On the mayor, wanting more power

Mayor Anthony Silva, kvetching at Tuesday’s Council meeting, and again in this story, says the limits on his office are so stifling he often feels like little more than a “cheerleader.”

Silva wants more power. He continues to chafe.

The mayor’s authority, or lack of it, is clearly spelled out in the city charter. Silva’s dismay suggests he never actually read up on the mayor’s role before running for the office of mayor. In a sustained seance of magic thinking, he refuses to accept that Stockton’s council-manager form of government vests power with a council majority and with the city manager.

Again: a council majority. To be effective, a mayor must sway a majority of four votes on the council. Silva entered office blasting away at the council, which for six straight months he denounced as untrustworthy puppets of those mysterious puppeteers that pull the strings around here.

The most self-defeating entrance, ever.

Even as a competent city manager got everyone on board to support the well-thought-out Marshall Plan — demonstrating, incidentally, how consensus works — Silva galloped off the reservation, championing a half-baked rival plan developed by a car salesman and championed by his brother, a developer.

Pause for the irony: even as Silva denounced the council for being lackeys of the business elite, he let a developer with business before the city hand him a major policy proposal.

Digging the hole deeper — with the professionalism of a well-drilling company — Silva also exhorted his Facebook followers to harangue the council for standing in his way. His Facebook friends gave the council headaches for months.

When the Council, demonstrating maturity, overcame its antipathy towards Silva and entrusted him with a key role in the city manager hire, he bungled it.

And since then … nothing, really. The mayor has produced no major policy initiatives.

Gary Podesto, mayor 1997-2004, also chafed at the strictures place on the mayor, and bemoaned how slow government moves. But Podesto got things done. Big things.  Because Podesto knew how to go around quietly to community leaders, rounding up support, how to lobby council colleagues, and how to rally the public behind a vision.

Silva can do none of this well. In truth, Silva is straight-jacketed not by the charter’s limits but by his limits.

The weird thing is, he apparently cannot see this. He externalizes the problem. The city manager wrongly ignores him, the charter binds him, I get him wrong, this paper sensationalizes him because it only wants to sell papers, the Grand Jury reached an erroneous conclusion about him, his critics are all politically motivated.

He could be a good mayor, really. If only the rest of Stockton would get it together.

Because of all this, Silva has not been relegated to the role of cheerleader, as he complains. He had been sidelined. There’s a difference.

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The gravy train

Pension spiking by state employees will cost taxpayers $800 million over the next 20 years, says the L.A. Times, reporting on state Controller John Chiang’s new findings.

To refresh your recollection, pension spiking is a way public employees artificially juice up their pensions by contriving themselves pay increases in their last few years before retirement. It gives them a life long pension above what they earned fairly.

Chiang also found that CalPERS, the corpulent state pension system, looks the other way on pension spiking.

“CalPERS’ lack of robust auditing, underutilization of advanced technology and its generally passive approach to the problem invites abuse,” Chiang said. “The state’s largest pension system can and must be more vigorous  in protecting taxpayers from this form of public theft.”

Chiang should not hold his breath. CalPERS is there to promote public employee enrichment.

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The poorest schmuck in congress

That would be Rep. David Valadao, a Republican farmer from Hanford. According to Roll Call, he reported a “minimum net worth” of $3.7 million.

Wow.

“Roll Call’s estimate actually falls on the low side,” says The Week. “Both Time and CNBC also named Valadao the poorest member of Congress this year, with Time estimating his net worth at -$12.2 million, and CNBC noting it could be as low as -$24.5 million.”

We have been critical of south-Valley republicans as provincial extremists. Valadao’s personal finances raise legitimate questions about his financial competence. One is tempted to say, hands off my purse strings, Mr. Money Hole.

On the other hand, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce just gave Valadao the Spirit of Enterprise award “in recognition for his work toward immigration reform and water solutions.” The Chamber says he’s shown real leadership on immigration. Which is to say, his district has so many Latinos he knows the House has to act, unlike congressmen from lily white districts in the South. That is something.

I mention all this because Delta residents have to contend with these guys.

Last word to Valadao: “Water policy … it’s difficult and probably the most confusing thing I’ve ever seen. Well, immigration is a pretty close second.”

 

 

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‘You will disappear. You will be gone’

That’s allegedly what Stockton’s former City Manager, Mark Lewis, told one of his executives in the city of Chowchilla would happen to her if she spoke to the council without his approval.

He’s been place on administrative leave.

Mark Lewis in his office at Stockton's city hall in 2005. Photo by Craig Sanders.

Lewis, Stockton’s city manager 2001-06, is the great pharaoh of Stockton’s building era, but also the Bernie Madoff of its finances. There were — are — a lot of good things about the guy. But he brought too much of his Army Rangers training into his management style. I am the alpha male, you maggots!

Two female employees have filed complaints. “Lewis is named in both complaints, one from a former employee and one from a current employee. Each worker says she felt fear, emotional distress and anxiety over the potential loss of her job while working under Lewis’ supervision,” the Fresno Bee reports.

The story suggests Lewis may have been fudging to the council about the city’s true finances and got medieval on subordinates who tried to communicate the true state of affairs. But it could also be that he was merely trying to keep maverick execs on the rez. Or merely trying to get an honest day’s work out of rank-and-file employees. Innocent until proven guilty, and all that.

One of the most telling passages in the story is Lewis’ comment: “I work at the pleasure of Council and they can dismiss me at any time without cause. The only thing they are required to do is follow the terms of my contract.”

Translation: if you fire me, you will have to pay me for the balance of my contract, while I go fishing. A cynic would say that may be what Lewis wants. An optimist would say there’s a better interpretation, one fairer to Lewis, and we just can’t see it because of all the secrecy that surrounds personnel matters.

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Graph of the day

State Controller John Chiang unveiled a new website today. ByTheNumbers.sco.ca.gov shows local government financial data for the period 2003-2013.

I typed in Stockton, and asked for this city’s total revenues and total expenditures for that decade. Here’s what came up.

Controllers Stockton graphs

These graphs are simple, but still telling. Stockton’s revenues started to decline in 2006. That year or 2007 was the time for leaders to make the tough calls, such as exacting concessions from public employees. Instead, in 2007, leaders authorized big new expenditures. They set a course for bankruptcy.

The City Managers in 2006 were Mark Lewis, who was fired that year, and Gordon Palmer, who replaced him. They mayor was Edward Chavez.

Check out the Controller’s website here.

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‘Utterly, completely, totally untrue’

Ned Leiba, a CPA and Measure A Oversight Committee member, writes:

“Good column on Measure A.  It is very, very important to keep watching this topic.  Thank you.

“Consider a couple of statements in your column.

  Measure W was a 2004 quarter-cent sales tax to hire 40 additional cops. Stockton financial wizards overestimated tax proceeds by roughly 100 percent. Measure W funded only 20 or so cops.

“The goal was 45 new police not 40, based on 9 million of revenue.  We hired 22.  Measure W revenue was about 8 million (for some years) not 9 million due to “the great recession”.  Perhaps we should have hired 45 x 8/9 = 40, but we hired only 22.  So the shortfall was due somewhat (5 positions) to overestimation of revenue but mostly due to a profound underestimation of costs … or possibly, the decision to charge more and more soft costs to the Police (and Fire) departments for each officer hired.  Who told you they underestimated revenue by 100% and that was the reason we hired only 20?

   But the tax did not kick in until April 1. On top of that, tax revenues flow through the state, taking months to return to a city. The city has not seen the check yet.

“Who told you that?  The last SBE (State Board of Equalization) payment to Stockton was 8/12/2014 $2,713,500.  That would be the 3erd check for the 4/1-6/30/2014 quarter.  We received 3 payments from the SBE that includes the Measure A tax … unless the City misplaced the payments!  …

“More so, the City has accumulated massive cash reserves in its general fund, and reported near record income because it spent far less than budget on public safety. It is utterly, completely, totally untrue that a lack of funds or a delay in receiving funds is the cause for the shortfall in hires.  The scandal is why public safety expenditures fell so far below budget for FYE 6/30/2013, and probably the same will be true for FYE 6/30/2014.

“The “problem” with Measure A is the same with Measure W.”

Leiba makes three points. On point number one  — Measure W was supposed to fund 45 cops, not 40; 45 cops and 45 firefighters, not 40/40 — Leiba appears to be wrong.

He presents the Council’s Measure W resolution. It says 45/45.

In response, however, City Hall presents this  2004 Measure W Power Point. On page 6 it says 40/40. City Hall also provided five Record stories saying 40/40.

Apparently, whatever the council initially resolved, it ultimately settled on promising voters 40 police and 40 firefighters from Measure W tax revenue.

On point two — city government has indeed received Measure A tax money — Leiba is right. A city spokesman said that the city won’t know exactly how much tax money it will receive for fy 13-14 until Sept. 18. OK … but not knowing the fy total, however, is different than not receiving any money; the city has even spent some on police vehicles.

On point three — City Hall is therefore scandalously laggard in hiring the promised police — it is an argument. Leiba did not explain how hiring could go faster, given the constant drain of departing officers discussed in the column.

Police Chief Eric Jones manfully said he would meet the goal of 40 new officers a year for three years by hiring 80 new officers a year, expecting to lose half of them. This managerial can-do is commendable. But it is unfair to any organization to expect it to function while 50 percent of its workforce departs on an ongoing basis.

The way to stop the churn is to increase police salaries, even if that means making hard choices about which departments to subject to further painful cuts. Otherwise City Hall risks falling short on its promised police force again.

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‘A maestro of public subsidies’

What Nevada gave to lure Tesla: nearly $1.3 billion.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval shake hands following a press conference where Nevada was announced as the new site for a $5 billion car battery gigafactory. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)

“The package — more than double what California was poised to offer — allows Tesla to operate in Nevada essentially tax-free for a decade,” the L.A. Times writes. “The Palo Alto automaker won’t pay sales, property or business taxes.”

The story goes on, “Officials from other states and Nevada public policy experts question whether the deal will pay off for Nevada. Some argue it will starve local schools and agencies tasked with providing services for the influx of new workers. They say it could hurt Nevada’s bargaining power in future negotiations with relocating or expanding businesses.

“Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval says the agreement, announced Thursday, is worth every penny and will bring his state $100 billion in economic activity over two decades.”

The picture of Elon Musk that emerges is of a businessman who plays government like a fiddle. “This is a guy who has the whole package, with the salesmanship and the buzz around the company,” says an expert on business incentives. “He’s really been very shrewd and very savvy in media to help sell his products.”

The Times story also says Stockton may yet benefit.

“Sparks, Nev., is on Interstate 80 and is only a two-hour drive from Sacramento and four hours from the Fremont factory where Tesla builds its cars. Levy predicted that the Sparks plant would prompt suppliers and related manufacturing plants to locate along the 80 corridor in Sacramento and possibly Stockton, just south of Sacramento.”

 

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A masterpiece on the ‘Frankenriver’

The intrepid CNN reporter who kayaked (and walked) the San Joaquin River from its watershed to the Golden Gate has published his account. “My 417-mile trip down ‘Apocalypse River’” may be the best story every written about the San Joaquin.

CNN reporter John Sutter paddles kayak along San Joaquin River leaving Buckley Cove in Stockton.

“The San Joaquin is a river that would flip my boat, steal my camera, throw me into trees, take my food, tweak my muscles, acquaint me with heat exhaustion, scare the s— out of me, trap me in the mud and leave me hiking for three days across a desert,” Sutter writes.

I met up with John D. Sutter when he came through Stockton. I took him for taco’s birria at Nena’s, and told him about Bill Conner, the Delta character who built up Lost Isle and who lives on a tikied-out barge on the river. Sutter found Conner.

“Oh man, are the People of The Delta a trip,” Sutter later wrote

“The delta, I would discover, is really the heart of the San Joaquin River. In one day of paddling, the river filled with water — thanks to the Sacramento River, joining it from the north, and the tides swelling in from the turbulent bay — and teemed with life. I saw Jet Skiers, fisherwomen and a man digging for clams with his bare feet. There were motorboats with sound systems loud enough to fill a concert venue.

“I saw boats with names like Big Guy, Slo Dancer and Hubba-Hubba. Went in a bar called the Rusty Porthole, which has photos of semi-naked water skiing contests (from January!) on the wall. People in the delta use this river in a way I hadn’t seen in weeks, and I was just so floored to take all of it in. I felt like I’d been out in the wilderness — talking mostly to mud and coyotes — for an eternity. When I saw the suburban, tiled roofs of Stockton by the river channel, it was like I’d never seen a housing development in my life before. Wow! People! They live here!”

Do yourself a favor, set aside an hour and read it all here.

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Quote of the day

“I’m devastated for the 6,500 families who won’t have the chance at these jobs unless they move to Nevada. Tesla is a California-born company …  yet they are headed out of state.

“It’s a clear indictment of our business climate that Nevada is pulling this huge investment away from its natural home. I’m not sure there could be a stronger signal to legislators about how hard they have made it to operate here.”

—Senator Ted Gaines (R-Roseville), regarding the news that Tesla Motors will build their “gigafactory” in Nevada.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the city of Stockton exerted an unprecedented degree of effort to lure Tesla here. And that Tesla’s decision has more to do with California’s regulatory climate. But city officials should go public with what they did so we can evaluate (and possibly applaud) their performance.

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On losing Tesla

Because negotiations to lure the Tesla battery plant to Stockton took place in such secrecy — demanded by Tesla’s Elon Musk — Stocktonians may not grasp the huge prize the city was playing to win.

The battery plant is to be 10 million square feet — at 170 football fields large, by far the largest building in the city, dwarfing even the cavernous GSA warehouses at the Port of Stockton.

Bringing 6,500 jobs would be an economic bonanza, not only for the people hired, but for government when people came off unemployment and social services.

Ancillary businesses would spring up around the plant.

A city thus boosted could expect crime to go down.

City economic development staffers would find it easier to attract other employers to Stockton. Including hi-tech outfits.

The colleges and universities could adjust curriculum to graduate skilled workers who would stay.

There’s lots still to emerge about the city’s courtship of Tesla. But this much is clear: it is one of the biggest might-have-beens in Stockton’s history.

 

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    Michael Fitzgerald

    Mike Fitzgerald is The Record’s award-winning metro columnist. His column runs in the paper three times a week. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in Stockton. His column covers diverse beats including, sometimes, the offbeat. Read Full
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