The first meeting of the new Ceres City Council on Monday evening was punctuated by sharp disagreements over two topics.
Mayor Javier Lopez conducted his first full meeting since being elected on Nov. 3 and the first order of business was the appointment of a vice mayor among the four councilmembers. Linda Ryno has served as vice mayor for two years. Lopez recommended that new member Couper Condit serve as vice mayor. That prompted Ryno to ask: “So is this open to discussion or it strictly the mayor’s call?” City Attorney Tom Hallinan said it was open and subject to a council vote. Ryno then nominated new Councilman Bret Silveira “because he has a type of schedule that would allow him to step in at any time because of his proximity to Ceres.”
Both men said they would take the role, with Silveira adding “my availability is great and I think I would do a wonderful job if Mayor Lopez wasn’t able to make it to a meeting for whatever reason. I’m getting close to retirement…”
Channce Condit seconded the motion for his brother’s appointment, with himself, Couper Condit and Mayor Javier Lopez voting over the wishes of Ryno and Silveira.
The council then spent considerable time when Couper Condit requested to pull an item from the consent agenda – normally passed with no discussion – to propose a major change to the Conflict of Interest Code.
City Manager Tom Westbrook said the code is required by the state to address times when employees may have a financial interest in a project or contract with the city. Every few years the list is updated and Westbrook said the proposal was to remove some police sergeants from the list.
Condit said he wanted to see former elected officials or city employees added to the list of those who would have to declare a conflict of interest for eight years. City Attorney Tom Hallinan said he preferred to review the legality of such a move before action was taken.
Couper Condit brushed aside Hallinan’s caution and pushed for a second to his motion, saying he believed eight years is “reasonable” and “promotes transparency, credibility and responsibility for our city.”
Ryno said she understood that officials had to conflict out on matters if there was a monetary gain. She said she didn’t understand the push for eight years after someone cuts ties.
“What does that mean?” asked Ryno. “That when somebody has left office they couldn’t come back and work for the city? I don’t understand what that means.”
Couper Condit read a section that indicated that former employees or elected officials could not, for one year, appear before a city panel if it is an attempt to influence a decision on any matter in which there was financial benefit.
Ryno agreed one year was fine, but that eight was excessive “especially when you’re going to continue to live in the city and you’re excluded for eight years.” Lopez agreed.
Councilman Silveira point-blank asked Condit: “Where did this come from … to change it from one year to eight years?” Condit replied with an answer about the need to have government be transparent “and we as elected officials have a special responsibility even after we leave office to carry that on and be transparent.” He said it was his idea and “always wanted to do it” but did not explain how he came up with an eight-year limit.
Silveira said Condit’s motion would cause the city to “not possibly utilize somebody’s training, knowledge and as a benefit to the city after they’ve left the city for eight years.” He cited, for example, how many former officials use their expertise to go into consulting.
“I think if we were to say, right now, that they couldn’t do that for eight years that could definitely be a detriment to the city and the possibilities that that person may be able to add to what we do every day,” said Silveira. “I’m definitely not in favor of that.”
Channce Condit stepped in for his brother, saying: “I think what the vice mayor is getting at is this could potentially add an avenue for people who are elected to lead them to potentially benefit on public contracts later on down the road, such as SRWA or other public contracts.”
SRWA stands for the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority, the joint powers authority with the cities of Ceres and Turlock to jointly build the surface water project currently underway.
“It would take away the potential of there being a conflict, if there was some sort of preferential treatment or the perception of preferential treatment.”
Silveira suggested that if that were the case then the state code would have already restricted that.
Mayor Lopez said “I personally feel eight years is way too much.”
“Somebody like myself – who is new in office – in the future would love to continue serving this community and after four years if I wouldn’t be able to do that then it would just kind of defeat the purpose of trying to give everything I can to the city.”
Channce Condit seconded for a four-year limit instead of eight. Meantime, Silveira and Lopez held to their preference for two years.
The council voted 3-2 against the Condit brothers’ eight-year proposal.
When Channce Condit asked twice for a new motion with two years and hearing none he asked Silveira “did you want to motion for two years?” Silveira replied: “No, because I think it should stay at one actually.”
Channce Condit then made a motion for two years, this time it passing with Lopez’s aye vote. Ryno and Silveira voted no.