Roughly a year ago, Garrad Marsh and Joe Kieta took the helms of two of our most cherished institutions, the City itself and the City’s only newspaper. Faced with similar challenges in the form of falling revenue, reduced staffs, and a struggling economy, Marsh and Kieta have had only a year to turn things around. While neither has succeeded, it’s too early to count either man out. Here’s our review of their first year.
Garrad Marsh: Fighting Hard or Flailing Away?
Garrad Marsh’s convincing victory in the 2012 race for Mayor of Modesto led his supporters to believe there was at least an even chance of returning our city to the era of optimism that energized city government during the terms of Peggy Mensinger and Carol Whiteside. For most, his first year has failed to meet expectations.
It’s hard to figure why Marsh chose to make annexation of Salida his first-year signature issue. Whatever his reasons, it’s clear he misjudged Salida residents’ sentiments. The outpouring of opposition to annexation seemed to gain mass and momentum almost daily. The plan was effectively dead when Salida’s County Supervisor, Terry Withrow, took a public stand against it on March 1.
Like many who love their city, Marsh failed to realize just how bad we look to outsiders. Our rampant crime, poverty, empty storefronts and homes, and pathetic homeless need to be addressed before presuming to govern others.
Marsh would have been better off keeping a steady focus on his other big first-term issue, public safety. Marsh’s proposal of a half-cent sales tax increase has met predictable opposition, but no one can deny the need to reduce crime. Given his business acumen, Marsh should be able to do more than cite our per capita police officer shortfall compared to the national average. He needs to respond with facts and figures to those who say we have too many officers with desk jobs and other cozy assignments. Detailed studies comparing Modesto’s police force with other cities would go a long way toward building public support, and Marsh will need plenty to register the two-thirds vote requirement for a tax increase.
Marsh’s task is complicated by having to work with City Council members with higher political ambitions. Councilman Dave Lopez is already being touted by the Modesto Bee as a successor to County Supervisor Dick Monteith, and fellow Councilman Dave Cogdill has higher office in mind as well. Both may be more interested in their own political paths than in working with Marsh.
And looming on the horizon is Bill Zoslocki, who’s already filed an “intent to run” form. Zoslocki sees a seat on the City Council as a stepping-stone to the Mayor’s office. If Zoslocki wins a seat, it will position him nicely to take another shot at Marsh, this time in a race unlikely to be complicated by another pro-growth candidate like Brad Hawn, who ran against both Marsh and Zoslocki in the last election.
Despite his stumbles out of the gate, Marsh remains our best hope for a reversal of Modesto’s retrograde motion. His willingness to put issues in front of the public is a welcome change from the stealth administration of his predecessor, Jim Ridenour. Critics of Marsh’s sales tax proposal have offered no other ways of promoting public safety, and if we continue to let crime run rampant we can forget about any scenario for a better future.
Jerry Brown took on governing California when it seemed an impossible task. People began to gain confidence after his successful promotion of Proposition 30. In a similar situation with Modesto, Marsh needs to make his bones with a convincing political victory. During the Mayor’s campaign, he showed plenty of determination and grit. Now he needs those qualities more than ever.
Joe Kieta: “Say it ain’t so, Joe”
When Modesto Bee Managing Editor Joe Kieta replaced Mark Vaschè last April, many Bee readers welcomed his promise to, “Expect more journalism that doesn’t pull punches.” They saw his remarks that the Bee needs, “to be more local,” and his vows to focus on the “why and how” of stories as harbingers of change for a newspaper badly in need of direction. Prior to Kieta’s arrival, the Bee’s signature issue was a “civility campaign” that looked very much like a way to dodge the confrontation and conflict good journalism necessarily provokes.
Kieta’s opportunity to change course came immediately in the form of the year’s biggest story, the Modesto Irrigation District’s (MID) proposal to sell water to San Francisco. Unfortunately, anyone who followed the story and knew the Bee’s previous reporting history could see all the hallmarks of business as usual.
From the beginning, the Bee supported the water sale. While there’s nothing wrong with a newspaper taking a stand—they all do it—the Bee never placed the water sale controversy within the larger context of California’s huge water supply shortfall. As a result, Bee readers with no knowledge of our water crisis couldn’t understand why opposition to the sale was so fierce.
The Bee was especially reluctant to inform readers about the fragile state of the San Joaquin Delta and the expert opinion that our local rivers need increased flows to bring back fisheries, especially the salmon industry.
The Bee also avoided reporting that might have made MID General Manager Allen Short and Board Member Tom Van Groningen look less than stellar. Short and Van Groningen were the most ardent supporters of the sale, and the Bee went out of its way to avoid publishing anything that might make readers question their leadership.
Thus, the MID’s financial straits, in large part due to the decision to extend service to Mountain House in San Joaquin County, were seldom mentioned. The MID’s use of public funds to hire local movers and shakers to promote the water sale was exposed not by the Bee, but by Emerson Drake via his Eye on Modesto website. And it was The Valley Citizen that published the MID’s own legal analysis of the “Falling Water Charge,” which argued strongly that the MID was open to lawsuits as a result of an illegal charge to its electric customers. For the Bee, these stories were off-limits.
Bee editorials routinely characterized opposition to the sale as strident and hyperbolic. Some of it was. But opponents of the sale included people like Al Brizzard, Steve Burke, and Vance Kennedy, who rank among the most water-savvy people in the state. Opponents also included businessmen like John Duarte and John Mensinger, and organizations like the Tuolumne River Trust, none of whom were lacking in knowledge or sound reasoning.
To its credit, the Bee published column after column of local commentary on the water sale proposal. But the Bee readers who wanted real news in the form of contextualized analysis, background information, and primary documents, were sadly wanting if they relied on Bee reports and editorials. The dearth of real news was clearly a management decision, because the Bee, despite recent cutbacks, still has a fine staff of reporters.
In maintaining the Bee’s basic modes of operation, Joe Kieta may well have fallen prey to the same reflex of denial that too many of Modesto’s movers and shakers have so long maintained. Despite years of reports to the contrary, too many of our leading citizens think of Modesto as the ideal city. And despite a damning report from the Columbia Journalism Review about Modesto’s dire need for news, Kieta may agree with those who prefer the Bee as it is, a moribund relic of better times.
In the end, neither Joe Kieta nor Garrad Marsh will be evaluated on the basis of their first year on jobs that many have come to think of as impossible. Both journalism and politics have suffered game-altering changes in recent years, and the future of both is uncertain. The only thing we know for sure is that both Garrad Marsh and Joe Kieta face much harder tasks than they could have imagined a year ago. Their next year on the job will be a critical indicator of their chances for success.