What exactly are Modesto city leaders hiding?

Modesto Mayor Ted Brandvold, middle, listens to public comment during the Modesto City Council meeting at Tenth Street Place in Modesto, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019.
Modesto Mayor Ted Brandvold, middle, listens to public comment during the Modesto City Council meeting at Tenth Street Place in Modesto, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. aalfaro@modbee.com

Modesto leaders’ latest interpretation of Keystone Cops is further evidence that we desperately need a change.

Thanks to diligent reporting by The Modesto Bee’s Kevin Valine, we know that City Clerk Stephanie Lopez had a problem interacting with Councilman Doug Ridenour more than a year ago. Something about a gesture he made, or didn’t. Apparently seeking exoneration, he quietly and immediately requested an investigation and started a paper trail. But the whole thing got delayed and is only now getting off the ground, for reasons that are anything but clear.

Without clarifying details, it’s not wise to pass judgment on the origin of this mess. But the way they’ve handled it so far appears to have mucked up the process and helped us lose even more faith in an already shaky City Hall.

According to Valine’s report:

  • City Manager Joe Lopez, no relation to the city clerk, hired an investigator after receiving Ridenour’s demand in August 2018.
  • The matter went nowhere because the city clerk was reluctant to file a formal complaint.
  • It somehow ended up in Mayor Ted Brandvold’s court.
  • Ridenour now blames the mayor for sitting on it. Ridenour says Brandvold is “paranoid” and a control freak.

We pause here to note that Ridenour is one of four challengers so far who say they’ll run against Brandvold in the fall 2020 election. This raises political questions. Is Ridenour teeing off against a rival for political gain? Or is Brandvold’s delay somehow rooted in hopes of embarrassing his opponent?


(Also up for election in November 2020 are seats held by Councilmen Ridenour and Mani Grewal, who is running for state Senate on the March ballot, and Councilwoman Kristi Ah You.)

Brandvold wouldn’t answer Valine’s questions about stalling. There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation.

On the other hand, it’s evident that when Brandvold really doesn’t want to do something, he doesn’t do it. For example, the mayor is a reluctant and uneasy public speaker, and he refused to deliver a state of the city speech for four years, until The Bee essentially called him a coward for shirking that public duty.

What else do we know about Stephanie Lopez’s complaint?

When she finally outlined her allegations in a February memo, she pointed a finger at the city manager and city attorney as well as Ridenour. We don’t know why, because the city is keeping the memo secret.

Do officials have to withhold this information? Of course not.

High-ranking public officials, by law as well as common sense, are accountable to the people. There is legal precedent for disclosing whatever is going on, regardless of how it might embarrass them. That’s how it works when people decide to make a living, or to supplement their income, off taxpayers.

Here is the seminal question: What are they hiding?

Our leaders must explain why some of them are under investigation, and why we’re paying at least $70,000 to get to the bottom of it.

They must come clean on why it’s taken so long.

And they must make crystal clear exactly why they’ve been hiding it.

People get all worked up about President Trump and Nancy Pelosi and impeachment and Syria and North Korea and so much more that may be compelling to talk about but doesn’t immediately affect their lives.

Modesto City Hall is different. It’s here, it’s now and it’s real, and we directly decide who deserves our trust.

We’ll get that chance next year.

Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.