Manteca Mayor Ben Cantu mused Friday in an interview that some posters on social media have described him as a lower case “god” strictly in a secular way with how he goes about carrying out his duties as a council member.
The reference wasn’t intended to be flattering. It was delivered as a jab at how Cantu has supposedly acted unilaterally on everything from the infamous purge of all the previous senior top management at city hall that he generally described as “complacent, self-serving or lazy” to supposedly dictating policy and day-to-day decisions.
It is also an alluded reference from those that believe he — and by extension the City Council as a whole — has magical powers to lure Trader Joe’s, Winco, or their favorite formulated dining option to Manteca or block another 7-Eleven or fast food restaurant from locating here. It also applies to those that believe the council has the legal authority to drive the homeless out of Manteca and supposedly into the wilderness or other cities.
Cantu doesn’t fashion himself as a secular messiah in all things that are City of Manteca issues.
Rather he views himself as a preacher.
Cantu means two things by that.
The first is he has no power to act unilaterally given Manteca as a general law city has the weakest form of a mayor that’s possible under California law. While he runs council meetings which means he sits in the proverbial bully pulpit he also was elected by voters to fill a leadership position where he is viewed as Manteca’s municipal leader who sets the tone.
The truth is undebatable. It takes a council majority — depending on the quorum present — two, three, four, or five members that includes the mayor — to tango.
Cantu also can’t escape the fact his fingerprints plus those of the rest of the council majorly that hired and kept Miranda Lutzow as city manager as long as they did are certainly at least indirectly responsible for the overall actions she took either carrying out what in some cases clearly are policy directions the councilman majority agreed to either in public or closed door sessions or overseeing the running of day-to-day municipal operations as the city manager is charged to do.
The city manager and city attorney are the only two municipal employees the council directly hires. Department heads on the senior management team are hired by the city manager. They in turn hire mid-management with the city manager’s concurrence as well as frontline employees.
The council could have pulled the plug at any time on Lutzow if three agreed to do so. Given Lutzow departed on her own accord one must assume Cantu as well as council members Gary Singh and Jose Nuno as a whole fundamentally had no overriding issues with her actions or her management style.
Councilman Dave Breitenbucher was an unwavering “no” vote every step of the way when it came to being interim or permanent city manager. The only exception was the initial act of elevating Lutzow from Human Resources director to acting city manager after City Manager Tim Ogden was placed on ice.
Councilman Charlie Halford was elected in 2020, well into the Lutzow Era. Even if Halford and Breitenbucher at some point wanted to — or did — make a move behind closed doors to end Lutzow’s reign, they needed one more vote. That meant Cantu, Nuno, or Singh had to join them.
As such it is disingenuous for a majority of the current council to distance themselves from some of the sharp criticism in the San Joaquin County Grand Jury report that was issued in July 2020.
And whether Cantu likes it, how Lutzow executed her duties that led to the entire senior management team to either be chased away or else flee has created a cloud that is partially obscuring his second point about seeing himself as a “preacher” working since Day One when he took office to educate voters on what ails Manteca.
Manteca’s mayor started his fourth year just as unconventional as his first. He didn’t shrink from his campaign rhetoric and settle into the municipal leadership stream content to go with the proverbial blow.
Instead he doubled down on what he told voters, and what he believes, ails Manteca.
To do so he has constantly been driving home or “preaching” what you can’t dismiss as the gospel according to Cantu given there is a heavy dose of truth in it.
Moving beyond his repeatedly outlining correctly for the most part of how the nuts and bolts of how city governments must legally operate and his take on the last 40 years including more than two decades as a City of Manteca planning department employee who — as he pointed out — had a front row seat and big investment in what the city does because he chose to live here and raise his family, Cantu has been clear on the city’s ailments.
*Despite ample opportunities driven by the fact Manteca has consistently been among California’s fastest growing cities since the 1980s, the city has not lifted service levels or amenities much beyond what they were at in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. That includes amenities such as recreation facilities such as the swimming pool and library, the nurturing of downtown and making sure adequate facilities such as a police station are in place to only having minimal staffing for police, streets, planning, and even city hall administration.
*Because of that top priorities of this council and previous councils languish whether it is aggressively addressing homeless, community blight, stepping up public safety to a proactive mode, and affordable housing. Typically what happens is a top priority is handed off to a staff member that is already juggling numerous endeavors tied to growth and day-to-say operations.
*As a result of understaffing and what Cantu calls “the bureaucratic culture” the city relies too much on consultants. Compounding the problem is what he calls the “lack of political will” to commit to securing revenue to move projects forward that inevitably leads to studies for projects and undertakings to be shelved.
*Failure of the city to use growth fees collected and leverage future growth to build amenities. Instead the approach of “paying cash” sees dollars collected from growth for projects eroded by construction inflation. Lathrop eschews such an approach. It started building its new police station several years ago with a down payment from growth fees with the goal of paying it off within 10 years from the collection of further growth fees. As things are turning out Lathrop’s new police station will be paid off way ahead of schedule when July 1 rolls around the city deploys its own police force after decades of contracting law enforcement services through San Joaquin County.
*The city budgets too conservatively. Cantu doesn’t favor going on a spending spree to catch up without the revenue to fund it. His point is Manteca has been too conservative to do things such as have police, library and recreation facilities expand to effectively serve a growing community.
*Things cost money. As far as property taxes are concerned based on when land was annexed to the city Manteca only receives 14 to 17 percent of every dollar a property owner pays in taxes.
Cantu is running for re-election on a platform essentially of “you get what you pay for” and pushing for new taxes.
Rest assured his opponents, whoever they may be, likely won’t address those points or advocate seriously and aggressively for new taxes.
They will either hide behind the diversions Cantu himself has created over the years when he goes off on tangents pushing things such as bronze statues at city entrances or after making a point loud and clear but then fails to take the foot off the gas as the plane closes in on the end of the runway effectively turning a solid point into a colossal political crash.
This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org