If you want to see this year's state of the city speech in person, you'll have to shell out $40.
For the first time in recent memory, a seat at the mayor's annual speech about Modesto's challenges and goals will require the purchase of a ticket.
Mayor Jim Ridenour will deliver the talk at a Modesto Chamber of Commerce luncheon Feb. 17.
Last year, the mayor gave the state of the city speech in the City Council chamber. Prior to that, Ridenour spoke at the State Theatre and at Modesto high schools. None of those venues required a ticket to be purchased.
Before 2002, the state of the city speech was given at the Modesto Rotary Club.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Jeff Grover's recent state of the county speech was delivered during a normal supervisors meeting, with no admission charge.
"You're going to have people that are going to bellyache about it," Ridenour said. "But the thing is, I'm doing anything I can to (reach out to) business right now."
Ridenour said the bleak economy inspired him to accept the chamber's invitation. Speaking to the business community is meant to signal that Modesto is serious about economic development, he said.
"We're running 17 to 18 percent unemployment in Stanislaus County," Ridenour said. "We need businesses right now. We want to talk about jobs and what we are going to do."
Ridenour said he's hoping the chamber will consider subsidizing people who want to skip the lunch and "stand in the back" to hear his speech.
Former Councilman Will O'Bryant scoffed at the $40 price tag.
"That's ridiculous, especially the way the economy is," O'Bryant said. "What if some citizen who's retired wants to go down and see the mayor in person? That needs to be absolutely at no cost to everybody and anybody who's a resident of Modesto and who votes. Maybe they should start charging 40 bucks to go to council meetings."
Stanislaus Taxpayers Association President Dave Thomas said charging admission to the state of the city speech sends an "arrogant" message.
"Obviously, they don't want the public to participate in city government and now they're going to shut the average citizen out," Thomas said. "(The City Council) has become a very elitist, very arrogant, very uncaring bunch of people. It's disgusting."
Chamber Chief Executive Officer Joy Madison said holding the event at the chamber will bring the mayor's speech to a wider audience, not cut off access. The event is open to the public and will be televised repeatedly on Comcast. The text of the speech also will be posted on the city's Web site.
A push to unite business and government
Madison said the Chamber of Commerce is the host of the speech as part of a larger push to bring government and business together. The business community is shedding its "us against them" attitude toward government, she said.
"Especially in these kinds of times, we're in this together," Madison said. "I see more of a spirit of cooperation between all of us. This is just another way for us all to communicate."
Madison noted that chambers of commerce in several California cities are the hosts for state of the city speeches. Ridenour's remarks will be followed by a talk about Modesto's economic climate by Michael Stead, an economist with Bank of the West. Land-use attorney George Petrulakis also will moderate a question-and-answer session.
The Chamber of Commerce was the host of a "state of the region" luncheon last fall where the mayors of Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale and Ceres fielded questions from attendees. After that event, which also required paid tickets, chamber members asked for more opportunities to mingle with municipal leaders, Madison said.
It also makes sense for city officials to cozy up to the business community, said University of the Pacific political studies Professor Bob Benedetti. Ever since 1978, when Proposition 13 limited local governments' ability to raise taxes, California cities have been "underpowered," Benedetti said, meaning they must rely more and more on the private sector.
"If (cities) want to accomplish anything, they have to create a coalition of partners," he said. "And almost always, the business community is one of those partners."
For more information on the state of the city speech at the Modesto Chamber of Commerce, visit www.modchamber.org or call 577-5757.