Is there a new dawn in Manteca?
After perhaps two decades or so of letting the city drift as it speeds down the same highway of growth that eventually turned once sleepy outposts around the Bay Area into teeming cities of 100,000 plus souls, the Manteca City Council is making noises that it doesn’t want to relegate how the future unfolds to the forces of developers and the bureaucracy.
The latest is not simply instructing to clean up development road “messes” — major streets where segments are left not widened setting the stage for years if not decades of significantly reduced safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists — but also are making it clear they want the say when it comes to setting the timetable for the work being done.
Given it is part of a growth fee process there are some slowly grinding legal mandates that need to be satisfied. However, it is clear the current council is developing a grasp of what needs to be done better than collective councils in the past two decades when it comes to what would seem to some to be minor issues evolving around growth and municipal services.
This is not to disparage previous councils or past and existing staff. Manteca— since the mid-1990s when it ended its own political version of the Hatfield and McCoy feud born in the vicious recall election two decades earlier that saw the majority of the council kicked to the curb — has done a remarkable job of getting the big picture right. Although not perfect — as if anything is — Manteca has nailed down a lot of big issues such as water supply, wastewater treatment, storm runoff, parks and recreation, and spurring job growth to name a few. They are also working on cutting edge initiatives such as converting food waste to fuel to set the standard for the region.
What they’ve missed the boat on more times than not are the little things that are big issues with existing residents.
In the past elected officials have quietly muttered behind the backs of staff that they don’t get what irks people because many key personnel don’t live in Manteca. The council has had a nasty historical habit of “reaching consensus” on a directive without formally voting on it. In almost every case it leaves staff guessing exactly where the council stands. Such “consensuses” get pushed aside when directives attached to votes are made.
The assumption that staff is the primary ears and eyes in the community is right — to a degree. The city workers on the frontline are more than responsive to things they have been empowered to control. But bigger issues such as missing chunks of road, how to deal with the homeless, and where the city should head when it comes to library services is more than a few pay grades above them.
At the same time voters don’t elect staff. They elect council members. It is why the council needs to step up its game as it now appears to be doing when it comes to quality of life issues.
That said, they should not micromanage. Equally important staff needs to make it clear when they lack either the manpower or are jugging too many balls to tackle a project within a certain time frame. Staff finally empowered the council for the first time ever with such information in the form of the printed word on a project review status report last month.
In the past eight months every council member has stepped up to some degree when it comes to directing the city on a course that addresses community frustrations and desires when it comes to quality of life issues in general or those triggered by growth.
A prime example was the successful push by Councilman Mike Morowit to hire not one but two community resource officers for the Manteca Police Department to deploy primarily to address homeless concerns. Staff only recommended one. After questioning Nick Obligacion who is stepping down at the end of this month as police chief, Morowit was told having a CRO on duty seven days a week would be the most effective way to address homeless issues.
Administrative staff — after being directed to do so by the council — was able to come up with another $125,00 or so and keep the budget balanced with a 25 percent general fund reserve intact. Given how effective one CRO has been so far, imagine what is possible when the second CRO comes on board next month
And perhaps no one on the council has stepped up as much as Mayor Steve DeBrum.
After having more than his share of frustrations he has helped set the tone for clearer council policy directions, more realistic expectations of staff, and not assuming staff will correctly read what irks Manteca residents when it comes to either quality life issues or side effects of growth.
It needs to be noted the city is still upright despite now going into 11 weeks with Elena Reyes — who was hired to run the municipality as city manager — still on ice over personnel issues. It speaks volumes about the council and the staff.
No one is implying things are going to change overnight or the city will address every issue to everyone’s satisfaction. But given the proverbial wind now blowing there is a much better chance the city will become more responsive on issues that go beyond basic police and fire, garbage collection and toilet flushing, and parks and recreation.
Nor has the past 20 years been all bad. Far from it. Even in good marriages you can step up the game by fine tuning communication.