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Rat finks, food trucks, code enforcement & why Manteca looks the way that it does

Manteca is good at making a big show out of nothing.

If you doubt that check out the municipal code.

There are endless rules about property upkeep with many based not as much as on aesthetics as health and safety issues. The same goes for conditions of approval for development projects. 

Transgressions involving the municipal code are enforced by the “rat fink” process with the City of Manteca adopting a “see no evil tact” unless someone files a formal complaint. Fortunately the Manteca Police Department hasn’t adopted a similar policy when it comes to traffic officers having to be first told that someone is speeding or running a stop sign in front of them before issuing a ticket.

As for conditions placed on development, Manteca has a nasty habit of washing its hands of all oversight and enforcement once the final sign off is made on the building permit. If you doubt that just ask Bill Barnhart who has read the conditions of approval for CenterPoint Business Park to the point he has them memorized. The city — after making promises galore to residents at public hearing and in city documents — takes the same attitude toward development conditions as they do in Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (the infamous CC&Rs) they place on neighborhoods for property upkeep. If you complain to the city about them, you will be told that’s a civil matter. So why does the city get involved with dictating standards if they are not going to enforce them?

They essentially treat the municipal code the same way unless, of course, they receive a complaint.

Eight years back for the fifth time in three decades the city spent an inordinate amount of time updating the sign ordinance. The last go around included a council appointed citizens committee that spent more than 14 months addressing concerns on all sides — that of the merchants, issues about safety with sight lines being blocked, and general aesthetics. It covered a lot of territory but the big issues were the proliferation of A-frame signs as well as pole banner signs, those signs placed illegally in public right-of-ways, and human signs that were essentially costumed characters that had a nasty tendency to block sidewalks as well as distract traffic at key intersections.

The human billboards are no longer a big issue but it has nothing to do with enforcement as it does a tight job market and rising minimum wages. As far as the other sign issues you have to ask yourself why the city bothered to waste staff time and that of the community as a whole.

If the city adopts reasonable rules for solid reasons then there should be reasonable expectations they will be enforced in a proactive manner by the municipal employees hired for that purpose as code enforcement officers at a cost of $64,510 to $78,412 a year.

Instead of the city’s stance being “the rules are there for a reason” they embrace the mantra that “rules are meant to be broken.”

This brings us to Manteca’s latest exercise in futility — updating rules for food trucks. Staff and the Manteca Planning Commission have been wrestling with them off and on for the past seven months.

It all started when a desire was expressed that the city needed to encourage food trucks. The argument was that they were being discouraged by a nearly two decade old ordinance that restricts them to staying in one place for 10 minutes or more.

Funny but there have been a number of food trucks operating in Manteca for the past 17 years that have stayed in one spot for a lot longer than 10 minutes. In the past week during spot checks there were four food trucks at locations near the outskirts of town that were in the same spot for at least an hour.

While no one wants heavy handed enforcement of laws strictly by the letter as opposed to the intent, the city has not been enforcing the 10-minute rule except right after it was adopted in 2002 when the heat was on to end food trucks parking often without permission all day long and into the night on property next to restaurants along major streets.

The current council started the drive for changes because constituents made it clear they were hungry for food trucks. Given the lack of enforcement and the fact there have been “illegal” food trucks for several hours at a time at various locations in Manteca throughout the years, the dearth of food trucks in town compared to other communities may have something to do with the market.

If the demand was there and food trucks were chased off there would have been a cry and hue to relax the rules. The reality is the push for more liberal food truck rules is being done in the belief that the city’s 10-minute rule that is never enforced is what has kept the number of food trucks in Manteca from multiplying.

So now we have the city coming up with a long laundry list of rules for food trucks to follow. In doing so they are creating an expectation they might actually be enforced proactively by the city instead of relying on “rat fink” enforcement.

The issue isn’t as much about food trucks as it is the city ticking people off without realizing it.

A reasonable person would expect if you devote hundreds of man hours to putting together rules and standards and then debating them in a public forum before adopting them that they might actually be proactively enforced. What will happen is Manteca will fall back into its “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” mode unless prodded out of it for a specific instance by a citizen who is made to look and feel as if they are a rat fink instead of someone who expects the city to keep its word.

Now that we have a mayor who knows all too well why Manteca has a proliferation of property upkeep issues given the city rarely proactively enforces the rules it spends so much time crafting to mollify residents that have a higher expectation for their community, you’d think some traction would be given to code enforcement.

First and foremost Mayor Ben Cantu’s suggestion that code enforcement migrate to community development from the Manteca Police Department would lend itself to targeted enforcement. At the very least the hierarchy in community development would have a greater appreciation why property use rules were put in place.

The second step is to double the code enforcement staffing and end the nonsense that the city will enforce rules they have made a case for as key to the quality of life in Manteca only when someone complains.

There have been literally dozens of high profile spats at the council level over the years where elected leaders — prodded into action by people that elected them — have pushed for proactive code enforcement of various issues. They always go quiet after they are told the city only enforces property upkeep laws that elected councils adopt on a complaint driven basis because they lack staffing.

The council can end the charade by putting code enforcement where it belongs, doubling staff and taking a methodical approach to cleaning up Manteca one step at a time.

As an example, for years people left garbage carts out in street view all week long in violation of city rules creating ongoing chaos. The city targeted those that complaints were directed at and a few surrounding homes and nothing more. Cases ended up going before judges.

The bad blood the complaint only enforcement as well as the less-than-pleasing look of garbage carts in front yards and driveways all week long vanished after the council at the time took the suggestion of then council member Jack Snyder for a citywide crackdown. The city enlisted SHARP volunteers for a month to place warnings on carts still in front of homes following the day of collection. They then directed code enforcement to spend two weeks issuing citations.

The never-ending garbage cart skirmishes ended almost overnight.

People were made aware of the rule and then it was proactively enforced.

Either the work that paid planning staff does such as Ben Cantu did when he was employed by the city is worth something and the words of elected leaders that adopt the rules mean something or they don’t.

I was once told by a Manteca code enforcement officer that the rat fink system essentially assures “people get the type of neighborhood they want” meaning if they don’t complain they deserve that their hot head neighbor has 10 cars stuffed with trash parked on his lawn.

It can also be said we get the type of community we deserve because elected officials lack the courage to enforce the rules that they — not us — put in place.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.