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Local leaders question mayors ethics
City council soiseth pic
Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth was accused of bullying, gender discrimination and lack of transparency regarding the search for the City Manager position during Tuesday's City Council meeting. - photo by Photo Contributed

Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth was under fire during Tuesday’s City Council meeting when a civil rights leader and a fellow Council member brought up concerns about his leadership.

Frank Johnson, former president of the NAACP in Modesto and current CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of All People, addressed the City Council during the public comment period about what he considers a disturbing trend in Turlock.

“Over the years, Turlock has been a model city for Stanislaus County in every way, shape and form, but recently you’ve gone back 15 to 20 years under this leadership — accountability, not working with the Council, unilateral decisions. Tonight you brought up bullying. Do you know how many employees want to file a complaint, but are scared?” said Johnson to the Council.

Johnson also said there’s been open meeting law violations, and his Freedom of Information Act requests haven’t been honored by the City.

While the Mayor offered during the Council meeting to meet with Johnson at a later time to address each of his concerns, Johnson told the Journal that he’s not optimistic about the outcome of a meeting because “it’s evident that fear and intimidation are a method of the mayor.” Johnson then referenced a heated discussion heard between the Mayor and City Council member Amy Bublak behind closed doors immediately following the end of the open session Council meeting.

In response to Johnson’s comments, Soiseth said that Johnson “has not provided the City with any details regarding his assertions about employees.  I’m also not aware of any violations by the City Council of the Brown Act.”

 Relating to allegations that the City was blocking Freedom of Information Act requests, Soiseth said “the City is always diligent in complying with all requests for public records. I confirmed with the City Clerk's office and we are not aware of any public documents that the City has failed to provide Mr. Johnson.”

Tensions between Soiseth and Bublak heated up earlier in the meeting with Council member appointments to various committees.

During the meeting, Bublak accused the Mayor of discriminating against her for committee assignment nominations based on gender. The Mayor nominated Vice Mayor Bill DeHart to serve as a representative of the City of Turlock on the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority, Council member Gil Esquer to serve as an alternate member on the West Turlock Subbasin Groundwater Sustainability Agency and Council member Matthew Jacob to serve on the City/County Liaison Committee — all three committees Bublak had previously served on.

“It’s kind of ironic to me that we just discussed people being treated differently and you just took a female off three of the boards and there was no other female on any of the boards. I just want to make a point that we need to think about what we’re doing. If we’re going to say that we want inclusion, that we don’t want people to be treated differently, then I’m not sure where we’re going with this,” said Bublak.

The Mayor responded by saying that her exclusion to the nominations for the committees had nothing to do with her gender, but rather it was a way to have more equitable assignments for the other Council members.

Bublak was concurrently serving on five committees and as an alternate on two other committees over the last year, while the other three council members each served on two committees, with Jacob also serving as an alternate on two others.

“The idea that gender played a role in my comments or committee assignments is incorrect and is frankly very insulting,” said Soiseth about the committee assignments to the Journal. “Excluding alternate roles, Councilmember Bublak is appointed to five committees as a member. She remains the chair of the Local Agency Formation Commission, Community Development Block Grant Selection Committee and the Economic Development Workgroup, three of the most consequential committees impacting the city and region. She also serves on various ad hoc committees that include the Turlock Tourism Evaluation Panel.

“It was appropriate to adjust the committee assignments so that each Council member has the opportunity to serve their city fully, and now each Council member serves on three committees, with the exception of Councilmember Esquer, who serves on three committees as an alternate.”

Later in the meeting, Bublak questioned why the Council wasn’t discussing the City Manager search in open session and the status of the City Attorney and Chief Financial Officer positions.

Fire Chief Robert Talloni has been serving as Interim City Manager since July, when Gary Hampton left the position. Just over a year after returning to the City of Turlock, Hampton announced in April that he would be retiring in August. The City started searching for Hampton’s replacement in April, hiring recruitment firm Robert Neher & Associates. The City also had three panels of community members and a panel of City executive staff take part in the candidate selection process, which ended in August.

When asked about the status of the City Attorney and Chief Financial Officer positions, Soiseth said that personnel matters are confidential.

The City has had alternate legal counsel at the last two City Council meetings, with Sky Woodruff from the firm of Meyers Nave sitting in Tuesday’s meeting for City Attorney Phaedra Norton.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Bublak said at least one Council member expected an update on the search for the next City Manager to be on the agenda. She said the issue should be brought up during open session.

 “Although every senior management position in a city is critically important to daily operations of a city, the fact is the City Manager, City Attorney and Finance Director positions support all senior management positions and by design provide support and oversight for activities regulated by state law.  Without these positions staffed by experienced persons, the city is at heightened risk of litigation, state sanctions and fines and loss of public confidence.  As we've witnessed in other cities in the region, using inexperienced persons in these positions is a certainly a risk management issue,” said Bublak to the Journal.

The Mayor said there will be a closed session meeting on Oct. 10 for the Council to discuss the City Manager recruitment.

“Due to the above concerns I have no other avenue to communicate my thoughts with my peers except in public,” said Bublak about why she brought up personnel matters at the Council meeting. “I expected to hear if any other council member concurred with my view. Unfortunately, the mayor did not allow my peers to speak and made the decision on his own.”