Measure G puts Fresno trash fight into uncharted territory

The Fresno BeeApril 20, 2013 

Starbucks in north Fresno -- the mayor sipping coffee and discussing city policy.

No, it's not Alan Autry, though this scenario certainly fit the former mayor's style.

It's Mayor Ashley Swearengin in a scene that highlights just how unusual things are getting now that the Measure G trash-outsourcing campaign is here.

Approving Measure G "is about doing what's good for our community," Swearengin said Friday morning at the packed Starbucks at Palm and Herndon avenues.

Outsourcing opponents strongly disagree, of course.

But why did Swearengin, who vowed in her 2008 campaign to be a nose-to-City-Hall-grindstone mayor, insist on making her pitch at a coffee shop? Because she's got no choice now that a major piece of legislation has, in a turn of events unprecedented in Fresno history, been removed from City Hall's clutches and handed to voters.

Voters in a special election on June 4 will face a simple question called Measure G: Should the ordinance handing over the city's 105,000 home trash accounts to a private hauler be approved?

A sharply divided City Council adopted the ordinance in December. Swearengin signed it shortly before Christmas.

But outsourcing opponents in January stunned nearly everyone at City Hall by gathering enough voter signatures to give the final decision to the people.

In a heartbeat, a seemingly routine piece of city law-making turned into a political campaign much like a re-election bid. Swearengin, outsourcing's biggest fan, is prohibited by law from campaigning on city property.

Pushing the Yes on G message "is separate from the daily administration of the city," Swearengin said.

Starbucks, doughnut shops and the media figure to be Swearengin's soap box for the next six weeks.

But moving the outsourcing question from the politicians to the people is forcing changes in strategy for No on G folks, as well.

"Measure G is not good for Fresno," said Dee Barnes, president of the city's white-collar union.

Barnes and Marina Magdaleno, head of the city's blue-collar union, have been to the anti-outsourcing effort what Swearengin is to the pro-outsourcing side -- the public face always in front of a camera or microphone.

Not anymore, if Barnes and Magdaleno get their way.

"Marina and I are helping with the campaign because we've been living and breathing this for the past year," Barnes said Friday. "But we we're just a small piece of it."

Barnes said she and Magdaleno don't want the election to get caught up in something irrelevant like their union connections and drowning out their message that outsourcing would be a disaster for Fresnans.

What's in store for Fresno in the Measure G campaign? Neither side will open its playbook for public viewing, but it's not hard to make an educated guess.

-- Get lots of money.

-- Woo those who vote regularly.

-- Deliver a focused message.

-- Don't risk alienating undecideds by demonizing the other side (at least not until things get desperate).

As of mid-Friday afternoon, the Yes on G folks had raised more money -- but the gap is closing.

According to City Clerk records, the Yes on G campaign has hauled in a little more than $140,000. The biggest check came from Mid Valley Disposal, the local hauler in line to pick up Fresno's residential trash for the next eight years.

Triple B Ranch of Clovis and Valley Wide Beverage of Fresno are other major contributors at $10,000 each.

The No on G campaign has taken in $55,000. Labor and a committee connected to Assembly Member (and former Fresno City Council member) Henry T. Perea are the big donors. Barnes said her union (Fresno City Employees Association) voted several days ago to contribute $40,000.

With FCEA's contribution, the No on G war chest nears $100,000.

About 150 positions will be affected by outsourcing. Most are filled by members of Magdaleno's union. Some come under FCEA's umbrella. The blue-collar union appears 100% behind efforts to defeat Measure G.

FCEA's ranks are divided -- Swearengin has said white-collar workers could lose their jobs if Measure G fails. However, it's unclear how many FCEA members don't like Barnes' anti-outsourcing stance.

The Yes on G campaign didn't waste time spending some of its money. Selected registered voters have received a mailed brochure titled "Attention Republicans: Official Special Election Information Enclosed."

The brochure includes a statement from Fresno County Republican Party Chairwoman Sandra Lakeman on outsourcing's benefits. But the key is a postcard (postage pre-paid) that is an application for an absentee ballot.

The recipient fills in a few details, signs, then drops it into the mailbox. The application goes not to Brandi Orth, Fresno County's registrar of voters, but to a Yes on G post office box.

Orth last week said her preliminary review found the postcard application to meet state election code. She said Yes on G officials have been prompt in turning applications in to her office. She pointed to a three-inch stack on her conference table.

Orth noted that the application includes a notice that the voter can personally mail or deliver the application to the downtown county clerk's office. The brochures also identify who is footing the bill: "Paid for by Yes on G. Sponsored by Fresnans for Responsible Government and Mayor Ashley Swearengin with major funding by Mid Valley Disposal."

Both pieces of information are required by law.

None of this surprises Jeff Cummins, an associate professor of political science at Fresno State and close City Hall-watcher.

Measure G is a special election. It's in an off-year in the two-year election cycle. Trash isn't the sexiest of issues. Summer beckons. And just two weeks before the Measure G election, many Fresno voters will be hit with another special election -- this one to fill the state Senate seat formerly held by Michael Rubio.

Bottom line, Cummins said, "turnout is key."

Cummins said Yes on G's strategy with the absentee ballot applications is obvious: "It's making it as convenient as possible to vote."

The average voter so far probably hasn't paid a lot of attention to nuances of the trash debate, he said.

"It's going to come down to how effectively each side portrays the consequences" of success or failure, Cummins said.

No on G supporters held a kickoff-rally Saturday morning at the local Democratic Party's downtown headquarters. About 75 outsourcing opponents heard speeches before heading into the neighborhoods to make face-to-face appeals to voters.

They carried with them a familiar message. The city-run service works great. Rates (a bit over $25 a month) are among the state's lowest. No one knows what happens if Mid Valley can't do the job. There's no reason to impoverish trash-truck drivers by sending them to lower-paying jobs. Let's find another way to fix the city's budget mess.

Outsourcing, Barnes said, "is not going to solve the problem. Why dismantle an award-winning service and run all the risks?"

Swearengin on Friday sat under a Starbucks patio awning and pitched her side's argument. Rates under Mid Valley immediately drop nearly 18%. There are caps on rate increases that maintain consumer savings for years. Everyone affected by outsourcing is guaranteed at least one year's employment at Mid Valley. Service, including pick-up days and bins, stays the same. The deal has a $1.5 million signing bonus and adds $2.5 million in franchise fee annually to help close a budget gap that, if not fixed, could lead to public-safety cuts.

"Our community wants to get back on its feet," Swearengin said. "Measure G is an important way to do that."


MEASURE G

What: Special city of Fresno election to decide whether the residential trash outsourcing ordinance should be adopted

When: June 4

KEY DATES

May 6: Sample ballots and permanent vote-by-mail ballots to be mailed

May 20: Last day to register to vote in this election

May 28: Last day to file an application for a vote-by-mail ballot

More information Fresno County Measure G

or (559) 600-VOTE

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.

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