Despite efforts by Todd Aaronson to downplay the relationship, there’s no question Aaronson, Ryan Swehla and Joe Muratore are joined at the hip. These Siamese triplets have well-established business and social relationships that would have gone unnoticed and uncommented upon if not for the SCAP scandal.
Muratore’s and Swehla’s business ties became a problem when Muratore was declared in conflict of interest because of his position on the Modesto City Council. He had to recuse himself during the Council’s review of the SCAP situation. Muratore’s and Swehla’s company, Benchmark Real Estate Services, returned $62,000 received in payment for services rendered under the authority of Modesto City government. Aaronson returned a campaign donation from Joe Muratore. Swehla is listed on documents filed with the City as Aaronson’s campaign treasurer. All are leaders in Modesto Commonwealth. Tracing the relationships of these three is like constructing a family tree of cousins in the hill country of Tennessee.
But all any of these things mean is Aaronson, Muratore and Swehla have close associations and common interests. None has been convicted or even implicated in a crime. Muratore’s conflict of interest thus far has been regarded by authorities in the matter as a minor infraction, most likely an accurate judgment.
What’s disturbing about the association is its potential for undue influence in government. As Peggy Mensinger warned decades ago, Modesto has long been the target of developers and other self-interested parties who seek to mingle City policy and business. The dominance of such interest groups is as old as government and was the subject of James Madison’s classic argument in The Federalist Number 10. Madison’s term for interest group was “faction,” and he defined the word as follows:
By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
Madison also noted how difficult it is to separate one’s own interests from those of the community in general, as each of us tends to see our own interest as also in service to the public.
Nonetheless, there’s far more to city government than neighborhood safety, “branding,” and street and sidewalk maintenance, all of which have been among Todd Aaronson’s chief concerns. And the notion that businessmen are our fittest representatives has of late undergone some severe challenges, as we’ve come to learn that government in service of business isn’t always best for the public in general and businessmen themselves seem as prone to error as any other members of the polity.
If there’s a lesson here it may be that whenever government of any kind becomes a faction’s tool, the public suffers. And despite their unfortunate attempts at “branding” Modesto with slogans like, “Family Owned and Operated,” Aaronson, Muratore and Swehla are doubtless well-intentioned and have provided the community with any number of benefits as a result of their public service.
They really don’t need any more representation in City Government, however, as Muratore’s term doesn’t expire until 2013. What the City Council does need is broader representation of Modesto’s diverse community, not a continuation of the status quo.