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.

Stockton Mayor Kevin Lincoln at a recent city council meeting (Joshua Brewer)

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:

Join the Conversation


  1. Grifters gonna grift, and birds of a feather.. well you know the rest. Lee, like Patrick, are just more in a long line of people who have no qualms using the trauma of people, minorities especially for their own personal gain. It’s just sad when the call is coming from inside the house.

    Mayor Ribbon Cutter on the other hand, in his continued campaign of “for the photos & feels” couldn’t care less about the propriety of those he’s around as long as it gets him another chance to play for the camera.

  2. Mike, really?

    You’re writing reeks of Boomer trying to stay in concert with the times and the buzz words. Trauma Central? Who are you writing for? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe we do need more representation, even from the 209 Times, because you are not writing all the sides here and certainly could do more and better to cover your topic. I’m not speaking of just this article, but this one was especially gross. I used to think very highly of you, I’ve since heard from old coworkers, who I know well and respect. I think you hit the mark some days (can’t recall a recent article) but these days I’m not seeing that. The truth is certainly out there, but it’s not in this writing.

    1. Apparently, Mike tried to give “the other” side a chance to be represented, so he could write “all the sides” but they rudely refused the opportunity. As for boomer-speak or whatever Mike is being accused of, it’s a writing style, and I appreciate the casual frankness of it. The occasional hyperbole is nice, unlike other sources you mention, which are ONLY ever (intentionally deceptive) hyperbole.

    2. Mike lost his sensibility when he was a supporter of Tubby. He could see nothing at all that Tubby did wrong but saw everything wrong on the opposite side. I, too, once thought highly of Fitzgerald…then I saw how unbalanced he is & in his reporting. This goes way back, not just to this article. Now, I don’t give a darn what he says because I know it is all one-sided and completely biased. A very jealous & zealous man he is.

  3. I don’t trust Jason Lee as far as I can throw him. If he’s so rich and successful, why is he asking the city for money? And shame on those who voted out Michael Tubbs for someone with no knowledge or experience. The poverty pimps continue to try to use and abuse Stockton.

  4. Clearly, people are desperate -so desperate for bold leadership and bold ideas, that they’ll embrace a lottery-ticket chance over the status quo. The distribution of taxpayer funds absolutely must go through a careful, transparent, administrative process that eliminates (or at least diminishes) the potential for secretive “back-room” dealing. There must be a basic standard met -especially after the fiasco with The Open Windows Project/Ten Space Development -another example of when the public was so desperate for SOMETHING to happen that public money (and entitlements) were granted to individuals who misrepresented themselves, got in over their heads, and left the city worse off. I’m sure the City Council is not eager to repeat that.

    My advice to Mr. Lee is to follow the example of former Mayor Michael Tubbs and tap his connections outside of Stockton to bring the necessary funds in via a non-profit -many millions of dollars in Tubbs’s case. Or, if $3,500 is just another night out for Mr. Lee, maybe he could just cook at home for a year, and there’s your million dollars.

    1. This is what happens when you elect a Mayor who does nothing but take selfies and rides on the back of fire trucks! Had he gotten out and hustled like the previous mayor, he might have attracted programs who saw Stockton as a cause worth investing in. Instead, he sits in his office and waits for the hustle to come to him!

  5. Mike, great article, and tremendous insight born of your long reporting of the desperate attempts to fix the many ills of this traumatized port city. The people below suffer, while they only see their very small slice of life in their small world. Not their fault. But they are ripe for the grifters to feed on. Maybe their intentions are good. But when faced with the desperation of the folks they are trying to help will they become desperate and leave town for the places that are comfortable and known to them. I have seen it many times. Jason Lee has to prove himself and put up his own money to do it.

  6. What an absolute scam! Like COVID funding, how much of the proposed $1 million would lined his pocket, and that of a soon-to-be former SUSD director looking for his next grift!

  7. This mayor’s term has been nothing but amateur hour. It started when he hired a 20 year-old college student to be his full time chief of staff, even though he was a full time student. (They passed that one off as if the kid had graduated from Stanford, when in fact, he was attending.) I’m sure Mayor ribbon-cutter thinks he’s doing a good thing, but maybe, just maybe we should look at a person’s qualifications before voting blindly for whoever Patrick and his gang are promoting. Seems as if security guard and part-time preacher may just not have given him the ability to run a city…

  8. 5/6/2013:

    Ten Years After? This previous event was orchestrated 10 years ago – does anyone remember? Brought to you by Michael Tubbs and Jason Lee.

    I’m admittedly old, and will say this “Star-Studded” event went way over my head in recognition of the “Stars”… and how well did the young people of Stockton benefit by this “Hollywood Takes Over Stockton”, youth conference?

    Was it one day only? Where did the money go? Who reaped the benefit?

    Just asking.

  9. Mike writes the facts and the truth. People do research, dont just believe a bitter web site that is only trying to promote their personal agenda. I dont have high expectations for Lincoln. What has he done? Black has done good for Stockton. Do we want the council to end up like SUSD? Thank you Mike for honest reporting.

  10. Nice piece, Mike. I viewed the nearly 5-hour Council meeting online, most of which was dedicated to the “I am Ready” initiative. While commendable, I do not think it would be wise or prudent for Council to award $1M or $2M to an unproven and untested program, particularly when we already have existing COBs in the city performing similar work. I suppose the angle here is the “celebrity” Jason Lee brings, but we do not need celebrity, we need results.

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