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7,687 signatures would force recall election for Cantu
Ben Cantu
Ben Cantu

The social media drumbeat of talk about launching a recall against Mayor Ben Cantu has increased after broad details of disarray with municipal finance department accounting were made public in advance of tonight’s Manteca City Council meeting.

Some of the financial issues go back at least as far as 2015 — three years before Cantu was elected mayor by defeating Steve DeBrum. Cantu has been criticized in some quarters for advocating the spending of more money on amenities as well as  being part of the council that replaced former City Manager Tim Ogden with Miranda Lutzow who  subsequently terminated Jodie Estarziau as police chief.

In the past several days there have been discussions of the mechanics of starting a recall of Cantu.

The initial steps involve  submitting a letter of intent to recall that must meet legal requirements along with the names of 20 verified City of Manteca registered voters and their addresses who are advocating the recall. The notice would have to be served on Cantu and publish a legal notice in a newspaper.

A specific and detailed recall petition document must then be drafted and circulated.

Election Code section 11221 states that 20 percent of qualified signatures are required to qualify a special election to conduct a recall vote. Based on the fact there were 38,434 registered voters in Manteca as of June 8, 2020, it would require 7,687 of verifiable City of Manteca registered voters to trigger a recall.

The last recall  that qualified for the ballot in Manteca was in 1982. Three council members actually ended up being recalled. They were the late Bobby Davis who owned Manteca Trailer and Motorhome at the time, Rick Wentworth who went on to gain election and serve as the San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools and the late Trena Kelly who was both the first directly elected mayor and the first woman elected to the Manteca City Council.

The 1982 recall effort was launched days after the council dismissed Leonard Taylor as police chief. Ironically, the most persistent social media proponents of recalling Cantu are those upset that the city  manager — who is appointed by the council — 11½  months ago placed Police Chief Jodie Estarziau on paid administrative leave.

The cantankerous 1982 recall created deep divisions in Manteca that were still the basis for municipal political infighting until the mid-1990s.

Since the 1982 recall there have been two other recall attempts that met the initial filing criteria that failed to gain enough traction to obtain the needed signatures to force a special election. In both cases the issues were not as raw and widespread as those surrounding Taylor’s dismissal. Estarziau’s placement on paid administrative leave did not generate the same level of animosity in the community as Taylor’s termination.

Cantu in November 2018 was elected as Manteca’s 8th directly elected mayor after his bid in six elections over 12 years to gain election either as a council member or as the mayor. Cantu earned 52.29 percent of the vote to defeat DeBrum. The final count was 12,042 votes for Cantu and 10,988 votes for DeBrum — a margin of 1,056 votes.

There was a petition started that called for the recall of Cantu two months ago that as of Monday had garnered only 227 signatures.


Finance department concerns

being presented to council

Interim Finance Director Stephanie Beauchaine will be presenting the City Council an assessment of the finance department issues when they meet at 7 p.m. tonight. The meeting is being livestreamed via the city’s website and Comcast Channel 97.

Beauchaine — who as a consultant has over the years worked to help other cities with similar issues get their house in order — has made 20 key assessments in the report being present to the council.

Beauchaine stressed it will likely take several years before all issues are cleared up and addressed. Tonight’s report will not get into specific numbers given there is a significant amount of work needed to be done to get the city’s financials in order.

City management wanted to go public as soon as the experts and the current finance department staff had a clear understanding of the key issues facing they city.

Some of the issues go as far back as at least 2015 — the last time there was a hard closure of the municipal books. At the same time “roughly $67 million” in cash deficits have been identified.

The interim finance director indicates in her report to the council “revenue projections are of our primary concern” when it comes to the provisional budget Manteca is currently operating under “and we believe that the adopted revenue assumptions are overly confident.”


City’s general ledger hasn’t

been reconciled for years

A major concern is reconciling the general ledger which hasn’t happened for several years if not longer.

General ledgers are used to provide a record of each financial transaction that takes place in an institution whether it is a business of a government agency. It is the heart of the city’s financial system and critical to produce budgets with assumptions based on solid numbers as well as generating budget spending and revenue status reports that are accurate.

Beauchaine noted the “front line” financial activity that encompasses everything from utility bill payments and billing to payroll is being done daily but when that data is transferred to the general ledger it is not being regularly reconciled. That is when the wheels come off.

Instead of recording numbers produced from those procedures as well as grants and such to the general ledger various city departments have been keeping their own “off-the-books” spreadsheets.

Those spreadsheets have been used to create city budgets and to get a snapshot of where the city is at a given point when it comes to revenues and expenses. As a result their accuracy is of a major concern due to errors and omissions.

Beauchaine noted that the city doesn’t have a system per se in place. That meant when key personnel department the institutional knowledge of the specific way that the City of Manteca has been doing things over the years that apparently do not follow standard accounting practices, the finance department slipped into disarray.

“There needs to be a system,” she stressed.