When the Tracy City Council meets again Tuesday, the five council members will talk about how to move past public disputes and 3-2 splits and sort out to what extent council conflicts are based on policy disagreements, unwillingness to compromise, or personal resentment among individuals.
The San Joaquin County Grand Jury’s report released last week, “Tracy City Council: Restore the Public Trust,” describes an elected body whose members are incapable of working together, and whose major decisions — such as the firing of City Manager Troy Brown on a 3-2 vote in September 2017 and the sudden resignation of Police Chief Larry Esquivel in August 2018 — highlight a situation where a council majority has made decisions no regard for the viewpoints of the council minority.
Councilwoman Nancy Young, who was elected in 2012, said it’s a problem that has been characteristic of the council’s interactions since 2014.
“I’m glad the report came out because it actually reflects a lot of what happened and gives validation the issues and arguments that a number of us were trying to get out there,” Young said. “I don’t think it’s a difference on issues, because that is what we’re there for. We’re here to represent various voices throughout the community, to bring forth ideas and things that will help to move the city forward. If it’s a matter of policy, I think we’re able to work on that. I believe it falls under the category of personalities.”
She cited 3-2 splits with no effort to compromise and said that personal attacks, from Mayor Robert Rickman in particular, overshadowed policy debates.
“I’ve experienced that from him the entire time we’ve been on the council,” said Young, noting that she saw that dynamic between then-councilman Rickman and Brent Ives, who was mayor from 2011 to 2014, and then under Michael Maciel, Tracy’s mayor from 2015 to 2016. Rickman was elected to the council in 2010 and has been mayor since 2017. “I thought it was a power struggle, because it shifted from Mayor Ives, and then it shifted to Mike Maciel, and then it shifted to me and I’m not even the mayor.”
Rickman said Young’s assertion that he caused divisions on the council was an unfair characterization of his style.
“Council member Young and I have difference of opinions on different things. It appears she has taken things personal on some of the decisions that were made,” Rickman said.
He added that she has leveled her own share of personal attacks, sometimes at residents.
“There have been times that she lashed out against residents,” Rickman said, referring to late local businessman Dave Helm as an example of someone who would direct sharp criticism at the City Council. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a council member to attack a resident. It took me telling her to limit her answer, when she was attacking him.”
Rickman also said that any city council should expect to be divided on many issues.
“It boils down to individual opinion on whatever that matter may be, and I think that some that are on the losing side take it personally, and you shouldn’t. It’s not a personal attack. It’s just a difference of opinion,” he said. “Looking back at Brent Ives when he was mayor. I’ve known Brent my whole entire life. He was raised right next to me. We’d disagree on issues but we always remained civil. It’s OK to have a difference of opinion. That’s what democracy is all about, but you have to remain civil at the same time.”
Rickman said he asked City Manager Jenny Haruyama to set aside time at Tuesday’s Tracy City Council meeting to discuss the report, its findings and its recommendations. He said that the response to the grand jury should come from the entire council.
Councilwoman Rhodesia Ransom said she felt the grand jury’s report was a fair and accurate representation of the council she has served on since she was elected in 2016.
“That is something that I had personally been up against,” she said. “I had encouraged anyone who had complaints like this to reach out to the grand jury, and as you are aware, that I myself had reached out to the grand jury because I thought it was very important that we got someone who was independent of the city to look at the issues we had with the council-manager form of government, with politics really driving the work that we did or did not do.”
Ransom, who did not identify anyone by name, said the divisions made it difficult for her to work on issues important to her.
“It’s one thing to have a fundamental difference in opinion, but oftentimes the 3-2 split or the meddling in staff would be in regards to a personality,” she said. “As an example, when I was trying to move the issues of affordable housing and homelessness forward, there were council members who complained to staff and admonished them for working with me, even though I was a council member just like they were.”
Young said that the frequent 3-2 split, with Rickman and Councilwoman Veronica Vargas part of the majority from 2014 to 2018, meant that the word “collaboration” was excluded from the council’s vocabulary.
“It was just a resistance that we were met with. When I even brought up the ‘collaborative’ word, it was a bad word. I was told by both Mayor Rickman as well as Veronica Vargas that no, they don’t have to be collaborative because they’d win and we’d lose.”
Vargas responded with a prepared statement, which reads:
“Ever since my election to the Tracy City Council I have sought to work with all my colleagues, both past and present, for the betterment of Tracy and the people who call Tracy home. I will continue to seek to work with all my colleagues on issues like the Valley Link, housing and homelessness. Grand Jury report notwithstanding, we would all do better to treat those as we would like to be treated ourselves.”
The makeup of the council shifted with the 2018 election. Former Councilwoman Juana Dement, who was appointed in 2017 after Rickman was elected mayor, was replaced by Dan Arriola.
Arriola said he expected to keep the council from becoming divided into 3-2 voting blocs.
“At the end of the day, I think many of the findings in the civil grand jury report were also some of the reasons why I decided to run for office in the first place,” he said. “I’m glad that I was elected and that I can be an independent voice on the City Council, and with that independent voice we can overcome some of the challenges that we’ve seen in the past.