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A violation of our democratic rights

There has been quite a bit of controversy during the City of Madera council meetings since late last year. Concerns arose when community members started seeing their service fees (such as water) increase, while our administrators appeared to be getting overpaid compared to their counterparts in cities with similar demographics.

The Aug. 15 council meeting turned awkward fairly quickly, which has created division within the community, instead of addressing our serious community dilemmas.

Before each meeting begins, Mayor Andrew Medellin explains, “The first fifteen minutes of the meeting are reserved for members of the public to address the council … speakers shall be limited to three minutes.” Those first 15 minutes are referred to as public comment. Public comment is our right under California Government Code Section 54954.3.

Khalid Chaudhry, a local business owner, approached the podium as Mayor Medellin opened public comment. Our mayor requested to speak before Mr. Chaudhry spoke and proceeded to express his frustration with Mr. Chaudhry’s constant criticism of the mayor, referring to it as false accusations. Our mayor spoke for close to two minutes, while the city attorney attempted to stop the protocol violation multiple times.

The mayor shamed our local newspaper, The Madera Tribune for “continually bringing the city down”, in his point of view, because Mr. Chaudhry gets “front page” often. He ended his speech by telling Mr. Chaudhry to leave the city if he doesn’t like it. Finally, City Attorney Brent Richardson had the opportunity to request that the mayor hold such comments until council report, where it would be appropriate.

Mr. Chaudry was allowed to speak shortly after. He referred to an article the non-profit organization Transparent California wrote in response to the Mayor’s commentary in The Madera Tribune about the salaries in question. The article explained in detail that Madera’s administrative staff is excessively overpaid, which is resulting in over a million dollars’ worth of deficit each year, for over five consecutive years.

Mr. Chaudry then referred to a report made by Government Consultant Ron Manfredi.

Mr. Manfredi was hired by the city to conduct a survey on our administrator’s pay after Transparent California responded to our Mayor’s commentary. He reported that our administrators are indeed overpaid, which is contributing to our projected deficit, and that Madera City Council is not being transparent about the salaries.

Our mayor interrupted Mr. Chaudry’s public comment a few times. At one point, our mayor advised that Mr. Chaudry should address his problems with staff to the city manager, presumably not to the council, which in theory oversees the administrative staff. Our mayor terminated Mr. Chaudry’s right to public comment by advising that the three minutes were up, when Mr. Chaudry had spoken for about 2.25 minutes, which included the interruptions by the mayor.

Community members shared the video of the public comment online via Facebook.

Immediately, people began taking sides. Some people applauded our mayor, while others appeared shocked in disbelief. Even council members William Oliver, Charles Rigby, and Derek Robinson participated in the division by positively reacting to the video instead of helping address or clarify the issues and situation.

Our city is projected to have a $1.3 million deficit for the 2018-2019 budget. We are a very low-income and highly disadvantaged community, possibly among the poorest in our Central Valley. Madera was recently named the 14th worst city nationwide, and No. 1 in California, to raise children by USA Today. Meanwhile, our mayor is inviting someone to leave our city for commenting about the deficit. We literally cannot afford to lose focus on the serious problems Madera has.

I completely understand that being a public servant is not an easy job, yet all seven of our council members were entrusted to hold our community’s best interest in mind while making hard decisions on our behalf. I’m disappointed that instead of holding a higher standard of professionalism as our representatives, consciously or unconsciously, more than half of our council members have contributed to the division of our community.

I hope our elected officials follow the law governing public hearings and use the meeting wisely to address the budget deficit. All Maderans should consider following local politics. The projected deficit will affect each one of us, regardless of which side of the tracks we live on. The good news is that this year’s November elections will be historic for Madera. It is the first time that all three Council members who are up for re-election are opposed. Get to know the hopeful candidates and vote this November.

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Johanna Torres was reared in Madera, and has lived in the city her entire life. She continues to live and now serve Madera as 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 their Facebook page.

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