Mistakes were made.
And the Manteca City Council is not only vowing to learn from their mistakes but to implement a number of changes addressing ineffectual city management, inconsistent employment practices, flawed grievance procedures, and faulty financial operations.
On Tuesday elected leaders continued their efforts to put city government back on course when they unanimously approved a concise 10-page response to a scathing San Joaquin County Grand Jury report issued in July entitled, “City of Manteca: A City Government in Turmoil.”
Mayor Ben Cantu promised to sign the official response. The council, apparently in case the mayor had a change of heart, included in their motion to authorize either the mayor or vice mayor — Gary Singh — to sign the letter.
“I agree with (the response),” Singh said. “Let’s move forward.”
Council members Jose Nuño, Charlie Halford, and Dave Breitenbucher employed similar remarks with the same measured brevity as Singh.
The mayor — who has been the target of the heaviest criticism on social media for events that have unfolded over the past two years — said he “didn’t fully support all of the findings.”
He then proceeded to make short and concise remarks to counter those that painted Manteca as a city in “turmoil” including findings by the Grand Jury.
Cantu noted during the 20-month period the Grand Jury dissected based on 20 interviews and pouring over various documentation “garbage was picked up” and police and fire continued to respond plus other services were maintained.
“There was no decrease in public service,” the mayor stressed.
Cantu then summed up what he has been repeatedly saying for the last three years. In a nutshell, from his perspective, Manteca needed to make significant changes in order to make sure it transitions as effectively as possible from a valley farm community to a city that will soon eclipse 100,000 residents. Cantu stressed “change is always difficult.”
Cantu’s specific comments altogether on the city’s response barely topped a minute. And, like his council colleagues, he refrained from commenting on any specific response in the letter or comments by the Grand Jury.
The meeting in its entirety — after it got started following a delay due to technical issues — lasted 17 minutes.
There are those in the community who have made it clear they don’t see what transpired as a needed change but rather a purge that saw the entire senior management team that included previous city manager Tim Ogden and ultimately Lutzow herself cleared out either through termination or resignation over a 20-month period.
The report itself — while focusing on bombshells such as Lutzow’s hires uncovering an accounting snafu that has had the city scrambling to try and place funds in the correct account and unearthed inter-fund borrowing that will require water rate hikes to have that account pay back nearly $20 million to other city funds — zeroed in on issues that were primarily in the arena of the city manager’s authority.
The financial confusion — that included failing to update the general ledger — predated Lutzow being in the city manager’s office and even Cantu’s election as mayor in 2018. It was Cantu who aggressively pushed for an outside accounting of the finance department beyond the annual audit after growing frustrated with not being able to secure solid numbers on various accounts during his bids to push spending initiatives to repair streets and add amenities.
Even payouts to settle lawsuits were the result of action taken by the city manager with the exception of Ogden who as a city manager is the only municipal employee the City Council under law can hire and fire besides the city attorney.
That said the city manager — besides overseeing the day-to-day operations of the city — is responsible for carrying out the goals and directives that the majority of the council acting as one provide.
Interim City Manager Mike Harden led the effort to prepare the city’s response to the Grand Jury report and to set in motion efforts to rectify points staff agreed were valid.
He started by mass emailing the Grand Jury report once it was received by the city to all 400 plus municipal employees. Department heads were gathered together to address the issues. The draft response the council adopted without a change or an addition was penned by City Attorney Dave Nefouse.
The majority of the official responses to the Grand Jury fall into the categories of the city agreeing with the Grand Jury, indicating they have already implemented some recommendations, agreeing with recommendations that are yet to be implemented, and partially agreeing with criticism of the citizens’ panel that serves as a government watchdog.
In three instances the response indicates the city disagrees with points the Grand Jury made, indicated three conclusions from observations were not warranted, and clearly states another three recommendations will not be implemented.
The council has retained the services of a program, specialist to assist the city in implementing proposed solutions set out in the Grand Jury report and included in the city’s response letter.
The city’s decision is opportune in terms of timing. It not only comes as Harden is ending his interim city manager’s job but also 48 hours before Toby Wells starts work as Manteca’s first permanent city manager since Lutzow abruptly resigned in February.
By reaching a consensus and embracing a course of action it becomes something Wells has to implement without getting him tangled in the sorting out of previous issues that can — or have — crossed the line into the political arena.
As for the changes Cantu has repeatedly stressed are needed, Wells will have only four key senior management positions to fill. They are assistant city manager, fire chief, public works director, and finance director.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email email@example.com