LATHROP – You can run from a lot of things, but you can’t run from numbers.
And they were staggering.
With the economy in ruins and the once mighty housing market nothing more than a distant memory, the City of Lathrop faced arguably its biggest challenge since it incorporated – wiping out more than tens of millions in forecasted debt that was due to come if spending habits didn’t change over the course of the next five years.
It wasn’t anybody’s fault. This wasn’t another situation like what happened in Bell, where the bureaucrats robbed the city blind. It was just a simple and unforeseen equation – the value of the properties in the community in which the city garnered its funds was slashed seemingly overnight.
Lathrop Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal looks back on the decisions that were made then and holds his head up high. It was a crossroads, he says, and things could have gone two very different ways.
It was chock full of some of the hardest decisions that he’s ever had to make as an elected official.
Turning around that future deficit meant cutting everywhere possible – including staffers, some of whom had been the City of Lathrop for years. It meant increasing workloads and imposing furloughs and taking a harder stance at the negotiating table. It meant, essentially, doing the things that the citizens of Lathrop elected him to do even if they were the things he didn’t want to be doing.
Now, as he sits on the dais and prepares for a run for a second term as Lathrop’s mayor, Dhaliwal is looking at budget reserves of nearly $10 million – a massive reversal of fortune that came not from a stroke of dumb luck, but the hard work and dedication of a core group of staff members and the city council that remained steadfast in sticking with a plan that has obviously worked.
“We made the tough decision when we had to in order to do what was best for the city,” Dhaliwal said. “A deficit the size that we faced would ruin a lot of cities Lathrop’s size. But by having the council work together we were able to see ourselves out of it.
“Fiscal solvency isn’t just something that’s important to me, but to the whole council, and that’s what we were able to preserve.”
Ask Dhaliwal anything about the political workings of San Joaquin County and he can answer it. He knows and communicates regularly with members of the Board of Supervisors, served on the Local Agency Formation Commission and has worked closely with the Council of Governments – the gurus of transportation and the money that comes with it. If there was a place that he could go to put a bright, smiling face on Lathrop, then he was there and he was doing exactly that – everything possible to learn for both himself and the future betterment of the community he was representing.
It’s a tangled web, local politics. On one hand you’re the most directly accountable to the people that elect you – they get to show up at meetings and let you know how they feel and stop you at the grocery store and flag you down at parades. There’s no buffer.
And sometimes that means needing a Teflon exterior.
It’s not uncommon to have to sit on the dais and take a barrage of criticisms from people who think that they know how to do things better without offering any sort of substantiation to backup the claim.
A single point of accountability means that everything is directed through one source. Fury at the City Manager gets funneled right through Dhaliwal’s seat – the lightning of Lathrop’s political forces that all want to sound off on one thing or another.
It can be a helpless place. A thankless one too. As long as the speaker falls within the sparsely-defined rules of “proper decorum” they can basically step up to the lectern and say anything that they want. Even those that are pressed to change their line of inquisition or wrath often fail to do so.
Given the right mixture on a city council night and it’ll leave you punch-drunk – lob after lob coming from people who want nothing more than hurl shots at those they elected.
It’s enough to knock even the most skilled fighter to canvas. And it’s enough to bring some people back asking to stand in for another round.
The Quiet Confidence
Some people mistake Dhaliwal’s lack of candor during meetings as a softness. Somebody that doesn’t want to trade barbs or lock horns when people that have served in the position before him have done so and done so skillfully.
He listens. He pays close attention to what is being said. And he waits his turn – asking a quick question of staff to see whether the person who is obviously upset can be helped by a simple phone call, or a nod and a smile to agreeing to talk after the meeting and find some sort of a resolution to a problem that can more than likely be solved without trading punches.
It doesn’t always go that way. Over the course of the last month Dhaliwal has been accused of masterminding a plot to extort money from residents under false pretenses so that the city could sit on huge reserves while hard-earning residents and business people unfairly paid more than their fair share.
It was farcical to anybody in attendance who knew about how Measure C had unfolded prior to its placement on the ballot, but Dhaliwal didn’t lock horns with those who were accusing him of what amounted to be fraud. He waited.
And when his detractors finished venting, he suggested placing an informative item on the next agenda so that people that don’t fully understand what happened can learn more about it and how it came to be.
It could have been snarky or reactionary, but it was short and to-the-point and represented the way in which he has served as mayor since he was elected two years ago.
It was Sonny Dhaliwal.
Because he knows that in the last several years Lathrop has rebounded. River Islands has become the model for what to do with a large-scale housing project – small-city, really – and commercial businesses have been taking notice of what Lathrop has to offer. Tesla Motors is setting up in the community. O’Reilly Auto Parts felt that the city on the mend had potential as well.
All of those barometers, Dhaliwal says, are proof that the city is on the right track and serves as motivation for making sure that it stays on it.
“We worked together through the economic crisis and now as a city we’re starting to have things to show for the work that we’ve done – new projects are coming and with them commercial and retail will come as well,” he said. “The challenge that we’re facing today is making sure that we remain business friendly – that we encourage development and the addition of head-of-household jobs for our citizens.
“We’re in an economy where everybody can help everybody, and learning to make sure that works out well for all will be a challenge but a benefit.”