Why the Modesto City Council badly needs to get on the same page

They know when they’re being petty. They know they’re embarrassing themselves and the city of Modesto. But they can’t seem to help themselves.

Our city leaders — members of the Modesto City Council — went ‘round and ‘round for 1 hour and 14 minutes on a simple question in a recent meeting, squabbling over fifteen-hundred dollars as if it were fifteen million. Only a few minutes in, some even warned the others that they were teetering on the edge of a rabbit hole. But they plunged down it anyway.

At one point, Councilman Bill Zoslocki, referring to those at home who might be watching the broadcast in frustration, said, “People are probably throwing a shoe at the TV.”

Probably. And with good reason.

Mayor Ted Brandvold thought he had a slam dunk before the discussion started. Seven weeks earlier, the local chapter of the NAACP — appalled at the council’s bitter bickering over the city auditor, a now-vacant position — had hosted an informative, well-received town hall meeting examining the issue. A key recommendation to the council: Learn just what an auditor does, and figure out what you really want, before you hire the next one.

Among the panelists at that town hall was former Berkeley city auditor Ann-Marie Hogan. She’s retired now and offered to advise Modesto leaders, for free.

The mayor took that offer to the council’s audit committee, whose members readily agreed. But Brandvold made a critical mistake by omitting any talk of compensation for Hogan’s gas to drive here, or lodging should she be required to stay a night. He said he realized later that it would be courteous for the city to cover those costs, so he pulled a number “out of the air” — $1,500 — and added it to the proposal going before the full seven-member City Council.

Wait a minute, said Councilman Mani Grewal, who didn’t remember any talk about $1,500 at the audit committee — because there hadn’t been any. Others who usually see things the same way, and vote accordingly — Doug Ridenour, Jenny Kenoyer and Zoslocki — also saw this as a problem, while Kristi Ah You, Tony Madrigal and the mayor did not.

“I really hope (Hogan) is not watching this council meeting right now,” Ah You said, urging the council to quit fighting. “I seriously doubt anyone (else) is out there who wants to come here and deal with us.”

Both sides are right.

Ah You and Madrigal are right that $1,500 — it could be much less, after all is said and done — is not a big deal; actually it’s a good deal, because consultants typically charge many thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars, while Hogan wouldn’t.

But the other four have a point, too.

“What you’re seeing is a lack of trust,” Zoslocki said in the first of 10 references that evening to trust, a quality in short supply with this council.

Ridenour, Kenoyer and Zoslocki have struggled to trust Brandvold since the mayor expected them to rubberstamp findings from his 100-Day Committee shortly after taking office three years ago. The divide has only grown since, made worse when their auditor, Monica Houston, last year agreed to take $225,000 and leave less than eight months after the council hired her.

Both sides openly agreed in the recent meeting that they just don’t trust each other. And that distrust resulted in a 1-hour, 14-minute snipefest over compensation for trivial expenses that both sides agreed would be proper to pay.

This, folks, is the definition of dysfunction — when people dig in to the point that they can’t get simple stuff done. The result was yet another divided, 5-2 vote favoring the insane proposition that Hogan get no pay, no gas money and no lunch in exchange for trying to help them.

“Unbelievable,” Brandvold muttered as the spectacle finally drew to a close. That much, we all can agree on.