Many Modesto residents will be surprised to learn that their fair city was not always at or near the bottom in national rankings. The University of California at Davis didn’t always rank our planning at the very lowest “sustainable” level of Central Valley cities. Forbes magazine didn’t always rank Modesto among the twenty worst cities in the U.S. In fact, if there were ever a case of going backwards, Modesto is a classic example.
Run the reel of time back thirty-some years and two names stand out: Thorne Gray and Jim Knox. Gray was a tireless investigative reporter for the Modesto Bee. He specialized in water, a tedious topic he made interesting because he knew, as all Valley citizens should, it flows uphill toward power. Often working in tandem with award-winning Bee photographer Al Golub, Gray kept environmental issues at the forefront of Bee readers’ awareness.
Jim Knox was a pioneer in ecology. A critical force in the formation of Ecology Action, Knox, like Gray and many others who show a gift for progressive thought and action, was swept into the big tent in Sacramento, much to our region’s great loss.
Knox and Gray disappeared into the mists of time, but many people still remember the woman Knox called a mentor and inspiration. City Council member and two-term Mayor, Peggy Mensinger was the last of our political leaders who could be called truly visionary.
She was among the very first Modesto citizens to propose growth advisory measures that would protect farmland and ensure smart growth. She favored “green” alternatives well before they become popular. She was the catalyst for GOAL (Growth: Orderly, Affordable, Livable), which opposed sprawl, supported farmland protection, and remained a political force through the eighties.
It was Peggy Mensinger and progressive locals who devised the “Village” concept, a plan including ten self-sustaining, pedestrian-friendly villages around the periphery of Modesto. The Village concept never got beyond Village I, which became an enduring symbol of Modesto’s retrograde motion when developers told the City and everyone else they weren’t going to follow through on the smart growth blueprint. It was a turd to the teeth and the City took it with hardly a grimace. Later, the City discovered that developers of Village I benefitted from a fees shortfall of close to forty million dollars.
While Village I was to become a painful reminder of the end of smart growth in Modesto, Mensinger’s warning about political, “…manipulators…movers…and minions,” was an even more telling moment in the City’s political history. The local equivalent of Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning about the “military-industrial complex,” Mensinger claimed a political machine was poised to take over local government. Calling for campaign finance reform, Mensinger said people who profited from sewer trunk extensions, especially builders and realtors, were financing the campaigns of candidates who were certain to favor them once in office.
Many of the names Mensinger cited in that 1987 speech have remained major political players ever since. They have been the “movers and shakers” behind lowered developers’ fees, unrestrained growth, sprawl, failures to protect farmland, and the current housing glut. It’s no accident Stanislaus and Merced Counties have been among the fastest growing regions in the United States in recent years. As we’ve reported here, much growth is a consequence of political action by city governments.
Peggy Mensinger was succeeded as Mayor by Carol Whiteside, another gifted supporter of smart growth who, like Knox and Gray, was swept into the Sacramento vortex. Mensinger then lost a bitter battle for County Supervisor to Ray Simon. Thereafter her influenced diminished, and many of the coalitions she’d formed splintered and fell. The next phase of city history featured a takeover along the lines predicted by Mensinger: city government became dominated by politicians hand-picked by developers and realtors.
The domination of local government by special interests became so evident, it set the stage for Carmen Sabatino. Once a member of Mensinger’s group of minions, Sabatino had subsequently become the enemy of anyone and everyone even remotely associated with “the establishment.” He’s the only member of a one person Demolition Party. Those who’ve never understood Sabatino’s appeal don’t comprehend negative capability. His political power is generated by what he is not: he is, “not one of them,” no matter who “they” are. He’s also fearless and fey; there are times when an oligarchy becomes so entrenched and powerful it takes heedless courage to dislodge it. Sabatino’s wrecking-ball style gains force and momentum when voters rebel against the tyranny of the status quo.
The victim of what the late John Michael Flint called a, “kneecapping,” in commentary banned by the Bee, Sabatino served only one term. As Flint said, “they” really were out to get him, and get him they did, via criminal charges of “dubious merit,” as Flint put it. It’s easy to forget Sabatino’s City Council featured two ardent farmland supporters, Bruce Frohman and Denny Jackman, as well as Tim Fisher, who combined rare intelligence with an even more unusual willingness to listen and compromise.
Sabatino was followed in office by Jim Ridenour, aka the Stealth Mayor. Ridenour was backed by the realtors and developers Mensinger warned about, but has served during one of our inevitable downturns. He’s kept a low profile, and the only real ripple on the smooth surface of his tenure, an embarrassing case involving time sheets that showed him being two places at once, was quickly smoothed over when no one showed an interest in pursuing what could have been a very serious issue. He’s now in the middle of the SCAP investigation, and finds himself criticizing Modesto Bee coverage of what could turn out to be the only enduring memory of his time in office.
The SCAP imbroglio, doubtless partly due to the City’s decision to oversee a program ordinarily monitored by federal agencies, represents a predictable outcome when government develops incestuous relationships with realtors and developers. City Councilman Joe Muratore, a partner in real estate and construction businesses, has been found in a conflict of interest. As the investigation has proceeded, the familiar name of Zagaris has come up. While there may be a blockbuster revelation to come, the entire issue seems more to do with the intertwined players and their relationships than with egregious crime.
But that’s the problem. Just as Mensinger warned, city government is now in the hands of politicians sponsored by realtors and developers. In fact, Muratore is all three: politician, realtor and developer. The consequences go beyond scandals. They include bad planning, as UC Davis noted, and stratospheric foreclosure rates, even by California standards. And for those who once thought the City might one day develop an enlightened policy about farmland, developer dominance has been especially discouraging.
In the spring of this year, the Farmland Working Group reported that Stanislaus County leadership, including the City of Modesto, has ignored a “Visioning Project 2000” agreement for more than a decade. From 2004 through 2010, major cities in Stanislaus County, including Modesto, failed to provide the public with information regarding plans for regional growth and farmland protection.
“Visioning Project 2000” appears dead despite repeated messages that voters want farmland protection and controls on sprawl. The strongest signal that voters remain committed to smart growth came in 2008, when Stanislaus County Measure E (Stamp Out Sprawl) passed by over a two-thirds majority.
Unfortunately, voters can’t translate their preferences for smart growth to votes for smart growth candidates. There are many reasons for the disconnect, but a primary cause is the developer advantage in dollars and political savvy. Peggy Mensinger decried the influence of money in the late 1980’s. The role of dollars now is magnitudes greater, as the Modesto Mayor’s race easily costs candidates in excess of six figures. And the “manipulators” hedge their bets by planning on runoffs. There are two pro-growth candidates in the current race, one of whom (Bill Zoslocki) was a Village I developer; the other (Brad Hawn) has already garnered the support of Mayor Ridenour and a host of “business as usual” movers and shakers. Insiders are already predicting a runoff. Runoffs favor candidates with the deepest pockets. For local realtors and developers the dollars are investments; political campaigns are just another cost of doing business.
Modesto’s retrograde motion and race to the bottom will continue as long as voters ignore history. Valley citizens who oppose the tyranny of the status quo should ponder a time, not long ago, when Modesto was a city of progress and progressive visionaries. And when they’re looking for progress and improvement, they shouldn’t look to business as usual.