Stockton’s City Council resolved on Tuesday to ask citizens if they want straight facts to come out of City Hall or political propaganda.
Specifically, the council debated whether to put a measure on the 2024 ballot to strip the Mayor’s Office of authority to control city public information.
“I think that it’s logical and makes more sense that a non-political person be in charge of communications for the City of Stockton,” said Councilmember Michael Blower, who raised the issue.
Under the proposed measure, the Mayor’s Office would retain a public information officer (PIO) to release Mayor’s Office information. But news about all other city departments and actions would revert to the City Manager’s Office.
The City Manager’s Office controlled City Hall information up until 2000 when voters okayed a charter revision giving the power to then-Mayor Gary Podesto.
In hindsight, that was a mistake. The office of mayor, being elective, is inherently political. A mayor wants votes and may trim the truth to get them.
“May trim the truth” is an understatement. The temptation to spin the facts, omit them, or even make false statements would be overwhelming to a politician faced with releasing damaging truths. Especially given the checkered character of some of Stockton’s politicians.
A city manager is not an elected official. That office can be much more neutral. City managers, too, sometimes fudge the facts, but nothing like, say, Mayor Kevin Lincoln would likely do.
Lincoln is running as the Republican opponent to Democrat Rep. Josh Harder for the Congressional District 13 seat. Campaigns are rivers of bullshit. To allow the Mayor’s Office to control the narrative during a campaign would likely lead to Orwellian distortions of fact.
Especially since Lincoln has been such a weak mayor. The truth is not going to do him much good in his quest for higher office.
An example of Bullshit Lite is on Lincoln’s campaign website. “In my time as Mayor, we’ve … balanced our budgets,” he boasts.
That’s perfectly true — because state law requires cities to balance their budgets. Budgets have been balanced in everybody’s time as mayor.
An example of Bullshit Medium Deep was provided to me by a Lincoln campaign aide. “Mayor Lincoln also prioritized investing $4 million in Stockton youth, which has resulted in over 300 jobs and opportunities for at-risk youth and young adults.”
I fell for that one — until former Mayor Michael Tubbs chimed in. “What’s hilarious is that the Youth Jobs Corps program I created in my role as Special Advisor for Economic Mobility (to Gov. Gavin Newsom) and made it so the big 13 cities got automatic funding. Mayor Lincoln wasn’t even in the (Zoom) meeting when I presented it to the mayors.”
On to Bathysphere-Deep Bullshit. Once, when I asked the mayor’s spokesperson to cite examples of the mayor’s accomplishments, she referred me to the city’s website. There are indeed many accomplishments listed there — and almost all emanated from the office of City Manager Harry Black, whom Lincoln perversely has tried to fire for months.
The Mayor’s Office has also innovated a novel form of bullshit — novel to me, at least — stonewalling.
For instance, I emailed his office an invitation to lay out for the public why giving him PIO power would be in the city’s best interest — a standard and valid journalistic question — and got crickets.
I don’t know if this is because Lincoln gets bad advice about media or prefers to duck hard questions or because he’s traumatized by that brain fart he had midway through his July 18 Channel 3 interview. But I’m not the only one the Mayor’s Office will stonewall if given control of city information.
No, their record suggests they would use taxpayer money and control of public information to gush Lincoln campaign hype.
I use Lincoln merely as an example. He’ll term out before a charter revision could take effect. But you get my point. Removing control of public information from the Mayor’s Office is simply a good-government reform.
Besides, though the 2000 city charter revision took authority over public information from the City Manager’s Office and gave it to the Mayor’s Office, the PIO power was never transferred. Lincoln’s office wanted it — demanded it — then didn’t take it.
There’s a reason for that. All mayors from Podesto onward came to realize that taking over the city public information office was biting off more than they could chew.
The city PIO’s job isn’t banging out the occasional press release. It includes “community relations, media inquiries, requests for public records, city website content, Ask Stockton, and Government Access Television – Stockton GovTV,” according to the city website.
Also, the changeover ran afoul of state and federal laws.
“I think we’ve spent time here fixing it into implementation and we’ve not been successful because of competing rules,” said Councilmember Dan Wright, a mayoral candidate, and a wise one. “But if we can’t fix it — if we can’t fix it into implementation — then we should fix it out of the charter.”
Forethought should indeed be given to the next mayor. Mayoral candidate Christina Fugazi has called the charter revision “completely unnecessary.”
She spoke before the council during the comment period, expressing outrage at spending money on a charter revision ballot measure and ignoring the needs of the people.
“Yesterday there were two teenagers shot, one just two blocks from here,” she said passionately, adding that potholes are unfilled, trees dying, the city is going to hell in a handbasket. “We can’t even afford to keep our police officers on the streets …”
According to the San Joaquin County Registrar’s Office, putting a charter revision on the ballot would cost Stockton between $50,000 and $80,000 — chump change, which would not pay for even one police officer.
“Don’t change the charter unless it is proposed by a committee of the people!” added Fugazi, as if elections somehow thwart the peoples’ will.
What if the future produces another charlatan like Anthony Silva?
“Also I worry about corruption,” Blower said. “To me it makes more sense that, if we have a city manager who’s not doing a good job, we can fire him and hire somebody else. You can’t do that with a strong mayor.”
The language of the 2000 charter revision transferring public information authority to the Mayor’s Office was lifted from San Jose’s city charter. But though San Jose’s charter change became Stockton’s model, San Jose didn’t follow through either.
San Jose did what Stockton did: maintain a Mayor’s Office PIO who gave out information on the Mayor’s Office and a PIO under the city manager who dispensed neutral city information. San Jose, like Stockton, treated the charter revision as a dead letter, an oops that would not work.
“Because everybody understood that the roles were different,” said David Vossbrink, who served both as the PIO for San Jose’s Mayor’s Office (1999-2006) and for the City Manager’s Office (2011-2017).
“I was working for the mayor directly,” Vossbrink said of his first tenure. “When he was engaged with political activities … there was a clear bright line. I never got involved in that stuff on the city nickel. Because that’s clearly a violation of what the city’s public resources should be used for.”
Ultimately the Stockton council decided to heed those who think elections undemocratic and to empanel a citizens’ charter review committee and await its recommendation before acting. That could take a year.
Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. His views do not represent those of Stocktonia’s management and staff. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: email@example.com