During an awkward and tense special Tuesday evening Feb. 2 meeting, a divided Ceres City Council could not agree on who among four applicants should fill a vacant council seat.
Nothing changed when the council met again Monday evening to discuss the issue and still could not agree.
The District 1 council seat became vacant last month when Channce Condit resigned midway through his four-year term to take a seat on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. The council intended to make an appointment to fill out the remaining two years of the term but soon realized an insurmountable 2-2 deadlock. During the contentious debate, the council put off the matter until March, with the real possibility that a special election for District 1 will become necessary.
The council has 60 days from the vacancy date of Jan. 5 to either appoint or call for a special election.
The drama underscored continued deep divisions among the new council under Javier Lopez’s leadership as mayor.
The four who applied for the council position were Ceres Planning Commission chairwoman Laurie Smith; day care facility operator Connie Vasquez; Memorial Medical Center technician Mark C. White; and limousine business owner Parminder S. Bahia.
Each applicant spent time introducing themselves and answering a series of questions before the matter was discussed.
Javier Lopez, Ceres’ new mayor called for a motion to make an appointment but was stopped by Councilmember Linda Ryno, who said the past practice called for each member to express their preference. She offered up her opinion, stating that Smith’s 14 years on the Ceres Planning Commission would allow her to “hit the ground running.”
“Some may think, well, she’s been in government, we don’t want someone who’s been in government – there are people who think that way but I also know that we need that on our council,” said Ryno. “We need someone who is familiar with municipal government, we need someone who is familiar with the budget process, economic development, all of that.”
Ryno and Councilman Bret Silveira held fast to their insistence that Smith had the experience that the others lacked. Mayor Lopez and Vice Mayor Couper Condit blocked her appointment, voting in support of any of the other three applicants in separate motions which systematically failed in 2-2 ties.
The meeting was punctuated by barbs traded and periods of silence as members dug in their heels over choices.
Lopez acknowledged that the applicants other than Smith have no government experience but said “given the opportunity anyone in any position can do good for the city.”
Silveira, who served on the Planning Commission with Smith, insisted said her experience made her the clear choice.
“Her commitment to the city of Ceres is exactly what we need and what we want,” Silveira said of Smith. “Laurie is intelligent, articulate and well spoken. She makes well-thought-out decisions. She communicates with grace and courtesy to all that she comes into contact with. I spent almost a year on the Planning Commission with Laurie and learned so much from her as our chairperson. She’d be a great asset to the citizens of Ceres.”
After Condit said he favored White’s appointment with no supporting comments, Silveira motioned for Smith to be appointed, seconded by Ryno. It failed in a 2-2 tie vote with Lopez and Condit opposed.
Condit then nominated White, which also failed with Ryno and Silveira opposing.
Lopez motioned to appoint Vasquez which ended in a 2-2 tie, prompting him to say, “Sounds like we’re going to have some fun tonight, everyone.”
Silveira, concerned about the cost of a special election which would cost the city roughly $33,000 to $45,000, put forth Smith’s name again, which resulted in the same deadlock.
Lopez suggested a special election would be a “waste of money and time” and added, “I believe that we can come to an agreement, we probably just need a little bit of time to discuss …”
He then asked if there was a way to discuss the appointment “between ourselves” during a five-minute recess and was informed by City Attorney Tom Hallinan that “it needs to be an open process.”
The Brown Act makes it illegal for councilmembers to discuss city matters behind closed doors unless it is a closed session involving personnel or legal issues.
Ryno said the council could postpone the matter but commented it may be futile since she wasn’t going to budge.
Silveira repeated: “Laurie Smith is the most qualified and would be ready to serve immediately.”
“I don’t think we know who the most qualified person is,” answered Condit, “because the voters haven’t decided in District 1.” He then motioned for Bahia’s appointment which resulted in a 2-2 tie.
Lopez asked the reasons why Ryno or Silveira didn’t find any of the other three candidates qualified, prompting Silveira to quickly reply: “It’s not a question you can ask, I’m sorry, Mayor. We’re talking about who is qualified and it’s my opinion that Laurie Smith is clearly the most qualified.”
Lopez then stated: “I feel that it’s important that we give everybody an opportunity to jump in this thing, not just because somebody has experience and obviously Mrs. Smith you know ... that at the end of the day I want everybody to do the best that they can. So this is obviously nothing personal. I’m open to Mr. Bahia, open to White, open to anybody on this council but we have to make sure that we focus on some other things than just experience. And that’s just because of how I got here today. It’s not always about the experience, it’s about the will.”
Ryno said she appreciated the fact that Lopez “came from out of the loop” as an underdog to be elected over an experienced councilman, but that the mostly inexperienced council could benefit from someone with the experience only Smith can bring. Ryno said she hoped the mayor wasn’t shutting down someone just because they have experience.
Silveira said there is “little to no chance I’ll change my opinion” and suggested that the three other applicants could get involved in other areas of serving the city.
Condit suggested reopening the application process, prompting Silveira to say: “That would almost insinuate that we don’t feel like we have a qualified candidate in the room.”
Condit suggested the council was at impasse and the “wise thing” would be to reopen the application process. “I totally disagree,” replied Silveira.
When Lopez suggested putting off the decision until March 8, Ryno asked the mayor, “You won’t budge?” to which he repeated: “I want to give other candidates an opportunity, not just Mrs. Smith. I’m open to the other candidates at the end of the day.”
Ryno addressed Condit directly when she said: “The mayor hasn’t worked with her but I know Councilmember Silveira has and so have you, Vice Mayor. You know her quality and you know in your heart she would be the best person. You know that. You worked with her.”
Condit acknowledged that he spent five years on the commission with Smith and “enjoyed every minute of it, learned a lot, however I think that the three other candidates are better qualified and better suited to be on this council.”
He rolled out two more takes: that any of the other three have a passion to help the community and then questioned if Smith had the time available.
“Sounds like you’re making assumptions,” Ryno charged as the two spent some time squabbling about hypothetical time availability issues.
Mayor Lopez appeared flustered that nobody would change their vote, saying, “We could sit here and waste everybody’s time or we can postpone this until (March) 8th.” He said he’s against a special election because of cost and said the public is watching and “saying this council is split on too much.”
After coming back from a five-minute recess no councilmembers’ mind had changed and the council sat in mostly awkward silence. Lopez then suggested that an election may be unavoidable.
Lopez put the onus on either Ryno and Silveira to budge to avoid a special election. That remark caused Silveira to snap: “Inappropriate for you to say mayor!”
“I don’t think it’s inappropriate,” Lopez replied. “I just want for you to understand my position. I’m open to the other three as well.”
“And mayor,” said Ryno, “it sounds like you’re against Mrs. Smith because of her governmental experience.”
“That’s what you said,” Lopez replied. “It may sound like that … with respects I’ve never called you out on anything you’ve said. Don’t put words in my mouth.”
Silveira eventually seconded Lopez’ motion to table the matter off until March 8, which Ryno supported but Condit did not.
Vasquez, a resident of Ceres for over 30 years, has owned a daycare center since 2007. She explained that she enjoys helping the community and has worked on the Turkey Trot fun run, Love Ceres and has coached youth baseball. She said she would like to work on the homeless and trash problem in Ceres by getting involved.
“Even though I don’t have any political background I do care, I want to help, I want to participate,” said Vasquez.
She also wants to see more things for children to do such as skating rinks and have cleaner parks.
Smith explained how she grew up living in different states because her father was in the Air Force and came to the area because of a Castle Air Force Base assignment. She attended Merced Community College and graduated from Long Beach State with a degree in political science. She has worked for the city of Modesto for over 25 years, hired as the first executive assistant to the mayor and council in 1995 and became an analyst, administrative services officer, business manager and now director of Parks, Recreation & Neighborhoods. Smith has served on the Ceres Planning Commission and Ceres Downtown Revitalization Area Board for more than 14 years. She also served on the Ceres Concerts in the Park Committee. She cited her experience with budgeting, administration, economic development, project management, parks planning and development, parks operations and recreation.
She told the mayor that she wants to help lead the city to sustainable economic growth.
“The council might consider creating performance measures that connect our goals and initiatives with our budget, allowing us to measure how well we’re doing each year and either adjust the goals or budget if necessary,” said Smith.
She stressed economic development as a priority to grow the city’s general fund for expanded services and said the city needs a full-time economic development manager.
White explained he has only lived in Ceres for over four years after coming to Stanislaus County in 2003 from his native Mariposa. He has served as an EMT and EMS instructor, volunteer firefighter and is now an imaging scheduler in Memorial Medical Center’s radiology department and a part-time basic procedures technician in the cardiology/treadmill lab.
He said Ceres feels like home like no other place. “That’s kind of why I’m here – I want to give back to the community and I figured this is a good place to start.”
White touted his leadership qualities, said he is a team player and has a strong sense of loyalty to his community.
“I hope to be a part of building Ceres up, putting Ceres back on the map in a positive light, you know, making it a positive hot spot for the Central Valley,” said White.
White said he wants to see more done about the homeless problem. He said while compassion is needed for many in a rough spot, he also favors a “three strike tier system” of contacts or citations for those who are taking advantage of the community’s goodwill. White said he favors misdemeanor citations and/or jail time for repeat offenders for trespassing and other violations. The last measure would be to relocate them.
White mentioned the need to tackle the trash problem and encourage residents to clean up by example. He also mentioned concerns about crime and gang activity in Ceres and finding ways to get residents to help report crimes.
Bahia has lived in Ceres for 28 years and owns Elite Limo and Airport Service in Modesto.
“I love this city,” said Bahia, who mentioned his 25 years of experience managing properties. He graduated from ITT Technical Institute in Lathrop in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.
He said he wants to see small businesses thrive in Ceres. Bahia said he sees a lot of homeless but realizes it’s a complex issue.
“Ceres is beautiful, it’s clean,” said Bahia. “I grew up here, my kids are here.”
The public was allowed a chance to weigh in. Felicia Jimenez suggested Vasquez was the best choice. Renee Ledbetter phoned in to lend her support of Smith’s appointment, saying as a 25-year city of Modesto employee she understands how government works and is familiar with economic development.
At Monday’s meeting, District 1 resident Lee Brandt said the Feb. 2 meeting “was embarrassing and sad.” He went on to say: “If that meeting is an example of how this council is going to be with members only wanting to have their own agenda, the city of Ceres is in trouble.” He suggested that the council should nominate the most qualified person – meaning Smith.
John Osgood said it’s obvious the council is deadlocked and that an election is warranted despite the cost.
John Warren phoned in to say he was also upset at the meeting. He suggested reopening the application process.
On Monday Ledbetter weighed in again, saying the council is wasting valuable time “to go to a special election” and “wasting money that’s not necessary.” She said Smith was most qualified and said anyone seeking an attorney or CPA or doctor “we all want the number one person who is very good at their job and this is no different than that.”
She if the council continues to be split 2-2 “nothing’s going to get done.”
Shelia Brandt read a statement saying the city doesn’t have the time to break in another inexperienced councilmember. She said Ryno is the only experienced member of the council and the council needed Smith’s knowledge and expertise.
A number of emails from friends of Vasquez were read by City Clerk Diane Nayares-Perez favoring her appointment.
Josh Steeley phoned in to say Smith had great experience and that the mayor is prejudiced against experience since he is coming into his position with no government experience.
Condit wasn’t budging from his opposition to Smith, saying “not being on the Planning Commission is also a valuable experience to have. Valuable experience comes in many forms. I know firsthand that anyone that wanted to stay on the Planning Commission after getting appointed during the Toby Wells days had to vote his way or was removed. I trust that Mr. Westbrook had ended this heavy-handed approach and allows commissioners to be independent and free to vote their convictions.”
He accused the choosing of experienced candidates only to be “aristocratic.” He further said the council should fund the special election by giving up city funded health benefits.
Silveira quipped: “Okay, so that was interesting.”
“To think that somebody would actually think that no experience would be a better option than somebody with a high level of experience and integrity is beyond me,” said Silveira, who continued to insist Smith was the superior choice.
If a special election is ordered District 1 voters likely will not go to the polls until August. The elected official would only serve until the end of 2022.