Mayor’s committee could get Modesto rolling in right direction

The city of Modesto appears to be on the verge of an overhaul, thanks to 13 “mechanics” who spent 100 days under the hood.

We don’t want to say the city’s wheels were coming off, but in many ways Modesto had been running on fumes. Repairs were long overdue.

Mayor Ted Brandvold pledged a 100-day review of city priorities and finances during his campaign for mayor last year. Sounded like typical campaign yada-yada to us. But his select committee of 13 residents – it’s not a stretch to call them movers and shakers – has come up with some 36 recommendations and even more observations. Some are downright revelatory.

First, the group broke into various subcommittees and conducted 26 meetings for an exhaustive examination. In other words, they took it seriously.

Second, it was committee member Mike Zagaris who insisted that all meetings remain open and that no discussions take place behind closed doors. Such transparency is essential to building trust, and it was abundantly clear to Zagaris and others that trust is something the city desperately needs.

Third, the committee, led by Chuck Bryant, did exactly what Brandvold asked – find a way to pay for more public safety staff. The city has authorized Police Chief Galen Carroll to add 22 staffers.

But that wasn’t all. When the committee began asking city staff for numbers, staff had a hard time providing them. Not because they were dragging their feet, but because they were trying to pry those numbers out of a 30-year-old computer system. The city’s software simply isn’t capable of developing specific financial statistics.

For instance, committee members wanted monthly revenue and expenditure reports, but were told such reports – the staple of all businesses – didn’t exist. They do now.

When they asked for 5- and 10-year budget projections, City Manager Jim Holgersson had to tell them those were just being developed. Such analysis hadn’t been required by the city until his arrival last year.

But such projections are essential, especially when they show the city could be broke by 2023 – if changes aren’t made.

Committee members learned something else. The city’s bad reputation for service might be due more to those woefully inadequate computers than a lack of attention from staff.

“City staff is burdened by its antiquated systems,” said Zagaris, a real estate developer. “Even though the staff was extraordinarily cooperative … they couldn’t get us the data.”

The City Council will be asked to approve the committee’s report on Tuesday night. From there, city staff will have up to 90 days to develop a process for implementation.

Many of the ideas need to be thoroughly discussed and examined. Some are controversial, merely asking why a city the size of Modesto needs three city-owned golf courses. Regardless, they provide an excellent starting point.

Some will insist the committee was made up of the “usual suspects,” a cabal of businessmen out to line their pockets. We don’t see it that way. The meetings were open; their work is on the table for everyone to see.

Whether its recommendations are implemented or rejected, this committee has done more than give the city a tune-up. It has uncovered some serious problems and is offering some serious solutions. By keeping discussions open and inclusive and focusing on the city’s top priorities, Bryant and his group have begun the process of restoring badly needed trust.

It’s clear the status quo is no longer good enough at City Hall, and that’s a significant improvement.