The prospect of reading a Modesto Bee editorial slamming Mayor Ted Brandvold for his legendary reluctance to deliver a state of the city address finally got him moving.
Two weeks ago, we asked the mayor when he would make good on a promise to finally face his residents and tell us how Modesto is doing and where it’s going. He balked.
On Thursday, we resumed pressing for an answer. It’s been a month, after all, since Brandvold told Bee reporter Kevin Valine — with no details — that he would at long last give such a speech for the first time since he was elected in 2016. But Brandvold did not return the call.
He finally answered the phone Friday. But he had no answers — no time, no date, no venue.
This isn’t an unusual thing we’re asking. State of the agency addresses give leaders an open door to “celebrate achievements, share visions and take notice of challenges and opportunities,” as Valine put it. NOT having an annual speech is the exception.
A couple of years ago, uncommon snowfall canceled lots of activities in Oregon, including Beaverton’s state of the city address. This year, Niagara Falls’ mayor skipped his annual speech because he has cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy.
Modesto doesn’t have a snow problem. And Brandvold isn’t sick. But he gave us nothing in 2016, and in 2017, and in 2018, and a month after telling Valine he would finally come around this year, he had nothing as of Friday morning.
Leaders on all levels of government report to their people, usually in the first quarter. President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address came and went, as did Governor Gavin Newsom’s State of the State speech, both in February. Stanislaus Supervisor Terry Withrow presented his State of the County address in early March. Mayors of seven of the nine cities in this county have given or will give annual speeches; the hold-outs are Newman, population 11,801, and Modesto, by far the largest at more than 218,000.
Why has Brandvold dragged his feet on this?
Three reasons, he said Friday. The first year, “I had to get my feet on the ground.” Since then, “We’ve just been dealing with a lot of issues.” And this year, “I’ve got to connect with (Modesto Chamber of Commerce President) Cecil Russell and set it up.”
I was new. New office holders do annual speeches all the time. Oakdale Mayor J.R. McCarty, elected in November, had the courage to deliver his state of the city speech a mere 10 weeks after he was sworn in, for heaven’s sake. TEN WEEKS! Two days after Turlock Mayor Amy Bublak was sworn in, in December, she presented a detailed list of her priorities, and two months later she delivered a bold vision in Turlock’s state of the city event.
Dealing with a lot of issues. So maybe a state of the city should wait until the city in question isn’t dealing with a lot of issues? Will that ever be the case? More to the point, isn’t a state of the city the perfect time to discuss these issues?
And why would City Hall depend on the chamber for a city event? The chamber is looking for someone to succeed Russell, who will leave in a few weeks; helping the mayor do the mayor’s business might not be its top priority right now.
Modesto needs strong leadership at this pivotal time. Never before have our streets seen so many homeless. Too many storefronts sit empty, downtown and elsewhere. ACE trains and a new courthouse are coming. The governor acts like he might pay attention to the Valley. With all of this happening, and more, who we choose to represent us is among the most important decisions voters make. What we don’t need is someone who’s reluctant to talk to us.
Consider these passages from Modesto’s city charter:
The mayor shall have primary responsibility for interpreting the policies, programs and needs of the city government to the community.
Where might that happen? In a state of the city speech, for one.
The mayor may ... inform the community on any matters of policy or program which the mayor believes the welfare of the community makes necessary.
What occasion might he choose to do this? Same answer.
Friday afternoon, an answer finally came — not from Brandvold or anyone else at City Hall, but from the Chamber of Commerce. The mayor, Russell said, will deliver his first Modesto State of the City address at a noon lunch May 8 at the DoubleTree Hotel. Ticket prices have yet to be worked out; seating will be provided for those who want to hear the speech but don’t want to eat or can’t afford to pay.
Brandvold, a nice, reserved man, insists he’s accessible.
“I communicate with people quite a bit, in a lot of public forums and formats. When asked to speak, I give information on the city,” he said. “I’ve done that quite a bit. Just not on a grand scale.”
It’s about time he did.