So far, Kevin Lincoln has been a weak mayor. His political missteps have cost him City Council majority support, alienated the city manager, irritated donors and wasted city staff time.
An example of Lincoln’s unforced errors is his annual State of the City Address. In his 39-minute speech on May 18, Lincoln found time to talk about himself; to give shout-outs to community organizers, students, even his daughter’s 16th birthday; but not to utter a word of acknowledgement of council members.
“I think it was disappointing that council wasn’t recognized,” said Councilmember Michael Blower, offended by the snub. “I think it’s important. We’re a team — or we should be a team …”
One council member reportedly bought a new dress for the occasion and had her hair done only to return to City Hall fuming that the mayor hogged the limelight.
This may seem small potatoes, but a mayor needs at minimum a 4-3 vote to advance his agenda. Good mayors curry allies. They share credit. They acknowledge their peers’ successes.
Lincoln has two votes, maybe; until that changes, his agenda goes nowhere.
The controversy over flying the Pride Flag over City Hall is the latest of Lincoln’s stumbles. At the council meeting on June 13 he talked for several minutes about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) — then voted against the pride flag.
The vote, with one council member absent, was deadlocked; at a re-vote on June 20, the council approved flying the flag.
It’s understandable that Lincoln might vote no based on religious objections — he is a pastor — but piously intoning the importance of DEI is baloney if not followed by support for marginalized groups.
The mayor’s string of mistakes arguably started when he fired the savvy political consultants at 3AM Communications. 3AM helped him win an upset victory in 2020. Often politicians retain consultants as advisers.
Instead, Lincoln surrounded himself with 209 Times associates. Granted they, too, helped him get elected — through a smear campaign against incumbent Mayor Michael Tubbs — but judging by outcomes they give him a ton of bad advice.
That’s no surprise. 209 Times people stated in interviews after Tubbs’ defeat that they are businesspeople, not journalists. They are out to make money. Their playbook is to get leaders and board majorities in local government and cash in with jobs, grants and contracts. Good governance is not their goal.
Perhaps, as an underdog, it was realpolitik for Lincoln to accept the 209 Times’ endorsement, but his ongoing relationship with them casts an enduring cloud over his administration.
Take his I Am Ready setback. For months Lincoln insisted that an untested pilot program devised by a questionable Hollywood internet celebrity with ties to the 209 Times and disgraced former Mayor Anthony Silva should, in violation of the city charter, get special treatment and either $1 or $2 million of taxpayer money, while proven local nonprofits should have to slog through the funding application process.
It was not only unfair. Many leaders and observers muttered fears of a con job. Lincoln looked as if he had zero discernment.
The council roundly rejected the special treatment.
This Waterloo also showed another Lincoln shortcoming: his sometimes lax control of council meetings. A mayor must preserve order. Instead, Lincoln relinquished command of the meeting to the internet celebrity who was given highly irregular special time to rebut council comments and seemed to own the room.
Lincoln’s decorum laxity — usually toward people whose views align with his — sometimes enables an atmosphere of barely suppressed populist anger that intimidates other citizens, impedes good governance and risks trouble. Stockton is no place to tell people the rules don’t apply.
By the way, Lincoln ran on the homeless issue. Once elected he brought his proposal for a low-barrier shelter to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors. Fiscally, the proposal was imprudent. Supes rejected it. Since then Lincoln has played a secondary role.
Another self-sabotage is Lincoln’s drive to fire City Manager Harry Black. A council majority supports Black, the best city manager in years. Lincoln’s dogged campaign to fire him — perhaps to replace him with a manager he deems sympatico, perhaps to replace him with some 209 Times hack — is not in the city’s best interests.
If a city manager has a mayor’s back, a mayor can notch substantial wins. Lincoln has spoiled his relationship with Black. Reportedly this has angered some of Lincoln’s donors.
Until yesterday, neither Lincoln nor his personal PIO would talk to me. Five times I asked to interview him; five times his office said no. In 34 years of journalism, I’ve never met a crew like this. The mayor’s office said no before I wrote a single word about him.
Perhaps the 209 Times types gave him more bad advice (“Oh, you don’t want to talk to him.”). That’s speculation.
What I can say is there is no better way to arouse a journalist’s suspicions than to stonewall him. A mayor who ducks questions is either being soft or up to something. A PIO who abets stonewalling sabotages their boss. Politics is the ugly art of making friends, not journalistic sleuths determined to find a smoking gun.
Come on, man, a mayor’s job is to answer tough questions. If they have good answers, it’s an all-round win: the mayor looks competent, the journo gets an informed perspective, citizens get information and analysis about public business.
Lincoln appears to prefer softball interviews with dewy-eyed student journalists, or Instagram videos of ribbon cuttings or his curiously frequent school visits (he said at the State of the City event he has visited at least 56 schools).
Now, here’s a scoop: in February Lincoln, unbeknownst to the public, launched an ill-conceived bid to control all city information.
Finding language in the city charter (Article X1-A, sections 1150, 1151, 1152) that says, “The Public Information Officer shall be under the direction and supervision of the Mayor,” Lincoln moved to take the public information role away from the city’s main PIO, a woman of 30 years’ experience who works in the city manager’s Office, and give it to the mayor’s PIO, a former church employee with no previous experience who works in the Mayor’s Office.
“Charter Section X1-A is not being followed and must be remedied,” wrote Lincoln, who frames the issue as a necessary matter of rectifying an illegal practice, which technically it may be.
Lincoln also demanded to be the information point person during emergencies when the state Office of Emergency Services holds Emergency Operations Meetings. He wanted to be the face of emergency command.
Lincoln decreed that the transition would begin March 31 and the Mayor’s Office would assume all PIO duties by July 1.
There followed a long exchange of emails and over-the-table meetings in which the mayor was repeatedly advised that — charter language notwithstanding — no Stockton mayor ever took over all PIO duties because it simply will not work.
It was explained (in dozens of documents, which I obtained through a California Public Records Act request) that the mayor’s plan would violate federal labor law, other charter provisions, council policy directives, and the City Manager’s contract.
In other words, Section X1-A, though voter approved, failed to account for a thicket of conflicting laws that likely make this charter provision impossible to implement.
To detail these obstacles would require a separate treatment. Which may be necessary, as a limited response from the mayor’s PIO, Dana Sovinec, suggests he will press on.
“The City is not in compliance with Charter Article XI-A in the following ways,” Sovinec wrote. “A public information office does not exist; Citywide communications are not administered by the Mayor’s appointed PIO and are instead administered by staff members under the authority of the City Manager; the Mayor does not have authority over City staff, making any staff who are functioning in public information/communications capacities in violation of the Charter.”
She added, “Mayor Lincoln’s goal is for the City to operate in accordance with the direction given by Stockton voters who approved Article XI-A in the City Charter.”
So the guy who ignored the rules with I Am Ready is now the champion of the rules? Or does the mayor and his staff believe control of city information will benefit them politically? My opinion is they don’t know how much they don’t know about a public information office.
Whatever the case, this campaign shows again Mayor Lincoln’s seeming inability to divine the doable in government, one reason his batting average is a bus ticket to the minor leagues unless he improves his swing.
Asked for a list of the mayor’s accomplishments, Sovinec referred me to the mayor’s website. https://www.stocktonmayor.org. Any other PIO would gratefully have curated some bullet points. Or, God forbid, put the mayor on the horn.
Michael Fitzgerald is an investigative news columnist for Stocktonia. His column usually runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. email: email@example.com