The greatest honor of my life was the four years I served on the Modesto City Council, from 1999 to 2003. During my term on the council, I vowed I would do my best to put personal prejudices aside and represent the will of the citizens who elected me.
As one of my colleagues liked to remind me, I was naïve and idealistic. While I agreed with his assertion, I hoped that common sense and wisdom would enable me to overcome my weaknesses.
One of the most surprising aspects of my years in office was how the job changed the personalities of the newly elected. Some of my colleagues morphed from being humble and willing servants of the people to arrogant, opinionated know-it-alls who frequently made final decisions about agenda items before the public was heard. I saw changes in my own personality that I did not like and had to do a lot of self-reflection to retain my original approach to the job.
My favorite part of any Modesto City Council meeting was the public hearing. A public hearing is legally required for certain types of decisions or if the mayor calls for one in order to obtain public input.
I liked the public hearing because the comments helped shape my opinions and validate decisions. I found that members of the public sometimes knew more than I did about the issues and often made insightful comments. I usually didn’t make a final decision about any agenda item until time to vote. Why pre-decide when someone could make a persuasive argument or present convincing facts that would demonstrate exactly what would be in the best interest of the community?
Some council members intensely disliked public hearings. They may have thought that citizens have nothing of value to contribute or that citizens didn’t know as much as they did. Or, they didn’t want to hear opinions that would contradict how they were planning to vote.
Some council members decide their vote before the public hearing, but will never admit it. When a final decision is made before the public hearing, the prejudiced decision defeats the purpose of holding the hearing.
Everyone Has Prejudices
I had prejudices too. I tried to keep them in check as best I could, but there was an overriding prejudice I could not overcome: Unless an agenda item was a clear benefit to the community, I would vote “NO.” Conversely, if I felt an agenda item would be a benefit, I would vote to approve it.
I was especially prejudiced against special interests that would benefit financially from an agenda item while the community would be gypped. As a result, I found myself voting against residential development projects that I would have wanted to see approved if they were done right.
A number of projects approved over my objection were contrary to Modesto’s General Plan, were opposed by neighboring property owners, or were otherwise ill conceived. While I believe that building new homes is desirable, I strongly felt that the developer should pay the full cost of the infrastructure to serve his project.
When I took office, residential development costs were heavily subsidized by taxpayers. My mission was to end the subsidies. Residential developers interpreted my position as being anti-business and anti-development.
Developers’ criticism was justified only to the extent that I was anti-subsidy. However, when entities like Kaiser Hospital and the Vintage Faire Mall expansion came before the Council, I was one of the strongest supporters. I approved any project that I felt would make Modesto a better community, provided that it did not become a burden on taxpayers.
Compared to council members who were inclined to support every development project that came before us, I appeared anti-business. Protecting the community from financial exploitation was more important to me than the profits of favored members of the building industry.
To this day, I feel that the local economy would be much stronger if builders made greater efforts to provide the community with superior projects complying with the Modesto General Plan and expended less effort trying to make taxpayers help with expenses.