What did the Manteca City Council do Tuesday night when it comes to spending your tax dollars?
Whatever they did one hopes they didn’t commit any more money toward fiber optic initiatives. It is clear they need to spend money first on better audio-visual equipment given the folks who still pay homage to Comcast 97 were blacked out, live-streaming on the city’s website was deader than a Tandy 80 computer, and the MacGyver fix to the city’s Facebook page was a nice try but unless you had super hearing or could read lips you couldn’t make out much of anything being said.
No big deal, right? They were just talking about hiring a permanent city manager, approving a controversial residential development west of the golf course, throwing more money at a long overdue truck route study, and other inconsequential things.
Actually they didn’t end up doing any of those things but you couldn’t tell if you were trying to follow the five folks you entrusted with your votes to run the city — more about that later.
With the public locked out thanks to Gov. Newsom allowing cities to suspend sections of the Brown Act during the coronavirus for social distancing, it forced anyone who wanted to find out about city business which is their business to turn on the cable, fire up their electronic device, turn on their computer or head on down to the transit center to view the meeting on a remote screen.
The technical problems, we are told, stemmed from a transformer being blown. It was explained by Mayor Ben Cantu in his text kind of like a line from country singer Joe Diffie’s hit “Third Rock from the Sun”.
“Car hit power pole, blown transformer spiked electrical system at city hall, telecommunications went haywire” – welcome to Manteca, third city from the Altamont.
So what did the current council and administration that channels the occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when it comes to telling us how great and how much better they are doing than their predecessors when it comes to being transparent? They went ahead and conducted a meeting few in the public could hear.
There were moments when whoever at the podium was speaking you could make out what was being said. But rarely when council members spoke could you hear a thing except garble unless who was running around the room with the device used to stream on Facebook was able to get close enough to council members before they stopped talking.
Getting bit and pieces of what was going on led some folks — including a Facebook follower who was so alarmed they emailed the Bulletin upset that the council was trying to bankrupt the city — jump to the wrong conclusions.
The lady had heard Acting Finance Director Stephan Christensen who is heading out the revolving door at city hall later this month, talk about how unusually robust Manteca’s general fund reserves are.
Except for Miranda Lutzow — who is still the interim city manager and not “the” city manager as the council apparently postponed making that call and was audible most of the time — Christensen was the only one you could hear clearly. There was a point when the mayor was explaining city hall practices of the last 50 years or so where part of his comments were understandable because whoever was playing roving microphone with their smartphone was able to get close enough to him before he stopped talking.
What Christensen said was the recommended practice for cities was to have general fund reserves equivalent to two months of expenditures. For Manteca that would mean $7.4 million based on general fund expenditures instead of the $17.8 million the city has in reserve. Christensen called it an “outdated” reserve policy. He noted cities Manteca historically uses to measure the city against on a wide away of endeavors have reserves of 20 to 25 percent and not the 47 percent Manteca has in place.
This was a major watershed moment of candor given finance directors have been gleefully squirreling away money since the Era of City Manager David Jinkens who came on board after Manteca was on the financial abyss in 1985 with only $1,000 in reserves, had a fire station they built but couldn’t afford to man, and were buying “new” police patrol units that had 90,000 miles on them from the CHP.
Cantu — if I was able to make it out correctly — said that excess money of roughly $10 million should be spent on things like streets and the library. This is serious stuff and could be a defining moment for shifting the city’s direction. But whether any other council members agreed, you couldn’t tell as their comments were unintelligible. And no, Councilman Jose Nuno was not missing in action. He was hooked up by phone at a remote location as he was out of town. Apparently he spoke and voted at times but no one could tell who was forced to follow the actions of the most transparent council since the city incorporated in 1918 via a Facebook connection that was anything but worthy of a city that contends it is hell-bent on being on the cutting edge of technology.
But all the lady could make out was the pitch to create more departments.
To set the record straight, phone calls to council members Dave Breitenbucher and Gary Singh after the meeting ended verified the city wasn’t spending any of that money on creating new positions to — as the lady referenced — “bloat the city bureaucracy when everything appears (headed) into the toilet” due to the pandemic and steps being taken to stem it.
The city, according to Singh and Breitenbucher, are using
money that didn’t spend on positions in the current budget to pay for some of
the new positions. As for the others, they will see if they have sufficient
funding in the next budget before taking action.
The council members also shared they elected to do only that item and the consent calendar due to the technical difficulties. That means the Yosemite Greens subdivision is not yet a done deal.
And here’s a note sent from a listener who said she was irked at Tuesday’s council meeting performance: “I am so disappointed and absolutely disgusted by the remarks of our mayor at (Tuesday’s) city council meeting. When referring to hiring staff with a potential recession looming he said, ‘So what!’.
“As a city staffer who was laid off in 2010 due to the Great Recession I found Mr. Cantu’s remark to be insensitive and deeply concerning. Does he not recall what happened back then? It was such an incredibly difficult time for so many people. My family was suddenly left without an income or healthcare and eventually lost our home.
“Our family was devastated...but so what!”
Perhaps you can count her among the Facebook listeners who basically inferred they’d like to cancel the rest of the council’s season based on their performance Tuesday that went sideways due to technical difficulties that locked the public out of the meeting so the elected council and senior staff could have “social distancing” from taxpayers.
Whatever you got from Tuesday night’s meeting it was not the City of Manteca’s finest hour in communicating nor did it live up to their hype that they value and practice transparency on a level they claim has never been seen before at 1001 West Center St.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org