What “Business Friendly” Means in Modesto

Bruce Frohman

The Modesto Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Realtors are powerful interest groups in Modesto. They fiercely represent a privileged group of members of their organizations. For the average citizen, quality of life in Modesto is adversely affected because of their requirement that all elected officials be “business friendly.”

As they tried to steer Modesto towards a better quality of life for all citizens, former mayors Peggy Mensinger and Carmen Sabatino warned about excessive city budgetary influence by residential developers. Ironically, the influence exerted by the leadership of the interest groups has been detrimental to the prosperity of many of their own members!

Businessmen know how to run business for profit, but they don’t know how to govern.  Excessive influence in the election process has corrupted local government to the point where public services are barely tolerable. The purpose of government is to govern and provide services to all citizens. When businessmen are in charge, they turn government into a cash cow for their own benefit and/or the benefit of their friends; they see the government as a money making enterprise, not a non-profit entity with altruistic purposes.

“Business Friendly”

A local politician is defined as “business friendly” if he accedes to every request made by any member of the special interest business group. Conversely, a politician is considered unfriendly if he says no to ANY request. This means that politicians are expected to approve and financially subsidize any development project brought before a governing body. Variances from code are to be granted automatically. Zoning should be changed without any consideration of livability or quality of life.

Ever since Peggy Mensinger left office in 1987, the special interests have worked together to elect business friendly representatives to every public office. They have kept a majority of their minions in elected bodies and on key committees within their membership area. They optimize control of local government for maximum enrichment of preferred businesses via subsidies of public monies, gutting budgets for vital services and public works projects.

As an example, the present Modesto City Council has lowered fees charged new development even though the fees were previously set at levels high enough to minimize subsidies.  By lowering fees, the subsidy of public monies to new development projects was increased despite budget shortages for services to all citizens decried by that same council.

Adverse Impacts

Though many local citizens struggle to afford housing, Stanislaus County has about the lowest home values in the entire State of California; Modesto has tried to promote growth by targeting Bay Area commuters with low housing prices and thus brought on infrastructure and service shortfalls. Stanislaus County also has high poverty rates and stunted economic growth. This situation is the direct result of the diversion of taxpayer money from construction and maintenance of public infrastructure and services.  Prosperity is elusive when a community has a poor quality of life and an ugly appearance.

As an example, during my time on the city council, I learned the City of Modesto has a crumbling water and sewer system. It still has problems with flooded streets during heavy rains because of antiquated drainage systems. Recently, a hole in Modesto’s main sewer trunk jeopardized public safety when the Tolumne River overflowed and strained the city’s sewage storage capacity. Some of these problems have been addressed, but too many remain.

Residents have been on water rationing for over 20 years, in large part due to the failure of city government to upgrade its water delivery system so that adequate water pressure can be delivered to all homes and businesses all of the time.

Insufficient funds have been available to maintain and upgrade the water system because of excessive subsidies granted to developers for the thousands of home built in the last 30 years. This problem has been known since Peggy Mensinger left office, but the Modesto City Council has been dominated by a majority of “business friendly” members unwilling to say no to the special interests. Money that should be used to fix infrastructure is diverted to providing subsidies. In the end, the community loses.

The shortage of money due to business subsidies is felt in every department of city government. Police and fire departments have not been fully staffed in many years. Blame business friendly politicians and their special interest sponsors.

Does the City Manager Matter?

The inability of local government to present an appealing city to the outside world is the primary reason property values remain depressed and businesses outside of subsidized groups fail to thrive. Without money to make the community attractive and vibrant, and unable to deliver services available in other communities, Modesto can’t compete. Sadly, the special interest groups can’t see the harm that they are doing to their own members!

Modesto is doomed to remain an underperforming community until businessmen get out of governing and competent city employees are allowed to do their jobs. Firing city managers in Modesto is a chronic problem. Coming from Sacramento in 1999, Modesto City Manager Jack Crist knew what the city needed to do in order to spur economic development, but he was fired for unknown reasons—the theory is that he wasn’t “business friendly.”  James Holgersson was recently fired by a micromanaging business-friendly mayor. Firings in Modesto are made as business decisions, not as decisions to improve government.

When a city manager is not business friendly enough, he is fired.  Modesto is relentlessly dragged downward by bad decisions precipitated by the businessmen controlling local politics. As long as businessmen remain in control, Modesto has little hope of prospering.




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