By Johanna Torres
There has been considerable controversy during Madera City Council meetings since late last year. Concerns arose when community members started seeing their service fees (such as water) increase, while the city’s administrators appeared to be getting overpaid compared to their counterparts in cities with similar demographics. The most recent council meeting turned awkward quickly, which has created division among the community, instead of addressing the community’s serious dilemmas.
Before each meeting begins, Mayor Andrew Medellin explains, “The first 15 minutes of the meeting are reserved for members of the public to address the Council…Speakers shall be limited to three minutes.” These first 15 minutes are also referred to as Public Comment. Public Comment is the right of constituents under California Government Code Section 54954.3.
At the most recent meeting, Khalid Chaudhry, a local businessperson, approached the podium as Mayor Medellin opened Public Comment. The mayor requested to speak before Mr. Chaudhry spoke and proceeded to express his frustration with Mr. Chaudhry’s constant criticism, referring to his comments as false accusations. The mayor spoke close to two minutes even though the city attorney attempted to stop the violation multiple times.
The mayor shamed the Madera Tribune for “continually bringing the city down,” in his point of view, because Mr. Chaudhry gets on the “front page” often. He ended his speech by telling Mr. Chaudhry to leave the city if he doesn’t like it. The city attorney then finally got the opportunity to request that the mayor hold such comments until the council report, where they would be appropriate.
Mr. Chaudry was allowed to speak shortly thereafter. He referred to an article, “Transparent California,” written in response to the mayor’s commentary in the Madera Tribune about the salaries being questioned. The article explained in detail that the administrative staff is excessively overpaid, which has resulted in a deficit of more than a million dollars each year for the past five years.
Mr. Chaudry then referred to a report made by a government consultant, Ron Manfredi. Mr. Manfredi was hired by the city to conduct a survey on the administrators’ pay after “Transparent California” responded to the mayor’s commentary. He reported that the administrators are indeed overpaid, which is contributing to the projected deficit, and that the Madera City Council is not being transparent about the salaries.
The mayor interrupted Mr. Chaudry’s public comment a few times and then advised that his three minutes were up, when he had spoken for about 2.25 minutes. Community members shared the video of the public comment online via Facebook. Immediately, people began taking sides—even Council Members William Oliver, Charles Rigby and Derek Robinson reacted by liking or loving the video.
Madera is projected to have a $1.3 million deficit for the 2018–2019 budget. Madera is a low-income and highly disadvantaged community, possibly among the poorest in the Central Valley. The community cannot afford to take sides on a clear violation of democratic rights when there are obviously bigger problems to address. God forbid this violation results in a lawsuit, on top of the multimillion-dollar deficit already projected.
Being a public servant is not an easy job. All seven of the Council members are entrusted to hold the community’s best interest in mind while making hard decisions on behalf of the community. It is disappointing that instead of holding a higher standard of professionalism as representatives, consciously or unconsciously, more than half of the Council members have contributed to the division of the community.
Consider the following local politics. The projected deficit will affect everyone in the community, regardless of which side of the tracks one lives on. The good news is that this year’s November election will be historic for Madera. It is the first time in recent memory that all three Council members up for reelection are opposed. Get to know the hopeful candidates and vote this November.
Johanna Torres is a public servant through her advocacy work under the local legal aid office. She is co-founder of the local group Madera Votes (MV). MV encourages civic engagement and registers people to vote. Learn more about MV by liking its page on Facebook.