How lightning rod incumbent Soiseth plays key role in race for Turlock mayor

Current Mayor of Turlock, Gary Soiseth, faces candidate Brad Bates while answering a question during the Turlock Mayoral Candidate Forum on Thursday, September 20, 2018, at the Carnegie Arts Center in downtown Turlock.
Current Mayor of Turlock, Gary Soiseth, faces candidate Brad Bates while answering a question during the Turlock Mayoral Candidate Forum on Thursday, September 20, 2018, at the Carnegie Arts Center in downtown Turlock. cwinterfeldt@modbee.com

Mayor Gary Soiseth has been an energetic, hardworking champion of Turlock, and he’s focused on the city’s achievements as he seeks re-election Nov. 6.

But he faces charges of being a bully who has driven out department heads and other officials during his first term. Turlock went about a year without a city manager until this summer, when the third one under Soiseth’s tenure started.

Turlock also is facing financial challenges. Soiseth, 34, is part of a council that has approved public safety labor contracts, the hiring of more police officers, firefighters and dispatchers and other spending that is drawing down general fund budget reserves.

The roughly $42 million fund pays for public safety and other basics, and its reserves are on pace to be spent in about three years.

Soiseth denies being a bully, saying that is flatly untrue. He said the council built up reserves and then chose to invest them in the city and its employees, though an Aug. 14 council presentation and city documents tell a different story about the reserves.

He has said Turlock is being diligent in reducing its expenses and finding new revenue.

Soiseth said the achievements include a partnership among Turlock, Ceres and the Turlock Irrigation District on an estimated $278 million project to supplement the cities’ groundwater supplies with Tuolumne River water. The project calls for building a water treatment plant and associated infrastructure. The plant could be operational by 2022 and comes after many years of on-and-off discussions.

Advocates say the project will provide the cities with a reliable, sustainable and clean drinking water source at a time when it is difficult to find clean and sustainable groundwater. They say the project will replenish groundwater and secure the two cities’ economic futures.

Water customers in both cities could see their monthly bills roughly double by 2022 to help pay for the project. Soiseth has said he understands no one wants to pay more, but this project is critical. He also says he worked with Gov. Jerry Brown’s office and Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Ripon, to secure a $30 million grant for the project, which will reduce the cost to water customers.

Soiseth also touts his support of Measure L, the half-cent transportation tax voters throughout Stanislaus County approved in November 2016. Turlock’s share is expected to be about $104 million over the 25-year life of the tax, according to the Stanislaus Council of Governments, a regional transportation planning agency.

Soiseth said he is working to leverage Measure L dollars to secure other funding, including $6 million from the state for the Fulkerth Road-Highway 99 interchange project. He said the upgraded interchange will be able to handle 1,000 trucks a day, allowing the nearby Turlock Regional Industrial Park to reach its economic potential.

“For the last four years, Turlock has made great strides to lead the region in forward thinking planning with clear, bold goals: to improve Turlock’s failing roadways, to find a solution for Turlock’s reliable drinking water, and to maintain financial discipline to reinvest in Turlock’s critical departments and staff,” Soiseth said in Bee candidate questionnaire.

Soiseth — who is an almond farmer, former Modesto Irrigation District regulatory administrator, and now a water and energy consultant — has three challengers on the Nov. 6 ballot: Councilwoman Amy Bublak, former Mayor Brad Bates and Jaime Franco, who was a council candidate in 2016.

Bublak, a retired Modesto police officer, has been on the council for nearly a decade and was a close ally of Soiseth’s until the two had a falling out. Bates, who retired in June as a senior vice president for a Modesto insurance firm, was Turlock’s mayor from 1982 to 1990.

Franco, 60, has been the most civil of the four candidates during public forums but knows the least about the issues. He is an immigrant from Mexico, a former farm worker, and has talked about how running for mayor is a dream come true.

Franco said he knows he is the underdog but is running to encourage younger Latinos to run for office and to improve Turlock’s west side, which has many Latino and low-income families. He lives on the west side and said it lacks the resources and services found in the rest of Turlock.

“It looks like there are two cities,” he said. “This happens all across America.”

Franco, who until recently had been selling used cars, said he is not raising money for his campaign because he does not want to be beholden to contributors. Soiseth has raised $84,580, Bates $69,361 and Bublak $38,060, according to campaign finance forms filed with the city clerk’s office. The forms are through Sept. 22.

Soiseth has had more than his share of controversies since being elected to his first term in November 2014.

That includes the Turlock Certified Farmer Market’s move from downtown to the fairgrounds after another market received City Council permission to displace the certified market from its Main Street location to the outrage of many.

The other market was run by a family member of businessman Matt Swanson, who with family members and his companies has been Soiseth’s largest financial contributor.

He also has faced charges of overstepping his authority and trying to run the city, which he denies. Turlock has a council-manager form of governance. The mayor and the four council members set the city’s policy, and the city manager carries it out and runs the city.

Under Soiseth’s tenure, Turlock has lost two city managers, a city attorney, a police chief, a city clerk, a fire chief, a city engineer and the deputy director of development services and planning. All retired except for three who took jobs with other cities.

Soiseth has said he reviewed the city’s turnover rate and it is on par with other cities. He said those who took other jobs were taking promotions.

City Attorney Phaedra Norton, Police Chief Rob Jackson and City Engineer Mike Pitcock went to other cities. They all took pay cuts, according to information from Turlock, their new employers and the website Transparent California. The website files public records requests with cities, school districts and other governments regarding employee compensation.

Norton left in March to go to work for the Stockton city attorney’s office as one of its attorneys, though this month Merced announced she was its new city attorney. Jackson became Seaside’s police chief, a city about half the size of Turlock, but has since retired. Pitcock left to become Waterford’s city manager, a city about an eighth of the size of Turlock.

Gary Hampton, one of the two city managers, filed a claim against Turlock last year, accusing Soiseth of bullying him and other staff members and trying to pressure him to use his influence to help Norton get his job when he retired. Hampton retired six weeks early and later filed a claim against the city for the compensation he gave up.

Turlock paid Hampton $39,000 this year to settle his claim. He has not returned phone calls seeking comment. Soiseth and Norton have denied wrongdoing. Norton did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Most of the other managers who left declined to comment or did not return calls regarding Soiseth. But four did.

Jackson — who served as police chief for about 4 1/2 years before resigning in August 2016 — said he appreciated Soiseth’s passion but said the mayor could be too involved.

“It wasn’t all bad,” Jackson said. “To have a mayor or council member so interested in the (police) department was refreshing as well. He’s a very hands-on mayor and gets involved in a lot of things that are normally handled by department heads.

“The troubling thing for me is normally (department) directors work for the city manager. The city manager gets direction from the City Council. Usually, the will of the City Council is directed through the city manager.”

Jackson cited two examples. He said in one, the mayor wanted direct contact from supervisors at the scenes of critical incidents, instead of having the police chief update the city manager who then updates the council.

In the other, Jackson said Soiseth wanted officers to activate their emergency lights as they patrolled neighborhoods to make their presence more visible. Jackson said he explained that operating the emergency lights would raise legal issues when drivers who had done nothing wrong pulled over in response to the lights, and the lights would confuse residents.

Jackson said Soiseth could become angry and frustrated if he did not get an answer he liked. When asked whether other department directors faced pressure from the mayor, Jackson said: “I believe yes. It seems like we were always trying to meet his expectations. I cannot remember the specifics. I do know there was a constant, that we were under pressure to meet his benefits and not necessarily the benefit of the city.”

Pitcock, who became Waterford city manager in November, provided this statement: “I chose to leave Turlock after 20 years to further my career, take on new challenges and improve my quality of life through an improved work environment. I now feel appreciated for my efforts and couldn’t be happier with my decision.”

City Clerk Kellie Weaver — who retired in December 2016 after 33 years with Turlock — said she is supporting Bates and not Soiseth and Bublak because of how the City Council handled the farmers market controversy and a campaign finance measure, according to a video she did for Bates. Those comments are similar to what she told The Bee.

Weaver said how the council dealt with those issues raised questions of favoritism, created division in the community and diminished the public’s trust in its elected officials.

Former City Manager Roy Wasden said: “I don’t have anything negative to say about anything ... I loved my time in Turlock. I think everyone running for mayor are fine people who have the desire to serve.”

When asked to respond to these former employees’ comments, Soiseth said: “I wish them well in their retirements and future endeavors.”

Soiseth disagreed with Jackson regarding receiving direct updates from supervisors and officers running their emergency lights.

He said what he wanted was the Police Department to use an existing texting system to notify council members about critical incidents, and he discussed patrol officers using static blue lights on their vehicles. He said other cities do this to increase officers’ visibility.

Jackson reiterated Friday that Soiseth wanted officers to run their emergency lights while on patrol and got angry when Jackson said they couldn’t. Jackson — who now lives in the Monterey area and has not endorsed a mayoral candidate — also said he had never heard about the static blue lights.

Jackson added that Soiseth initially wanted the supervisor at the scene of a major traffic accident or other critical incident to call him directly and that the use of text messages was a compromise decision. “I would guess he’s trying to do damage control,” Jackson said about the mayor.

Soiseth said in his State of the City address in July that Turlock had increased its general fund reserves from $6 million when he took office “to a high of $11 million this past year,” according to a copy of his speech on the city’s website. He said Turlock “has a savings rate level double that of the other major cities in Stanislaus County.”

But the Aug. 14 staff presentation to the City Council told a different story of the reserves.

Reserves are about half of what Soiseth said they were in his State of the City Address. And Turlock is on pace to spend all of its general fund reserves in about three years to pay for spending decisions approved by Soiseth and the council.

“The picture before you is serious, but I would not say hopeless,” City Manager Bob Lawton told the council at the Aug. 14 meeting. Lawton started as Turlock’s top administrator this summer and has about 30 years of public sector experience.

Soiseth is a little off when he said reserves were $6 million when he took office in December 2014. He and the new council were expected to end their first budget year with $11.5 million in general fund budget reserves, according to financial information from the city.

But Soiseth and the council took $5.4 million from reserves to pay off some public safety pension debt that cost Turlock 7.5 percent annually in interest. That saved $615,000 annually, but those savings were not put into reserves.

Reserves did rebound in part because Turlock received $2.6 million from the sale of its old police station and other property, and eventually reached $11 million a little more than a year ago, but they have been in decline since.

General fund reserves were $14.9 million in the budget year before Soiseth and the new council took office. He said this about the general fund and its reserves at a candidate forum:

“I will not stand by and hoard our money in our reserves while our Police Department, our Fire Department and our dispatchers plead with us to make sure we pay a competitive salary to keep them here. Because keeping a community safe ... is economic development and will keep our reserves strong.”

These are among the reasons Bublak and Bates say they entered the race for mayor.

“Once the jewel of the Valley, over the last 3.5 years, Turlock has not been governed in a rational, transparent manner,” Bublak wrote in a Bee candidate questionnaire. “Micromanagement has created staff turnover, a hostile work environment and absence of trust in public government.

“The lack of fiscal responsibility has resulted in financial challenges in many City Departments. It’s time for new leadership that will operate transparently putting the interest of taxpayers first.”

Bublak has said that Soiseth has prevented her from having the council discuss the city’s finances and succession planning to deal with staff turnover.

Bublak, 53, supported much of the spending that is requiring Turlock to draw down general fund reserves, saying it’s important Turlock provide adequate compensation for employees. She did not support hiring more public safety employees because she did not believe the city could afford that and eventually could have to lay them off.

She did not vote for raising water rates and says that while Turlock needs more water, the treatment plant is poorly planned and overpriced. Bublak also did not support Measure L, the half-cent transportation tax. She said Turlock needs to find a way to use its general fund to fix its streets and roads.

Bublak also has leveled accusations against Soiseth and Bates. For instance, during a Bee editorial board meeting, she accused Bates of selling insurance policies to developers when he was mayor. Bates demanded she name names. Bublak said the editorial board was not the forum for that. Bates said she couldn’t name names because there weren’t any.

And Bublak has accused Soiseth of positioning himself to make as much as $1 million off taxpayers as a consultant for the water treatment plant. She called for investigations by the Stanislaus County Grand Jury and the California Attorney General’s Office but recently said she has not asked those agencies to look into her allegations. Soiseth said the accusations are completely false.

Bates, 66, has said running for mayor is not how he planned to spend his first year in retirement but said Soiseth has not earned the right to run for re-election unopposed and voters should have a choice.

He admits he does not have all the answers to the city’s problems but said the fundamental issue is returning the city to its correct form of governance: a council and mayor setting policy that is carried out by city administration without interference.

Bates sees the need for a water treatment plant but questions whether the project was put together too quickly. And he believes Measure L was misrepresented to the voters. He also has called for a forensic audit of the last three years to find out how the city spent its money.

Questions have been raised about Bates’ temperament. He and Soiseth briefly stood up and faced off against each other after The Bee editorial board meeting when Soiseth said a grand jury report had faulted Bates when he was mayor. But Bee archives tell a more complete story.

And during a candidates’ forum in which Franco spoke first about why he was running and his life as a Mexican immigrant, it was then Bates’ turn. He started his remarks with: “OK, I hope I’m in the right place. This is Tacos & Tequila, right? No, that’s tomorrow night,” he said. Some audience members laughed.

Franco said he does not remember Bates saying this but added it was stressful appearing before a large audience at the Carnegie Arts Center forum. However, he said comments like that are “not right. In all honesty, that’s not right.”

Bates said he was trying to make a joke, and it wasn’t at Franco’s expense. Bates said his comment referred to a tacos and tequila fundraiser scheduled for the next day at the arts center. “That was absolutely the farthest thing from my mind,” Bates said. “I have a wit and a sarcasm that (sometimes) gets me in trouble.”

Bates said he and Soiseth don’t like each other, but Bates said during his time as mayor the City Council was collegial and respectful. Bates added he was born and raised in Turlock and people who have known him over the decades can attest to his good temperament.