When former Mayor Gary Soiseth’s rocky reign came to an end late last year, people hoped Turlock’s top-end turbulence finally might end as well.
Turlock, Stanislaus County’s second-largest city, seems stable enough on the elected side with Amy Bublak now in the mayor’s seat. But non-elected leadership once again is twisting in the wind after former City Manager Robert Lawton was shown the door earlier this week.
Elected city councils are the ultimate boss, setting policy and making top-level decisions, including hiring someone to run the city’s day-to-day operations. That’s the city manager’s job, and it’s a crucial one to the success of any city.
Lawton’s departure, after barely more than a year on the job, means four different people have been at the helm of Turlock’s day-to-day operations in just over two years. That’s too many.
For those keeping track, former City Manager Gary Hampton abruptly left on bad terms in July 2017; former Fire Chief Bob Talloni served as interim city manager until Lawton was hired in July 2018, ending a year without a permanent leader; and Municipal Services Director Michael Cooke now will take over while the council looks for someone else.
A constantly revolving door is a bad look in itself. But Turlock has seen more than its share of extra drama in recent times.
Things got bad enough near the end of Soiseth’s one and only term that The Modesto Bee Editorial Board flatly declared in October, “Turlock has turned toxic.” That editorial cited “shouting and screaming. Departures of key members of city administration. Cruel animosity. Collapsing budget reserves,” and much more, including Hampton’s formal claim of bullying and unethical conduct at the hands of Soiseth and former City Attorney Phaedra Norton — who, by the way, also served as interim city manager for a few months when Hampton was on medical leave. The council paid Hampton $39,000 to make his legal claim go away.
Soiseth was trounced in the election, Norton left under a cloud, Lawton fired Talloni in July, and now Lawton’s gone too.
So yes, it’s been rough sledding for Turlock leaders. Those remaining face hard decisions to cope with ongoing fallout from spending missteps during the Soiseth years.
But all is not lost. Not even close.
Turlock, with about 75,000 people, is a great city. It boasts a beautiful and vibrant downtown. Its regional shopping, right off Highway 99, draws thousands of shoppers every day. It’s got plentiful, shovel-ready industrial property, with adequate sewer and among the most stable electric rates in the state. In many ways, Turlock is the envy of Stanislaus County, despite too-frequent headlines suggesting disarray at the top. And Cooke is a respected, experienced leader who can be trusted to keep things humming while Turlock council members search for a new city manager.
The council should take care not to interfere in recruitment. Remember that the black eye from Hampton’s claim was directly linked to the process of finding his successor; he said Soiseth, Norton and former Councilman Matthew Jacob pressured him to use his influence to help Norton land the job.
Turlock council members must this time resolve to spend far less than a year finding a new city manager who will last longer than one.