Infighting, heated accusations, players being ousted. It sounds like a television reality show, but it's the stuff of small-town politics.
Hughson last week voted out the majority of its City Council.
Riverbank has to schedule a special election because a councilman -- facing felony drug charges -- failed to show at recent meetings.
A standoff in Waterford three years ago nearly led to a special election when council members couldn't agree on appointing a new member.
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In small cities, politics quickly can become personal.
"What happens in small towns is that there isn't a political class that, in a sense, lives apart or can be apart," said Professor Bob Benedetti, director of University of the Pacific's Jacoby Center for Public Service, which works with local governments. "They live with everybody and everybody sees them."
The lack of separation, he said, makes elected officials in smaller communities "responsive but also vulnerable."
Bill Mattos, a longtime resident of Newman and former member of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, has seen both sides. He agreed that small-town residents have a direct line to the people they elect.
"For the people who live there, they can get the word to their leaders in very quick order and usually the leaders, if they're savvy at all, can figure out what the community's thinking," Mattos said. "You don't need to do a poll in Newman. If you walk to every house in Newman you're probably going to win."
While it can mean an easier path to election, it can be an quicker road to extinction.
"In big cities, you have to have a group to mobilize an opposition," Benedetti said. "In a small town it can be an individual. If I get mad at Joe, I can go and get 150 people and he's gone."
In Hughson, Thom Crowder was "Joe." Crowder, who served off and on as a councilman and mayor for 14 years, was among three targeted by a successful recall election last week.
"In a small town, word passes quickly and you don't have that type of anonymity you do in a larger city," Crowder said. "Rumor mills are alive and well in small communities."
Small voter turnouts volatile
A group of residents sought the ouster of Crowder and Councilmen Doug Humphreys and Ben Manley after a Stanislaus County civil grand jury last year accused them of discussing city business by e-mail and conspiring to fire former City Manager Joe Donabed.
Crowder, who has denied any wrongdoing, said the election showed only how little work it takes to remove someone from office in a small city. Though nearly 90 percent of voters favored ousting the councilmen, he pointed out that only 37 percent of eligible voters participated.
He said several people have called him saying they didn't vote because they didn't take the recall seriously. For his part, Crowder didn't fight the recall. His term ends in November, and he didn't file to keep his seat.
"In retrospect, if I'd mounted a campaign, could I have won? Yeah, I think so," he said. "But I'm ready to let bygones be bygones, and I wish the new council the best of luck."
Mattos said that while having more direct communication with residents is generally positive for council members, there is risk.
"It's a different atmosphere," he said. "If you get too smart for your own good and get a little arrogant and let power go to your head -- you're not going to last."
Charles Turner, who served four terms as Waterford's mayor, agreed. "You have lifelong relationships in small towns," he said. "That can be a benefit or can be a disaster."
He lost a close election in 2006 to William Broderick- Villa, a young councilman and teacher who wanted to shake things up in city government. A rift opened over how to fill the vacancy on the council that was created by Broderick-Villa's win, and it nearly led to a $20,000 special election before officials settled on an appointment. Broderick-Villa since has left to pursue a career in law.
Turner said ego is often a part of politics, but is especially dangerous in smaller cities.
"You feel like you have all the answers," he said. "If you can get a controlling interest, you end up with some place like Bell, California."
Bell: A call to awareness
Council members in Bell, a small city near Los Angeles with fewer than 40,000 residents, paid their city manager nearly $800,000 and themselves made nearly $100,000.
"Until that story broke, those people had no idea that all of that money could have gone to help people in the city," Turner said of Bell's residents. "People aren't aware until something happens a lot of times. ... Usually when you have a problem like we've had in some of the smaller cities around here, it wakes people up."
Generally, UOP's Benedetti said, having fewer layers between residents and the people they elect makes for more accountability.
"Small towns work well until there's a major split," he said. "Towns often can sort of get together against a stranger, or the strangers."
A split happened in Riverbank, where Councilmen Jesse James White and Dave White found themselves on the losing side of regular 3-2 votes, defeated by Mayor Virginia Madueño, Councilwoman Sandy Benitez and Councilman Danny Fielder. The situation there got even more complicated when Dave White, Jesse James White's grandfather, began a long hospital stay in June and when Fielder resigned last month.
Jesse James White -- facing trial on drug possession charges after authorities said they found marijuana and methamphetamine during a search of his home -- has not attended the past three council meetings. Without at least three members, the council can't make an appointment to replace Fielder. So, it's expected that a costly special election looms for Riverbank.
Obviously, drama isn't limited to small cities. But it does seem to escalate more quickly.
"In Modesto, it's not that huge, but at least not everybody knows everybody who's a city councilman," Mattos said.
Benedetti said the cutoff for what's considered a small town is generally about 50,000 people.
"But it's not only the number of people, it's the size of your city," he said. "It has to be a place where, when people are doing things, they don't run into everybody."
Crowder runs into people all the time. And he said that while Hughson's recent history is unfortunate, he's comfortable with what he and his fellow council members contributed during their tenure.
He says that included cleaning out City Hall, where Donabed's contract ended earlier this year and Public Works Director David Chase is on leave as he faces charges of hacking into the city's computer system and destroying files.
"I still hold strong that we served this community well," Crowder said. "We rooted out the problems that were plaguing the city for a number of years.
"I think people are going to look back and say, 'He wasn't such a bad guy, after all.' "
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2343.