Teamwork? Modesto leaders seem more committed to toxicity

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

Nobody who really cares about Modesto government would take joy in recent disturbing tales of deep distrust, dislike and dysfunction among top officials at City Hall.

We’ve seen sobering evidence of disorder — and have periodically commented on it — from time to time in the past few years. If City Council members can’t get along in public, one wonders how bad it might be behind closed doors, with no one watching.

Pretty bad, if accounts contained in the guts of an investigation are to be believed.

Investigators did not substantiate the most salacious claim of City Clerk Stephanie Lopez, who reported that Councilman Doug Ridenour repeatedly made crude sexual gestures at her. Nor did he “engage in threatening and abusive conduct” toward her, investigators concluded.

They also absolved City Manager Joe Lopez (no relation) of blame for “inappropriately excluding” her from department head meetings; he excluded her for good reasons, investigators said. And they discounted the city clerk’s claim that Ridenour and City Attorney Adam Lindgren disparaged her during a 2018 council meeting recess.


But the picture emerging from bombshell supporting documents, including Lopez’s log, memos and emails, is damning regardless of whose side you’re on, because undisputed details leave you wondering how anything is getting done on the sixth floor at Tenth Street Place.

Undisputed is the political chasm between the city’s top elected office holder, Mayor Ted Brandvold, and its top appointed officer, Joe Lopez. They put on a professional face in public, but the rift was obvious to investigators.

So bad is their relationship that Joe Lopez excluded the city clerk from important meetings and retreats for more than a year, she said, because he feared she would run and tell the mayor what the city manager is up to. Joe Lopez disputed that motive, but confirmed that he cut her out of the loop because he doesn’t trust her.

The isolation paralyzed Stephanie Lopez. Listen to her journal of events from a July meeting: “When I walked in … no one said hello, no acknowledgment, nothing. I felt like I was invisible. When other staff arrived, they were all acknowledged.”

When she encountered Ridenour in an elevator, he exited without a word, she said.

Is this anyone’s idea of a healthy work environment?

Other documents include episodes leaving her “very distraught and shaken,” crying, too upset to work for two days, and blaming job stress and anxiety for her breakup with a boyfriend of 10 years. She predicted she would get railroaded in the investigation, which she called “politically motivated” and “retaliation” for being aligned with the mayor, not the city manager and city attorney.

It’s worth remembering that Ridenour, not Stephanie Lopez, initiated this probe after he learned that she harbored resentment. His drive to be exonerated was cited by investigators as a big reason they think he’s innocent.

It’s also important to note that Ridenour wants to be mayor. He and five others so far have said they will challenge Brandvold in November 2020 elections.

So, on one side are the mayor and city clerk, often joined by Councilmembers Tony Madrigal and Kristi Ah You. On the other are the city manager and city attorney, often aligned with Councilmembers Bill Zoslocki, Jenny Kenoyer, Mani Grewal and Ridenour. It’s a deeply divided leadership whose performance can be painful to watch.

Ah You told investigators she recalls Ridenour making a lewd gesture in a meeting with the city clerk and mayor. Ridenour denied it and pondered whether Ah You “may have been motivated to make a false account” because the two council members once clashed privately in a closed session, for which he apologized.

How are we to describe the atmosphere at the top tier of City Hall?

“Toxic” springs to mind. “Cooperative” does not. “Supportive”? Nope. “Tense”? Yes.

The council is to be commended for unveiling the report, warts and all. We expect no less from our leaders.

It’s generally accepted that people won’t always get along in a work environment. To be sure, even small offices can have their share of drama.

We hold our officials to a high standard. They are public servants, by their choice, and in the case of elected officers, by ours. The trust we put in them demands consistent and persistent effort to maintain.

Even when arbiters conclude that evidence of wrongdoing is thin, that trust slips when they’re forced to spend $70,000 of taxpayer money investigating each other.

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.