Peggy Mensinger’s late 1980’s warning of a developer takeover of Modesto city government was realized in the 1990’s during the Dick Lang administration. That was when the City Council lowered fees on Village I developers and watched them abandon the original Village I plan with barely a murmur of protest.
Since that time, the Asphalt Empire has employed most of the traditional tactics of dirty politics to maintain its hold on city government. In 2000, when Carmen Sabatino was swept into the Mayor’s office on a tide of voter discontent with the status quo, he was joined on the City Council by smart growth advocates Denny Jackman and Bruce Frohman. The Sabatino Council also featured Tim Fisher, a moderate Republican with a long history of involvement in forward-thinking city planning.
Sabatino’s wrecking-ball style of politics soon earned widespread disfavor with virtually every established power in the region. It is now forgotten that it was Sabatino who first exposed County CEO Reagan Wilson’s conflicts of interest, and also Sabatino who first blew the whistle on the proposed West Side dump, which had theretofore flown under the public radar. Even more telling, it was Sabatino who trumpeted incessantly the Village I fees shortfall.
With Jackman, Frohman, and Fisher on the council, growth issues were continually in the spotlight. As the late John Michael Flint wrote, in a column banned by the Bee, “citizens saw the workings of their city government in a light that was never available to them before.”
Sabatino’s seismic disruptions inevitably brought about a powerful blowback that culminated in criminal charges, featuring what Flint called, “a laundry list of dubious merit.” While the criminal charges later came to naught with a hung jury, Sabatino’s political career was ruined. During the circus atmosphere of his trial, people learned that one Roger Brown, the apparent source of many of the charges against Sabatino, had apparently been hired for the very purpose of digging up dirt. In his emails to Modesto City Attorney Mike Milich, Brown had CC’d realtor Mike Zagaris, a major player in Village I. Few noted that Milich subsequently left the City and went to work for Zagaris.
Brown’s name surfaced again years later, in 2009, when City Councilman Garrad Marsh faced accusations of conflict of interest involving property he owned in Village I. The charges were apparently first instigated by Brown. After an investigation by the appropriate authorities, Marsh was cleared of any conflict, but the notion that he was somehow able to profit from political manipulation was planted so that it could be resurrected later, during the
current mayor’s race.
In the interim between the Sabatino trial and today, alert citizens have noticed that smart growth advocates are often targets of the media spotlight. In a case that involved no loss at all to taxpayers but a nonetheless very careless decision, Denny Jackman was headlined in the Bee for using a City credit card for personal use (his own was temporarily unusable). He was subsequently targeted in a campaign by developer darling Kristen Olsen, and voted out of office. Even though Jackman had quickly made restitution, no one seemed to care that his lapse never cost citizens a cent.
In a much more tabloid-like scenario, Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini was also charged with scandalous behavior before his re-election campaign in 2008. DeMartini found himself facing celebrity attorney Mark Geragos in a case that was framed to make DeMartini look like another philandering politician in the mold of Gary Condit. The case involved an attractive young woman, rumor and innuendo. It fell apart when the ever-resourceful DeMartini showed up in court with the results of a lie detector test performed by Geragos’s own service. The young woman, Serena Essapour, was subsequently convicted of identity theft. Geragos left town with his tail between his legs and hasn’t been seen since. To this day people wonder how it was the supposedly penniless Essapour was able to afford Geragos, whose fees are generally stratospheric. It is perhaps only a coincidence that Essapour once worked for land use attorney and local king maker George Petrulakis.
Sabatino, Jackman, DeMartini, and Marsh have little in common except their vocal opposition to developer-dominated government. All have been the targets of hyperbole, distortion, baseless accusations, fictitious assertions, and/or criminal charges. A person would almost think opposing the Asphalt Empire might be dangerous.
Using government to achieve one’s business ends is nothing new. As we’ve detailed here, control of city government is the key to manipulation of growth and development. Realtors and developers back politicians for the same reasons many others do—access and influence. But the difference in profits between houses built on cheap land outside of town and infilling or building up offers a powerful incentive to oppose candidates who favor urban boundaries and smart growth, especially when taxpayers can be made to foot the bill for sewer extensions, roads, parks, and other necessities.
Access and influence also result in insider knowledge, and that too, can be profitable. The recent SCAP scandal featured a genuine conflict of interest for Modesto City Councilman Joe Muratore. Working on rehab and real estate projects with Ryan Swehla and Scott Monday, Muratore was able to gain knowledge of and early access to federal funds totaling $25 million. Although much of the money has yet to be spent, a good portion of it was squandered on dubious projects of questionable merit. When the Modesto Bee did a comparative study of how Stanislaus County used similar funds, the County was magnitudes more efficient than the city.
It is no accident that many of principals of the Village I scandal, including Zagaris, Petrulakis, and Village I developer Bill Zoslocki, have surfaced as vocal backers of Brad Hawn. Hawn’s list of endorsements also includes Joe Muratore, Scott Monday and Ryan Swehla. The incestuous relationships between realtors, developers and city government that Peggy Mensinger warned about are firmly established today. They’ve been maintained through a political calculus that features forced runoffs (brought about by flooding a campaign with candidates), smears and distortions, and distracting voter attention from growth issues.
Thus, Brad Hawn’s spurious pension advisories, placed on the ballot at public expense, were calculated to distract attention from the critical growth and farmland protection issues that offer stark differences between him and Garrad Marsh. Hawn was then able to campaign on, “union contributions to Garrad Marsh.” Meanwhile, George Petrulakis alone gave more to Hawn and other Asphalt Empire supporters than police officers or firefighters gave to Marsh, and Hawn backer Stephen Endsley, a land speculator, gave more than the police and firefighters combined.
Hawn’s and Zagaris’s claims that Marsh was a Village I developer have received plenty of media attention, without much explanation of their historical inaccuracy. One effect of such claims is voter disgust with the entire ugly process, a disgust that gets registered in low voter turnout. Yet another effect is intimidation of those who favor smart growth and farmland protection. Faced as they are with the prospect of an exorbitantly expensive campaign and any number of slurs and distortions, smart growth candidates and their supporters too often become discouraged enough with local politics to bow out.
In one of the great ironies of the current Mayor’s campaign, Brad Hawn has promised to end, “business as usual.” That he’s been endorsed by almost every local proponent of business as usual poses no problem for him whatsoever, because his campaign will receive far less scrutiny than those he and his backers choose to target with slurs and distortions. Whether they’ve gone too far this time remains to be seen; many local citizens have at long last spoken out against the underhanded tactics of the Asphalt Empire.
Garrad Marsh is just the latest target of such tactics, which have been coldly calculated to reduce voter turnout, avoid discussion of smart growth, sow confusion, and maintain a stranglehold on city government. Unlike those who’ve in the past been cowed into silence, Marsh is pressing on in an optimistic hope that he can restore dignity and integrity to city government.
Secure in the knowledge their distortions, slurs and fabrications will simply be classed as, “negative campaigning,” and at most receive schoolmarmish, “tut, tuts,” from local media, the lords of the Asphalt Empire continue to apply their perverted political calculus with impunity. Only an aroused citizenry can bring it to an end.