Modesto City Council members speak out on spending practices
It’s true that a month ago, we wondered whether the city had something big to hide. Councilwoman Kristi Ah You rightfully was angry that a request from her and Councilman Tony Madrigal to City Manager Joe Lopez, who they don’t like, for information on such spending had gone unanswered nearly two months. Feeling ignored, they fired off an official Public Records Act request. State law says such a request cannot be ignored, so people looked forward to finally seeing what was going on behind the curtain.
That happened at a June 26 meeting of the council’s audit committee. Ah You, a committee member, and Madrigal, presumably attending because he takes a personal interest in this issue he’s helped to create, were indignant. Madrigal figured that City Hall could be wasting $1 million or $2 million over a 10-year period.
That’s fuzzy math at best. You don’t need a calculator to know that 10 times $80,000 is $800,000. Stretching it to $2 million only makes sense if you’re trying really hard to alarm people.
Here’s another way to look at it: with 1,200 employees, City Hall spent an average of $67 per worker. Some of it went to fast food for detectives working overtime on homicides. Some was for munchies during training meetings. Some covered refreshments at community events, which could have been eaten by any of us.
From another perspective, the $80,000 comes to 0.02 percent of the city’s $400 million operating budget. It’s a comparative drop in the bucket.
Now, everyone wants government to be frugal, and no one favors lavish waste. We do question the tone deafness of presenting a $100 gift basket to a newly hired department manager making six figures, in an area known for chronic high unemployment and poverty. Leaders should consider the optics before traveling to a fancy Knights Ferry restaurant and dropping $228 for a management retreat.
But the majority of reported expenses seem, well, ordinary.
You might even say they appear small, compared to extravagances documented in years past.
Former Stanislaus County CEO Reagan Wilson, for example, blew through $230,000 in six years, living large in luxury hotels in San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and New York City, using taxpayer money for massages and pedicures. He resigned in 2003 after The Modesto Bee exposed that self-indulgence.
The scandal prompted agencies all around to adopt or strengthen travel policies. Modesto right now is updating its policy, while acknowledging that it did not have one addressing food for working lunches, employee recognition and such.
So Lopez’s people came up with a proposal. If adopted by the City Council at an upcoming meeting, it would allow food purchases for training sessions, morale-building retreats, or during emergencies, plus cake for retirements or service anniversaries, and a few other reasons. Outlawed would be alcohol and birthday cakes.
A city staff report on this flap was weak because it gave no indication as to what level of spending might be acceptable. You find that by asking comparable agencies what they’re forking out on employee lunches and the like. The audit committee was right to send Lopez off to gather such information for a future meeting.
Meanwhile, Ah You and Madrigal might want to look for something else to pitch a fit over. Good stewardship of public money is one thing, but this smelled of political grandstanding.