Editorial: Lindsay lacks leadership in light of public outcry
Residents in Lindsay have read the Sun-Gazette article “Lindsay claims functional bankruptcy” and listened to the companion Paper Trail podcast, “Lindsay admits their functional bankruptcy.” Complicated items were explained with clarity, and they didn’t need an advanced degree in public administration to understand the issues. They understood that the City had taken their money meant for utilities and streets and put it into places it didn’t belong. So they decided to tell the Council about it.
At the council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 26, to be fair, the public did not expect to have the full weight of the Council on their side. Mayor Pam Kimball admitted she had not read or listen to our report; councilman Brian Watson told the crowd that you can’t believe everything you read or hear—at which the crowd growled. Vice mayor Laura Cortes ultimately tried to keep the meeting positive. It did not turn out that way.
The public understood well that they would have to yell and scream to get their councilmembers to listen to their side. That’s odd. Shouldn’t the public expect outrage from the council? After all, it was their trusted staff that had shuffled their constituents’ money around using cloak-and-dagger budgeting practices. Instead, only two members took up the banner, voiced the public’s outcry and emphatically said they wanted change because they knew that residents in Lindsay have had enough.
While we have seen the public’s dull frustration over McDermont’s cost, in light of new revelations, The Sun-Gazette office has taken calls from residents who said they have been concerned over these very issues for a decade. Over the last ten years they have tried to put the puzzle pieces together to explain why they felt slighted and lied to. They understood there was a three-story city block-sized behemoth constructed—without parking—to supposedly turn Lindsay around. But that means little when their roads are in disrepair and the City tells them to pony up if they want their sewer fund to keep pace with costs.
In light of the City’s admission that they were not going to be able to pay back millions of dollars advanced from rate payer-funded utility funds and the streets fund, they were without a doubt rife with righteous anger. For them, the decade-long jigsaw puzzle finally came together, and what they saw was horrendous. Residents who have not so much as stepped inside a municipal civics government class since high school listened to our podcast and heard all they needed to come to their own conclusion: they had been duped.
Corina Sanchez who spoke during last months’ Feb. 26 Council meeting rightly pointed out that councilmember Watson had downplayed the dire position that the City is in, which by their own hand they have claimed to be functionally bankrupt. She continued by pointing out his nonsensical retort that perhaps the nation is functionally bankrupt. Corina added that the federal government still carries out services, and a month ago she suffered a flat tire from a pothole. Inconvenienced for certain, she must have felt even more deflated when she learned that the City had been advancing money from the street improvement fund to the general fund for years.
Former council member Steve Mecum and former mayor Ramona Padilla spoke directly to current Lindsay brass and council to say how they wish they would have understood then what they know now. Mecum said that he had never known that money was moving out of the utility funds. He added that if he had he would have “blown up” their game. When it came to raising sewer rates in 2015, Mecum pointed out current City Manager Bill Zigler’s self-righteous condescension. The question remains whether the City would have needed to increase sewer rates had it not been for the advances from that fund.
For her time on the Council, Padilla said that she has struggled to get straight answers on McDermont and the Wellness Center. She told the Council that she had been asking how long until the City runs dry—that would be when the “smoke screens” came out. The response to her would be with stacks of reports instead of simplified answers.
Current council members Rosaena Sanchez and Yolanda Flores picked up the banner and ran with it. Flores said that anyone with knowledge of the transfers should step down. Sanchez made her point when she exclaimed, “I want to know where my money went!” And rightfully so. She added that she wants to see change in the administration now that she knows millions were shuttled around under the nose of councilmembers past and present.
Mayor Pam Kimball wavered on leadership on Feb. 26 in the face of an angry crowd. To her credit, for the first time in a public forum she recognized that McDermont was a failure, and recognized that she did not know all of the facts when money from all over the city was propping it up. She said she didn’t even know Lindsay had that kind of money to spend. Evidently, they didn’t. She went so far as to momentarily lay herself at the public’s feet and say it is hard to forgive herself for what she didn’t know, and admitted she didn’t expect the public to forgive her either.
But the damage is done. Her apology means little when the people she is tasked to represent are angry, and want changes to be made. And that is where Kimball’s leadership fell short. She stuck up for the City’s finance director Bret Harmon, who in fact was not the one transferring millions from utility funds into the general fund to help McDermont. He was simply the one to call it out in public and do the work behind the scenes to unwind a complicated web that ultimately revealed fiscal irresponsibility and the dreadful state of the City. The problem was that she included Zigler in her praise.
She said that Zigler and Harmon were at the heart of their most recent audit, which is likely to be the cleanest in years. But she did not assign blame to Zigler for failing to be forthright with the council. Perhaps she did not know that he purposefully kept the state of money movement from utility funds to the general fund under wraps and out of the eye of the Council. But she does know that it happened, and she was not told. In essence, she did not make any effort to do the hardest thing any leader has to do: change course for the better by making difficult decisions.
The ground work has been laid to do so. She was misled, along with the rest of the council, when they were told they had to pass a utility rate increase. Millions of dollars were shuffled around over the course of 10 years without her knowledge, and it was done with the explicit approval of her very own city manager.
For good measure, Pam Kimball is tasked with representing the welfare of Lindsay residents, not to be loyal to staff—a reminder that might serve her well in the near future.
Lindsay may have admitted that they have taken money from places that it shouldn’t. The council passed Resolution 19-02 on Feb. 12, which gave them the OK to write it off with the only victims being the residents. But the same maneuvering cannot be done with the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). Still a battle taking place in executive session and on staff working hours, the City might not get off scot-free. If they don’t, nobody outside of City Hall and HCD really knows what will happen.
All of this will take place before the tidal wave of CalPERS comes due. Zigler said in a speech at the Lindsay Museum last year that CalPERS can break the City’s financial back if not dealt with appropriately.
So while the residents should be upset about the City taking from their rate payer-funded accounts, they need to know that the City is still in the lurch, with a paddle and currently no rudder to rely on.