The Tracy City Council may come up with a single response to the grand jury’s critique of Tracy city politics, but Tuesday night’s discussion on the matter shows that the council is a long way from having a unified voice.
City Manager Jenny Haruyama told the council at the start of the 2½-hour discussion that the San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury’s report had 15 findings and six recommendations for the council. On each finding, the council voted to “agree,” “disagree” or “disagree partially” with the grand jury.
On only two of those 15 findings did the council agree unanimously with the grand jury. The council also agreed with nine more of the findings, but with a 3-2 split on five of those votes as council members Nancy Young, Rhodesia Ransom and Dan Arriola voted to agree with the grand jury and Mayor Robert Rickman and Councilwoman Veronica Vargas dissented.
While the council was far from consensus on the grand jury’s findings, it did unanimously agree to accept its six recommendations to guide the council in the future. At the end of the discussion, Haruyama told the council that her staff would return at the July 16 meeting with a plan to implement the six recommendations.
The council heard from the public at the start of the discussion, and some of the people from the 19-member grand jury were in the audience. Among them was Terri Rocha, who addressed the council members at the end of the meeting. She stood behind the grand jury’s findings after the council’s discussion and the series of split votes.
“We on the grand jury have evidence of everything,” she told the council. “I would love to release that, but it’s not something that I can do.
“It’s obvious to me that … a lot of the council members seem to get what the grand jury said. Some are still in denial, because you’re part of the problem. I wish the council good in the future. I just hope the citizens of Tracy wake up.”
The 3-2 split was prominent on the matters regarding council ethics, with the council majority of Young, Ransom and Arriola agreeing that failure to establish an ethics policy reflected the council members’ inability to work together and that ethical behavior had been a low priority for the council.
Rickman took issue with the grand jury’s statement that “petty bickering” impaired the council’s ability to work for the public’s interests.
“If you want to take a better look at it, you can look our state of the city,” Rickman said. “This is what we’ve accomplished in the past two years, and no other council has even come close to accomplishing what we’ve accomplished.”
He then read a list of economic development milestones, as well as progress on city planning practices, transportation issues, city amenities, revenue increases, and marketing of the city to encourage new businesses and jobs.
“I’m just going to say a little bit more here. I have like eight pages of this,” Rickman said. He went on for more than 7 minutes before Ransom interrupted him.
“I think we all get the point that you disagree with the finding,” Ransom said, “but is this in accordance with what we’re supposed to be doing on this agenda item?”
Rickman replied: “These are just some of the examples. These are not even all of them.” He cited 24 straight months of economic growth.
“So when I disagree that it diminished our ability to conduct public business, my God, there’s no city that compares to us, how fast we’re moving,” Rickman said.
Young agreed that the city had made progress over the past two years but said that the core of the matter was in the detailed wording of the grand jury’s finding. The council spent a big part of the 2½-hour discussion talking about how the findings were phrased.
Young pointed out that where the grand jury says “the petty bickering … has diminished their ability to effectively conduct the public’s business,” it should have emphasized efficiency rather than effectiveness.
“I think ‘efficiently’ versus ‘effectively’ would probably be more relevant, because we did get things done, however there are things that we could have gotten done in lesser time frame,” Young said.
Arriola agreed with Young and again zeroed in on specific language.
“My focus on this is ‘diminished,’ and the fact of the matter is, what this finding is saying is that there was some negative behavior between council members that diminished the ability to effectively conduct public business,” he said. “I very much do commend the prior council on what they accomplished. I really do, but when we look at this, what it says is that the negativity diminished it. Without that negativity it would have enhanced it. It would have been better.”
The two unanimous votes came on the findings that the lack of an ethics policy had hindered the council in the past and that a new ethics policy would hold council members accountable in the future.
The council then unanimously agreed on recommendations that an ethics policy and “rules of behavior” be adopted by Oct. 31, as well as a recommendation that council members not allow personal differences to interfere with city business.
The council disagreed partially, again on split votes, on findings regarding the appointment of new council members — and then unanimously endorsed a grand jury recommendation that would give priority to the third-highest vote-getter in the event of a council vacancy following an election.
The 3-2 split, with Young, Ransom and Arriola in the majority and Rickman and Vargas in the minority, came up again on the matter of staff resignations and terminations. The majority agreed with grand jury findings that instability among high-ranking city staff caused anxiety among upper management in the city, and contributed to the public’s mistrust of the council and the belief that “power politics” on the council was behind staff turnover.
The council did agree with the grand jury’s recommendation that a 4-1 super majority be required to fire the city manager or city attorney, the only two staff positions hired by the council. All other upper management personnel are hired by the city manager.
Regarding council members “intruding into the responsibilities of city staff,” the council agreed with the grand jury’s findings, but Vargas said she would abstain from those votes.
“I really have no context on this,” Vargas said. “To me, I’m not aware of these allegations. For me it looks like a lot of assumptions.”
The council agreed unanimously that the city needs a policy outlining “sanctions or censure” for council members who try to give direction to city staff members without working through the full council and city manager.