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Who will be hero for Lathrop’s residents?

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POSTED March 30, 2009 3:57 a.m.
Will Lathrop Vice Mayor Martha Salcedo be the Superhero who will clean up the mess at City Hall? Or will it be Councilman Robert Oliver?

I can just hear the questions now: “What mess?”

Well, for starters, and easily the biggest is the financial stink that continues to emanate from the Matt Browne fiasco. It’s been a high-stakes stinking mess from the very beginning and nobody among the powers-that-be, namely the elected City Council officials – seems willing to touch it with a 10-foot pole. Why?

There’s the political reason, obviously, for one. And there may be a number of other possible reasons, and anybody’s guess or theory – however way you want to call it – is as good as anybody else’s including mine. When I posed the question, “why is the council not doing anything to end the long-running Browne fiasco and stop the financial drain at City Hall?” the answer I invariably got was: “We can’t do anything about it because we have to wait for the hearing officer’s recommendations; we have to wait until the process is completed.”

A politically safe answer.

But while the waiting game continues for a resolution to the Browne wrongful-termination complaint which has been going on for nearly two years, they money clock is also ticking at City Hall. And the longer it keeps on ticking, the more Lathrop taxpayers’ money is being paid out to the lawyers representing the city. It’s already common knowledge that the city has already spent more than $260,000 – maybe even much more than that since that was the figure given out months ago – on attorney’s fees plus the fees for the hearing officer. There are some who are already speculating that the Brown case will eventually cost the city – read taxpayers - $500,000 when all is said and done, maybe even close to a million dollars. But the taxpayers could also be coughing up several million dollars more in the event the hearing officer rules against giving Brown back his job, which is all he asked for throughout what his lawyer called the “name-clearing” hearing process, and he decides to sue the city. The fact the city denied his request that his hearing be open to the public and the press because “he has nothing to hide,” as his attorney stated, would be an additional incentive for Brown to file a lawsuit against the city.

But here’s the puzzling thing that is quite hard to fathom.

When the city recently raised water and sewer rates, people packed the Council Chambers during the public hearings and loudly protested the additional drain on their already stripped-to-the-bone pocketbooks. That financial drain amounted to $2 to $4 yearly increased in their monthly utility bills for a period of  three years.

And when the council voted the same night they approved the higher sewer and water fees to send Mayor Kristy Sayles and interim City Manager Cary Keaton to the One Voice lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., on the residents’ dime (the estimated travel cost of $3,000 to $5,000 will come from the city’s general fund), a handful of residents also protested that decision. On this one, they had the vice mayor on their side. Salcedo said it did not seem fair to raise the people’s water and sewer bills one moment, and then the next moment ask them to pay for the mayor’s and interim city manager’s plane fares and $300-a-night accommodations plus meals at one of the top hotels in the nation’s capital.

Residents who were opposed to the trip rationalized that since the city has not received any federal funds in the last four years as a direct result of this regional lobbying spearheaded by the San Joaquin County of Governments, that this may not be the right time to be doing this kind of spending, particularly when the overall economy is in dire straits and the city is facing possible severe budget cuts.

Which brings me back to the vice mayor and the Browne issue. Salcedo has already proven that she has the guts to buck the council trend, even when she is the proverbial Lone Ranger. While some may question her move as possibly politically driven, I, for one, did not see it that way. As a school teacher who sees and hears on a daily basis the hardships of many families, she knows first-hand what the lack of even a buck can do to a struggling parent who is trying to stretch that dollar to the limit.

Will she try to come to the rescue of Lathrop’s overtaxed and overburdened citizens once again and stop the drain of hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money at City Hall?

Or, perhaps, will the rescuer be Councilman Oliver? After all, his campaign in the November 2008 elections was heavily premised on doing something about the Browne case. But he still has to translate those words into action.

During the devastating New Year’s floods of 1997, hundreds of people were mobilized to stop the flooding that threatened residential areas – including Lathrop – by filling in the breached levees along the San Joaquin River, while scores more anxiously took care of the boils happening in other sections of the levees that could have easily turned into another breach and more flooding.

In a way, that’s what’s happening in Lathrop. There’s a gaping financial breach at City Hall that’s threatening to drown the city coffers. Who is willing and brave enough, in a political sense, to fix it? Not today, not next week or next month but now. Vice Mayor Salcedo? Councilman Oliver? Anyone on the City Council?

Perhaps the council is waiting to hear more than just the trio of fed-up voices coming from residents Dan Mac Neilage, Rosalinda Valencia and J. “Chaka” Santos who, to their credit, have consistently brought their concerns about the Browne fiasco which, by the way, could have easily happened and could happen again, to any city employee. If so, maybe now is the time for concerned Lathrop taxpayers to stand up and protest any further funneling of city funds to the attorneys by repeating the famous movie line: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

After all, that is their hard-earned money that is being squandered.
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