There was deeply meaningful drama at Tuesday’s Stockton City Council meeting between a Hollywood “mogul” who wants $1 million of city money and leaders leery of giving it to him.
Jason Lee, who grew up disadvantaged in Stockton, and who went on to stardom on “Wild ‘N Out” and other shows, and to multimillion-dollar success with Hollywood Unlocked, his media company, wants $1 million to fund I Am Ready, a nonprofit he designed to help disadvantaged Stockton youth.
“I’m passionate about Stockton, but I’m also deeply committed to lifting up the youth growing up like I did,” Lee told the council as a supportive crowd spilled out of chambers, out of the second-floor lobby and downstairs.
Lee may be passionate about helping, but he wants to do it with taxpayer money, and it is clear that for all his financial acumen he doesn’t understand city government. Which makes him partly responsible for the frustration he experienced Tuesday night.
But so is Mayor Kevin Lincoln. For months Lincoln has stubbornly insisted the city will give Lee the money — originally $2 million — demonstrating he, too, does not understand, or does not care, how municipal appropriations work.
Stockton’s municipal code requires contracts over $100,000 to go through competitive bidding. The winner must be the “lowest and best responsible bidder.” Obviously, this law is there to protect taxpayers, not only from scammers but from leaders like Lincoln who would throw millions at a pet project he’s infatuated with without proper vetting.
And vetting is needed. Lee has raised a number of red flags, possibly without realizing he had done so, as dozens of pages of city staff reports attest.
· I Am Ready originally asked for money (at first, $2 million) without submitting a budget or complete program plan.
· It later submitted a 1-page budget.
· It failed repeatedly to describe in sufficient detail what it would do with the money.
· It blew off two normal funding opportunities, called Notices of Available Funding, or NOFAs, possibly because the mayor promised Lee special treatment.
· I Am Ready is a pilot program. It has no track record. Numerous Stockton-based nonprofits—we’re talking 1,000 to 2,000 employees–can show they have lifted disadvantaged kids into college, or whatever.
· Lee got ugly with city staff when not given VIP treatment. “Nobody on my team believed you all would politic the future and safety of the city’s youth like this but I did,” he emailed a city executive in November 2022. “I strongly urge you to reconsider … If not, the blood of this city’s youth is on your hands.”
· Lee burned the city for a $3,424 bill he ran up staging a Stockton youth conference in 2013. The debt grew to over $6,000 with penalties. Lee fumed that he didn’t know about this debt — the city never told him — and he scoffed at the amount as chickenfeed for a man of his wealth (“I spent $3,500 on dinner the other night.”). The city ultimately wrote Lee’s debt off as uncollectible. Lee recently paid the principal anyway, though not the interest, which he did not have to do. Whether he did so because he pays debts honorably or because he had a request before the city for $1 million who knows.
· Though no one will say so publicly, numerous city leaders — including some council members who sat poker-faced listening to Lee — fear that Lee associates with the grifters who corrupted Stockton Unified. They are on guard lest these checkered characters use I Am Ready as a Trojan horse to sneak their scam into City Hall.
Lee may be blissfully unaware of this concern.
I would have told him, but he declined to return my call. Instead, he boasted at the meeting that the press had lavished attention on him. Then to my astonishment, he proclaimed he’d refused to take my call and then played a recording of my call to him for all to hear, apparently unaware that I was sitting 15 feet away at the press table.
I’m not going to sift four hours of council video to hear my call, but here’s the email I sent him, which was similar.
“Mr. Lee: I’m writing a column about the disagreement between Stockton’s mayor and its city staff over your I Am Ready program. City staff reports raise numerous questions. If you’d like to speak to them, give me a call today.”
I pitched a reality-based interview, not a puff piece. Evidently this is considered bad form in Hollywood. Lee is a bedrock Stockton guy, but he is also Hollywood, big-headed, a name dropper, apparently prone to tirades when not given the best table at Cecconi’s.
“The other day I was on the phone with TeShante (possibly a Stockton woman; apologies if I misspell the name) …,” he actually said, “and in the middle of this conversation about today, Rihanna called, and I told Rihanna, “I gotta call you back because we’re talking about Stockton.”
The real meat of the evening came during public comment. With a few notable exceptions, a three-hour procession of speakers, many wearing “I Am Ready” t-shirts, beseeched the council to approve Lee’s program. These speakers came from Trauma Central, the Stockton of poverty and food insecurity, gun violence and gang initiations, imprisonment and overdoses, depression and domestic violence. Of getting a midnight call, rushing to the hospital, praying with friends, burying a child.
Many spoke of grievous loss. Their accounts were heart-rending.
Here are some of the comments:
· “We are tired of burying our babies. We are tired and ready for change.”
· “At 20 years old my father was killed in front of his house by Stockton police.”
· “It’s not right that I have to bury my little brother … We need help.”
· “People want to raise their kids in Stockton without fear and with hope.”
· “I can’t tell you how many kids are being arrested with guns on them. Show these kids that they are valuable, that they do mean something to you … just invest in them.”
· “Are you tired of saying rest in peace?”
It was staggering, and on another level, instructive. Lee’s supporters required no paperwork of him, no business plan, no itemized budget. The trauma of his Stockton upbringing — he lost family, went through foster care — connected them; the fact that he returned promising help gave them desperately needed hope that the city could change. They believe in him.
The council was a little more particular.
Council member Brando Villapudua: “I think you have a great idea, but where’s your background on this?”
Council member Dan Wright: “You have to have a process. You have to. We’re going to be held accountable for these funds. The FBI is in town investigating Stockton Unified…”
Council member Kimberly Warmsley: “We have a responsibility to taxpayers. End of story.”
As for Mayor Lincoln, it may be that he connects so deeply and urgently with the struggling souls of Stockton that he has no patience with the cumbersome processes that precede the award of public money. If that’s the case, then Lincoln may take his place in a long line of Stockton leaders who meant well but did not do well.
His attempt to jump an unproven outsider to the head of the line while local nonprofits slogged through the process was unfair, irresponsible with public money and politically a nonstarter. He came around only when he saw he was going to lose big, probably to a 5-2 vote.
Meaning he botched his chance to serve the people who need help most. He didn’t inspire any council allies, either.
“It’s shocking to me. And it’s embarrassing,” said Councilmember Lenz. “We’re getting a lot of bad feelings from people. I just don’t see why they should jump to the front of the line when we have so many wonderful organizations in Stockton that can use a helping hand.”
“With all of their Hollywood contacts — and some of them are stars — you would think they would be able to raise philanthropic dollars to pay for the program, rather than have a disadvantaged city pay for it,” said Councilmember Wright. “I spoke with their representatives twice and shared my concerns. Then they stopped calling me. Apparently, they didn’t stop calling the mayor.”
Councilmember Michael Blower: “They’re free to apply under the normal process. It makes me wonder why they didn’t want to.”
The council voted unanimously to fund most of 17 priority projects. But it amended the resolution to peel out I Am Ready and put it through the NOFA process. Thanks to Lincoln, the program will not come back to the council for a vote until October 17.
As for Lee, he posted the following day that he had met with Motecuzoma Sanchez, the head of the 209 Times, which backed all the corrupt characters in Stockton Unified and attacked the reformers. Lee probably has no idea how that played in City Hall.
Michael Fitzgerald’s column usually runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.