does all of this mean? That unless they’re professional protesters like the Occupy Whatever-ers, something really has to be a burr in most folks’ backsides to get them to participate in the political process. But tick them off on a particular topic that affects them directly and they will come – lots of them.

Raises and bullying touched nerves with the Modesto teachers and members of the African American community who attended the school board meeting. The crowd was so large that the board moved the meeting to Gregori High, adding yet another purpose to the school’s multipurpose room. The crowd wore lime-green T-shirts as a sign of solidarity. The teachers want 7.3 percent raises, the district offered 4 percent. The African American community came to protest the number of African American children disciplined in the district and alleged bias.

Columbia residents, meanwhile, try to keep anything modern – in looks or concept – as far out of town as possible. The town is all about tourism. It is pure Gold Rush Era, with tree-lined streets, brick buildings, shops and folks walking around in period garb. To folks who cherish their history – and make their living from it – sticking a Dollar General store at the end of town would be just as heinous as opening a Target store or a Wal-Mart in the ghost town of Bodie. They consider themselves part of the Highway 49 Gold Chain, and not the chain store circuit.

Since the controversy began, the vast majority of residents who spoke out against the new store maintained it simply did not fit Columbia, a product of the 1850s. A Dollar General already exists a few miles away in Jamestown, which isn’t exactly a new gated community, either. It, too, started as a mining camp in the 1850s. Another Dollar General going into another Gold Rush tourist town was one too many.

The difference between the two meetings? Modesto’s Board of Education members are caught in a position of deciding how allocate the same pot of money between giving raises to teachers and serving struggling African American students.

The Tuolumne County supervisors – the three who voted – agreed a new Dollar General doesn’t belong near Columbia State Park and opted to keep it out. The supervisors in this case weren’t targets of the residents’ emotions, but they would have been the next time they came up for re-election had they voted to allow it.

Either way, the crowd participation and energies reaffirmed the idea that at the local level, at least, voices – and many loud ones – are difficult for the electeds to ignore.