Monday, April 9, 2012

(Stanislaus County) Hughson recovers from 2010 chaos - OUR VIEWS

Two years ago this spring, Hughson was in a political uproar.

A civil grand jury had found that three of the five City Council members had broken state laws, conspired against their staff and promoted their personal agendas. The three councilmen refused to resign and by April 2010, enough signatures had been collected to force a recall election.

The city manager had been terminated but wasn't officially yet out of office. Council meetings were riddled with name-calling and conflict, and the disagreements extended far beyond city hall. The council was so bogged down in arguments about who should be censured or fired that it wasn't dealing with basics — like making sure the budget was balanced.

So what is happening in Stanislaus County's smallest city these days?

We're pleased to report that the city government is stable and functioning well.

The budget is in check, after some painful staff layoffs — by percentage, the most in the region. And council members are leaving the minutiae of daily operations to the city manager while they focus on the kinds of policy and long-term issues that elected leaders are supposed to address. These include how to grow businesses and jobs in Hughson and how to provide water and other essential services to residents.

Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa represents the area that includes Hughson, and he watched with frustration during the chaos in 2010. "This council and management has done the necessary things to right the ship," Chiesa says.

Credit goes to all the current council members: Mayor Ramon Bawanan, Councilman Matt Beekman, and the three newcomers who joined the council in the August 2010 recall vote: Jill Silva, Jeramy Young and George Carr.

But the city also has a capable city manager in Bryan Whitemyer, who was hired in November 2010 after gaining a good variety of experience in Patterson, Modesto and Ceres.

So how does a small city function with only 14 full-time employees? Hughson has developed some resourceful solutions. Two department heads are part-timers — qualified and experienced people who retired from other cities.

Hughson saved money in its police services contract with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department by agreeing to a three-way share of the police chief. Waterford and the county are the other partners.

In some areas where Hughson doesn't need full-time employees, such as planning, it contracts with other cities or private firms.

Hughson is served by a mostly volunteer fire department, so the city avoids the other big-ticket public safety expense.

The workforce reduction in early 2011 was so great that the city no longer needs its Development Services building, so it is working with Stanislaus Alliance and Workforce Development to turn the place into a business incubator. People wanting to start small businesses will be invited to lease office space; the Alliance will screen applicants to assure they have viable business plans.

Not everything is ideal. Residents pay some of the highest sewer rates in the region because of the city's $21 million investment in a new wastewater treatment that officially opens this month. The complex was planned during the homebuilding boom, when Hughson expected to reach a population of 18,000 by 2030. Realistically, the city of 6,600 won't come anywhere near that population until many years later.

Eventually, however, the sewer capacity will be needed. For now, home building has resumed in Hughson at a livelier pace than in much of Stanislaus County.

Because of the city's huge obligation for wastewater facilities, the council decided it cannot participate in the planning for a joint surface water treatment plant with Ceres, Turlock and other communities south of the Tuolumne River. In the meantime, the city is again being resourceful. Non-potable well water will be used to irrigate a new park and school sports complex — saving money and reserving the best quality well water for drinking.

We applaud the leaders, employees and residents of Hughson on their community's remarkable turnaround.

We also think it provides a useful reminder: Local agencies need capable and committed leaders, people who will set aside personal agendas for the community good. Hughson and six other cities in Stanislaus County will be filling council seats in November.

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