A back-room battle is raging over firing Stockton’s city manager. At best, firing Harry Black would be a mistake because the guy is good. At worst, it could throw open the door to corruption.
The conflict reflects Stockton’s perennial leadership problems, often caused by forces that put self-enrichment and self-advancement over the public good.
“Our City Manager has made it possible for our city to thrive in the last three years since he has come on board with the City of Stockton,” Council member Brando Villapudua, who is at the center of the fight, said in a statement.
He added, “The desire to remove the City Manager precedes me and I believe it is more of a personal issue with the mayor and an external party.”
The fight went public on March 1. The Council went into closed session to evaluate Black (the City Manager serves at the pleasure of the Council and can be removed by a 4-3 vote).
The meeting went haywire.
Villapudua alleges that at least one council member flagrantly violated the Brown Act by alerting 209 Times chief Motecuzoma Sanchez (presumably the “external party”) by phone while the meeting was still in progress that they were one vote short of the four needed to fire Black.
Sanchez is an also-ran, rejected numerous times by voters. His unethical use of the 209 Times — its falsehoods and smears — shows he’s unfit to hold a position of public trust. The people the 209 Times supports are often clueless mediocrities who ill-serve the public but, it is widely believed, do what Sanchez says.
Villapudua alleges Sanchez contacted him — during closed session — and urged him to change his vote.
At the risk of digressing, Villapudua also alleges that Sanchez followed him to a local brewpub after the meeting and got in his face. Sanchez denies this, but a judge granted Villapudua a temporary restraining order against Sanchez.
Villapudua IDed the council members voting to fire Black as Michele Padilla, Kimberly Warmsley, and Mayor Kevin Lincoln. Lincoln and Warmsley declined to return a call. Padilla responded but declined to explain her stance.
Curious: three council members who want to fire a key city official won’t tell the public why.
In Padilla’s case, her associations speak volumes. When taking office Jan. 10, she thanked her campaign manager, Sam Fant, calling him her “lifelong friend,” also thanking her “management team,” Motecuzoma Sanchez and his 209 Times associate Frank Gayaldo, and then-council member Christina Fugazi, among others.
- Fant pleaded no contest to conspiracy and election fraud charges in 2017.
- Sanchez was recently laid off from Stockton Unified in a housecleaning amid an FBI investigation into missing millions and other possible crimes.
- Fugazi, who termed out from the council and became vice principal of Edison High School, was placed on paid administrative leave March 24.
Whatever reasons council members have for firing Black, it cannot be his competence. Black is one of the most skilled city managers in decades. The staggering array of initiatives he oversees dwarfs my available space.
Broadly speaking, Black wisely used federal relief dollars to bring Stockton through the Covid recession, meanwhile working to examine and improve virtually every aspect of city government, while simultaneously keeping the city on a prudent, post-bankruptcy budget.
Under Black the city in 2021 alone:
- Used federal rescue dollars to provide $40 million in rental assistance to keep families housed, $1.6 million to pay overdue water bills, and distributed over 40,000 bags of food.
- Awarded grants to help over 200 small businesses survive.
- Created the Clean City Initiative. Working with waste haulers, the city sponsors a bimonthly recycling event where folks can get rid of electronics, mattresses, shredding, etc. The city also cleans up homeless camps.
- Added shelter beds for the homeless and waived over $12 million in fees to boost housing.
And here’s 2022. My personal attaboy involves a grant the city secured to clean up 9 acres of city-owned land on the south bank to make it more attractive to developers who may one day build waterfront housing.
A data geek, Black created the Office of Performance and Data Analytics to track performance data. The data is granular, but broadly, during his tenure, the city identified 89 municipal problems and has completed improvements to 64.
Stockton’s Economic Development Director Carrie Wright said last year that the city has streamlined its permit process, cutting its time by 25%.
“That’s just not ‘We think we did.’ We know we did,” Wright said. “And we measure it on a regular basis.”
Black reportedly has an open door, answers all emails, and promptly responds to complaints and calls for service.
“While I was out of town, I received a fairly long text from a constituent who owns a business and was having some trouble and needed some attention,” recalled Council member Michael Blower. “I copied the text and forwarded it to the City Manager — on a Saturday, mind you. Within an hour and a half, I received a message that he took action to address the problem. I sent that to the constituent who said, ‘That was amazing’.”
Black lives in Stockton, which his predecessor disdained to do.
Of course, Black has not solved the police staffing problem, and must, but this problem is not unique to Stockton.
There will undoubtedly be more to criticize in the future. Yet I feel I’m not listing all the metrics by which his accomplishments should be measured.
“If you take a look at what occurred before Harry got to Stockton and after Harry got to Stockton the evidence is there that a lot has gotten done,” said council member Dan Wright.
It is clear that whatever motives there are for firing Black, what’s best for Stockton is not one of them.
So, what gives? Possibly the grifters who half-destroyed Stockton Unified, finding that door now closed, want to run their scams on City Hall by replacing key leaders with less scrupulous (and, inevitably, less competent) allies.
If that is the case, then the council members supporting Black are not only preserving a competent executive but keeping the jackals out of the meat locker.
The council members opposing Black should publicly state their reasons.
“My choice to stand by our City Manager and our City is now under attack,” reads Villapudua’s statement. “Do I regret making the right choice, NO! … Someone must stand up for what is right.”
Harry Black declined to comment for this article.
Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.