What has turned Turlock toxic? It’s the mayor. City needs a new one.

Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth and City Councilwoman Amy Bublak sit side by side during a Leadership Summit on Inclusivity in Turlock. Today, they are running against each other for Mayor along with Jaime Franco and Brad Bates.
Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth and City Councilwoman Amy Bublak sit side by side during a Leadership Summit on Inclusivity in Turlock. Today, they are running against each other for Mayor along with Jaime Franco and Brad Bates. The Modesto Bee

Turlock has turned toxic. That must change.

Shouting and screaming. Departures of key members of city administration. Cruel animosity. Collapsing budget reserves. All of that and more is besmirching the reputation of what was once considered Stanislaus County’s model city.

The fastest way to create change is to vote Mayor Gary Soiseth out of office. But who should replace him? That’s a difficult question.

Voters have three from which to choose – Amy Bublak, whom some see as part of the problem after 10 years on the council; Brad Bates, who served two terms as mayor in the 1980s but has been volatile on the campaign trail; and Jaime Franco, a westside resident who knows little about city policies but whose heart appears to be well placed.

First, no one can blame all of Turlock’s problems on Soiseth. It takes two to tangle and there’s no shortage of willing foes. It’s also true the council has gone along with Soiseth on several decisions that were either bad or worked out poorly.

Besides, Soiseth – who recently left the Modesto Irrigation District and now works as a water and energy consultant – deserves some credit. He has championed a citywide approach to road improvements and he was a driving force behind two water projects. The first will sell treated wastewater to westside farmers. Soiseth hates sharing credit, but he must with Brad Hawn of Modesto and Del Puerto Water District general manager Anthea Hansen (among others). The other project could provide Turlock and Ceres with water for decades after (or if) an estimated $278 million treatment plant is completed. But Modesto and other possible partners backed away, believing far less costly options were available.

And when Soiseth takes credit for Turlock’s economic success, he’s exaggerating. The city’s ability to attract business by partnering with Turlock Irrigation District, the county and others to create critical infrastructure long predates Soiseth’s arrival.

Meanwhile, the mayor stays busy trying to explain away some serious problems – such as Turlock’s cratering budget reserves. The year before he took office, reserves were $14.9 million; now they are projected to be around $6.4 million (or less) by June 2019 and new City Manager Bob Lawton warns that could be gone within three years.

“We didn’t have a healthy reserve, we don’t have a healthy reserve and for accuracy’s sake we need to tell the public,” said Bublak.

Bates says he’ll demand a three-year “forensic audit” to see where the reserves went. “Look at our friends up in Stockton who went bankrupt,” he told The Bee’s editorial board, suggesting Turlock could suffer the same fate. Franco says he doesn’t understand budgets, and would leave that to experts.

Then there are the numerous departurestwo city managers, police chief, city attorney, fire chief, city engineer and a key planning department staffer. Most retired (some early) but several took jobs for less pay. Why?

“It’s clearly Mayor Soiseth,” said Bates, “his personality, his micro-management.”

One former city manager cited “unethical conduct” and “bullying” in a claim the city settled – terms The Bee has heard from others.

“I’m actually running because so many employees asked me to,” said Bublak, a retired Modesto police officer. “They asked me to stand up; they knew I would stand up to Gary,” she said. “It’s important to understand, there are people who are really, really worried about their jobs” if Soiseth returns as mayor.

Many outside of government are fed up, too. After a volunteer group spent six years resurrecting the nonprofit farmers market, they were shocked to learn someone else had been allowed to claim the street-closure permits for Saturdays – a for-profit market headed by the son-in-law of Soiseth’s biggest political backer.

That market floundered, but the rotten taste lingers.

Bates called it “unconscionable,” and said Soiseth and Bublak are both to blame.

Soiseth called it a “painful chapter,” then tried to deflect by accusing Bates of unprofessional conduct over a waste contract the city signed in the 1980s. Bates had recused himself and Bee’s archives show nothing improper occurred.

Finally, there was the city council meeting in which the police chief entered the council’s private chambers to quiet a mayor shouting profanities at Bublak. “September 26 will live in infamy,” Bublak said. “I was a police officer and I saw irate people constantly, some with guns. And I never expected this at a council meeting.”

We’ve seen and heard enough. Too much, even.

Soiseth is a charismatic, articulate, smart man but also explosive, self-aggrandizing and disingenuous. He has no clue about compromise, integrity or effective governance. Soiseth needs a break from public office until he learns to control his worst impulses. Turlock needs a mayor, not a king.

To whom should Turlock turn? It’s a close call, but we recommend the 10-year councilwoman over the volatile former mayor nearly three decades removed from city hall, or the good-hearted neophyte.

We do not believe Bublak will make the right call every time (she’s got to rethink her positions on spending road funds). But we believe she can bring calm to city council meetings, continuity to important programs and projects and the ability to listen to others.

Foremost, she will value advice from staff and allow them an opportunity “to use their creativity” to cleanse Turlock’s toxic atmosphere.