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Manteca City Hall ‘Cultural Revolution’: First the purge, next the taxpayer bill
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It is a legitimate point.

Why does the current Manteca City Council believe Miranda Lutzow is worth $240,000 a year as an interim city manager with no previous experience running an entire city per se when her predecessor who had six years of experience as a city manager was hired for $50,000 less just 30 months ago?

The question was raised in an email from a Manteca resident that believes Lutzow’s credentials are so thin that elevating her to a position as an interim city manager is akin to paying someone $20,000 a month for on-the-job training.

Her predecessor — Tim Ogden — was hired after six plus years under his belt as city manager of Waterford, an eastern Stanislaus County city one-tenth the size of Manteca in terms of population. This week Ogden started his new job as city manager of Brentwood — an East Bay community of 52,000 — making $246,000 annually. That’s just $5,744 more than Lutzow will make in a year running the City of Manteca. Her only previous experience as city manager was as an “acting” city manager for Manteca for 3½ months after Ogden was placed on administrative leave.

Lutzow will respectfully — and strenuously — disagree with the idea that she is wet behind the proverbial ears when it comes to knowing her way around a city hall.

Her experience with city government started in 2009 when she was hired in Patterson as an intern to help with human resources. She ended up working in various capacities involving city clerk duties and code enforcement to human resources in Merced, Waterford, and Oakdale besides Patterson.

There is a narrative being formed 10 months in advance of the Nov. 3 municipal election that what is happening at city hall is a change in the culture. That’s a bit misleading given how the word “culture” is being tossed about is a bit of political mumble jumble.

We are told the cultural change is aimed at removing internal roadblocks — perceived and otherwise — to making progress on municipal goals established by the City Council.

You likely won’t find very many people that have dealt with the molasses speed at which some initiatives work their way through the bowels of 1001 West Center Street or else die an ever slower death disagree with the need for change.

The only problem is a purge instead of precise surgery can have unintended consequences.

The culture being changed at 1001 West Center Street is steeped in the financial stability that has allowed Manteca to build robust 25 percent reserves while other cities nearby are showing fractures in their finances.

Manteca has been notorious for being frugal. The end result: Service levels are adequate but not super. Keep in mind, though, if you don’t want to wait two light changes to clear an intersection, wait more than 10 minutes for a train, if you want a state-of-the-art community recreation complex or a Marshall Plan to transform downtown Manteca into a Central Valley version of downtown Livermore it’s going to cost you a lot more money.

There have been innovative moves that have come from city staff since the changing of the guard with Lutzow at the helm. In the long-range those moves will save tax dollars and keep ratepayer costs down for sewer, water, and garbage.

But there are also signs of sloppiness in not thinking things through. Residents were sold a bill of goods on the argument that the City Council playing Santa Claus and giving all employees three extra days off Christmas week was not costing money as there were funds in the budget to do so.

Advancing an interim city manager’s contract with compensation that states two different rates of pay — one at $20,017 a month and the other at $10,008.70 every two weeks — is a tad sloppy for such an important document. Forget the fact a sixth grader armed with a smartphone Googling the definition of “biweekly” and then using their device’s calculator function could tell you the contract language says the interim city manager is being paid $240,204 a year based on the wording in the first part of a sentence in the contract. Then in the second half of that same sentence the wording implies she is being paid $260,226.20 a year.

Which is it? More importantly does the current City Council and top management know or is attention to detail now passé in the Cultural Revolution at city hall?

This is not to say change is not needed, it is. But what you see are staff reactions to a lot of balloons being floated.

The most telling exchange was at last month’s City Council meeting. After Police Captain Charlie Goeken completed his presentation on license plate scanners, Mayor Ben Cantu asked for “one more thing.”

Cantu said he wanted nine more police dogs and asked the captain if that was possible.

Goeken replied that anything is possible if you have the money.

“Good answer,” Cantu replied.

Those that tend to want to pile on Cantu would use those words to demonstrate the mayor is somehow out of control. Nothing is farther from the truth. He may at times appear to be sending mixed messages, but he’s not. Cantu wants the reserves intact. He has lectured city voters non-stop for the past 12 years that the lack of reserves and lack of fiscal responsibility is why Manteca was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in 1985 and why 12 police officers were laid off in 2008.

Cantu is also channeling the frustration of Manteca residents that want more. More what? You name it. More police, more streets in better shape, more recreational amenities — you get the picture.

Cantu has the courage to do one other thing. He knows that all of the wants and needs cost money and that Manteca needs more money to pay for them in the form of more taxes and higher rates for services. And he doesn’t hesitate to put his head on the chopping block of public opinion by saying so.

The council individually wants a lot of change — don’t we all. What counts is the directive they give as a whole — given that is the only legal authority they have to act — to the city manager.

Rest assured the Cultural Revolution at city hall is not the doing of Lutzow. She is merely executing the council’s vision as a good city manager should.

How her “experience level” works into the equation is a fair question. But that said Ogden had a lot more experience but that wasn’t clearly what the current council wants.

The bottom line is not Lutzow’s credentials but the City Council’s intentions.

That is why there is some unfinished purging left to do.

Don’t be surprised that the next head to roll will be that of contract attorney John Brinton who apparently isn’t on speed dial of late when sticky personnel and other issues arise at City Hall.

The last thing the council should want is legal counsel that tells them what they want to hear as opposed to what they need to hear.

They have an obligation to citizens to weigh the legal advice they get but are not bound to follow it.

When the purge of the city attorney comes we will be told it is to save money.

Sorry, but a council willing to give an “interim” city manager a $50,000 to $70,000 annual raise depending upon what pay rate is operable in her contract compared to a city manager they hired to do the job until they decide they had their fill of them is not exactly being frugal with tax dollars.