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Responsibility dies along with civility amid 2020 Manteca City Council politics
Jason Campbell

 I’ve never seen political finger-pointing reach the point of rivaling that of a Reservoir Dogs standoff before, but I guess in 2020 nothing is off the table.

It appears that the City of Manteca’s financial predicament – where no general ledger was  being reconciled, money couldn’t be accounted for properly, and nobody was sure about what had been paid and what hadn’t been paid – was everybody’s fault and nobody’s fault depending on which political camp you happened to be standing in.

On one hand, you have current Manteca council hopefuls trying to pin the entire thing on existing members of the council – some of whom have only been on the council for two years – while completely absolving the legacy members that happened to be supporting their campaign.

I appreciate that former Manteca Police Chief Charlie Halford took the time to provide a detailed analysis in an attempt to get people to understand the complicated situation, but putting it all on the doorstep of Mayor Ben Cantu and Councilman Gary Singh was disingenuous at best considering that past council members that are knee-deep in the history of this are vocally supporting his candidacy.

And at least one of those former council members – Rich Silverman – has all but claimed that it’s all made up.

Welcome to politics two weeks before an election in 2020.

Regardless of what comes of this, one thing does start to become completely apparent based on these revelations – the theory that Cantu orchestrated some elaborate firing of the city manager so he could appoint somebody loyal to him in order to oust former police chief Jodie Estarziau is dead in the water.

Or at least it should be.

The day before it was announced that Manteca’s financial ledger appeared to be kept by a toddler saving for the ice cream man it was also disclosed that the city will be giving back nearly all of its tax revenue from the original 9 percent room tax from the Great Wolf Lodge to the company that had already secured a sweetheart deal for the purchase of the land.

While it was billed as a project that would help pay for much-needed police in the community, it looks now like it’s actually going to be just a tad better than a wash; so much for the deal of the century.

Now, if this resort does spur additional development in the area that doesn’t qualify for sweetheart tax breaks, then maybe it’ll be a better deal to justify the use of future room tax receipts Great Wolf will leverage to lure the resort here in the first place. But the disclosure raises a ton of questions about whether the council understood this was the case, and if they didn’t, whether it was intentionally kept from them in order to push it through.

And considering that the former city manager that was ultimately dismissed is the one who negotiated that deal – and he ended up going to the city that was in competition with Manteca for that development project – I think it’s safe to say that the people of Manteca have a right to ask questions about what exactly happened there.

But yet these disclosures somehow don’t slow down the conspiracy train about Cantu being some mastermind that orchestrated the Northern San Joaquin Valley’s version of The Night of Long Knives.

And it’s another former Manteca police chief that is knee-deep in that.

I’ve seen screenshots that retired Chief Dave Bricker is an admin in a Facebook group that’s pushing for a recall of Cantu – something that is no doubt rooted in an allegiance to Estarziau and is picking up steam among those disaffected by the political tumult at city hall.

The loyalty is admirable, but as we have now seen it’s not like the municipal complex on Center Street was operating at peak efficiency when the last guy was in charge and the ousting of department heads more than likely has a lot more to do with those issues than it does with any perceived vendetta that Cantu may have had.

In a sense – I get it. Ben Cantu is not a born politician. His attempts at wading into issues on social media – the modern public square – often make things worse than they were before he attempted to correct them. That goes double for his campaigning for the Yes on Measure Z movement that all but poisoned the well because of these tribalist factions.

But after years of him railing on how developers were getting one over on local politicians and city staff – arguments rooted in decades of experience and laced with engineering jargon and civic-speak – it’s starting to become clear that maybe he wasn’t completely crazy after all.

By every measurable standard the Great Wolf contract when it was originally passed with only a 9 percent room tax assured at the time Manteca was netting not much more than pennies from the deal. And if it’s true that there was no reconciled general ledger and departments were all operating with independent off-the-book spreadsheets with no oversight a properly maintained general ledger provides, the housecleaning that the council did doesn’t seem quite as unwarranted at this point in time.

The unfortunate truth in all of this is that things are likely going to get far worse before they get better.

These revelations will likely sink the much-needed Measure Z that would stave off the budget shortfalls that are coming. And if the city has to tap into reserves – things like paying back federal and state grants because detailed recordkeeping as to where the money went can’t be produced will surely be a huge hit – then the knife is going to end up being that much sharper.

This is the time that Manteca needs elected officials from the past, present, and future to put aside factional differences and come together to shepherd a community they all claim to love through these fiscally uncertain times.

Is that going to happen?

I’d say the odds of that happening are about as good as the room tax revenue from Great Wolf paying for the reoccurring cost of a single additional police officer on its own any time in the next 10 years or longer .

Take from that what you will.

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.