Opinion Columns & Blogs

It’s our Modesto City Charter; leaders must share its future with us

In May 2005, the Modesto City Council authorized a committee to review the city charter, a code controlling how the city is run. Each council member and the mayor were to choose one person to consider charter amendments.

The last such committee was criticized for not being diverse enough, during this year’s Sept. 10 council discussion about reconvening a new charter review committee.

The council’s answer is to allow their hand-picked representatives to select four more hand-picked committee members.

Does this really add diversity?

Before it came up for a vote, the council was asked to allow public participation by using a lottery for the additional four seats. Council member Jenny Kenoyer said, “If you read the charter, we cannot have a lottery.” Since no one questioned that statement (she and Bill Zoslocki were attending by phone, and Council member Kristi Ah You wasn’t present), the public was allowed to believe what Kenoyer said.

In fact, Section 1604 of the charter says: “The council shall cause this charter to be reviewed at least every 10 years commencing with the year 1980.” That’s it, in its entirety. Nothing more. Nothing to prevent involvement of the average Modesto voter or to prevent the use of a lottery.

The suggestion was met with silence. The idea of the council giving up even a small amount of control over the process seemed to offend them.

Let’s look at the reality of the situation. Four council members — Zoslocki, Mani Grewal, Doug Ridenour and Kenoyer — sometimes are referred to as the Gang of Four. They control almost all council decisions. So it stands to reason they would control the additional members of the committee. Instead of controlling four of seven members, they and special interests behind them would control eight of 11.

The public has to approve any change to the charter, but we’ve seen that it all depends on the choices we’re offered. Remember when they decided to award themselves a fifth year in office?

What can the charter review committee potentially accomplish? For one, it can place an elected auditor position on the ballot that wouldn’t be subject to being hounded out of office by the Gang of Four, as happened recently when the auditor started to investigate the city attorney. The committee could also require mandatory implementation of results of advisory elections. That way our politicians can’t claim voter burnout and overlook results, like they’ve considered doing in the past. Developers who control the council wouldn’t like that.

They also could adjust the records retention policy, so emails the public has a right to see won’t disappear after 90 days. Then the city attorney couldn’t just stall for time when Public Record Act requests are submitted.

They even could propose to require that the city attorney be in house on a full-time basis, instead of a $4 million part timer who doesn’t bother coming to the office on Fridays.

State law requires us to move our elections to coincide with the general election. We need to reconcile this requirement with the need for a mayoral primary, to prevent a mayor being elected with less than 50% of the vote.

Them shutting us out is all about keeping control to themselves and not allowing the public to participate in a meaningful way.

I believe we should have a lottery for seven positions on the committee instead of just four, so the public would have a meaningful voice in our city’s future. Imagine that.

Emerson Drake of Modesto is a blogger and a longtime government watchdog.