Measure G: Turnout low as Fresno voters take on trash issue

The Fresno BeeJune 3, 2013 

Update: Voting on the city of Fresno's Measure G referendum -- privatized trash service, yes or no? -- began at 7 a.m. Tuesday with an official at each site unlocking the front door and telling the world in a booming voice, "The polls are open!"

Fresno County Registrar Brandi Orth said Tuesday the turnout of voters for Measure G was low so far.

The clerk's office did a snap tally at 10 a.m., and then again at 3 p.m. Of those who could vote at a polling place, 7% had done so by 3 p.m., she said. Nearly 36,000 vote-by-mail ballots had been turned in before Tuesday.

The warm morning turned into a hot mid-day in a city both obsessed and indifferent to Measure G.

Marina Magdaleno, head of the blue-collar union that represents the trash drivers, started walking precincts at 8 a.m. She was in the Fresno High School area by noon. She planned to stay on task until polls closed at 8 p.m.

"We'll be here until the bitter end," she said.

Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim was leaving his Tower District home after lunch to cast his ballot. The "No on G" sign in his front yard made a secret ballot irrelevant in his case.

Vagim said the outsourcing ordinance, should it survive, is ripe for a lawsuit. He said voters some 50 years ago approved a charter provision that prohibits what outsourcing, in his view, tries to do -- turn a city utility into a general fund money-maker.

Voters in the 1950s "did it because back then they didn't know what City Hall was doing with their money," Vagim said.

The same could be said of today's Fresno. Mayor Ashley Swearengin pushed hard for outsourcing in part because she wants to pay off nearly $20 million of negative fund balances -- money that City Hall for years quietly and improperly borrowed from itself. Some City Hall outsourcing opponents now say this debt can be ignored.

City workers diligently went about their jobs.

Dozens of truck drivers hauled away the trash and recyclables from homes throughout the city. The outsourcing deal guarantees them and other affected city workers at least one year's employment at Mid Valley. The drivers' hourly wage, though, would drop from about $23 to $17.

Two electricians from the Public Works Department threaded hundreds of feet of copper wire through an underground pipe on Belmont Avenue, a bit west of Chestnut Avenue in southeast Fresno. They are part of an effort to thwart copper-wire thieves and get the city's street lights back on. The same general fund that lies at the heart of Measure G pays for the wire.

And a site supervisor at the Ted C. Wills community center near downtown signed in 46 men and women who showed up for the Senior Hot Meals' lunch -- chef's salad or sweet and sour meatballs. The hot meals program, always a political hot potato with the council, relies in part on the general fund to pay staff wages.

It's been this way from the debate's very beginning. Look at outsourcing from one angle -- hey, what did the drivers do to deserve this? -- and the idea appears atrocious. Look at the issue from another angle -- hey, let's keep food in grandpa's stomach -- and outsourcing appears less ominous.

Most voters probably don't realize that regardless of Measure G's fate, the City Council next week begins hearings on a tight 2013-2014 budget that will be full of painful tradeoffs.

Long day ahead

Orth said more voters were expected to come out during lunch and after work hours. Polls are open until 8 p.m.

The downtown Fresno County elections office showed the hustle and bustle of Election Day rather than most polling places with phones ringing off the hook. Voters called with questions of all sorts, including what to do if they lost their ballot or want to drop it off.

For voters dropping off their mail-in ballots, the clerk's office has set up seven drive-through dropoff locations around town for voters in Fresno including outside the downtown office.

Orth said she has no idea when a preliminary call on the election -- yes or no -- will be made, but that an official result won't be found out Tuesday.

With a large number of mail-in ballots turned in already and more to be counted from Monday and Tuesday, Orth said the processing of those absentee votes will not happen Tuesday.

"We just don't have the time," she said. "We will get a ballot count from precincts but won't start processing them until tomorrow (Wednesday)."

Mosqueda Community Center was quiet Tuesday morning even though it was the polling place for three southeast Fresno precincts.

Polling booths stood empty with one voter stopping to drop off absentee ballots for his family.

The man, who did not want to give his name because he is a city employee, said voting Tuesday was easy because the ballot is one yes-or-no question. He said the short ballot is even more reason for residents to get out and vote.

At 7 a.m., voters were lined up at 7 a.m. at College Church of Christ in northeast Fresno, poll inspector Theresa Cox said.

While the line wasn't large, eight eager residents were some of the first to vote on the city trash-collection ordinance.

But that appeared to be the largest rush, with voters trickling in at sites around town.

Bethel Christian Center near First and Gettysburg avenues was quiet for the first part of the morning, with a handful of voters coming in every 15 minutes or so.

At The Bridge Church on Ashlan Avenue, polls were quiet as precinct workers waited patiently to help the next voter who walked in.

Original story: Fresno voters head to the polls Tuesday to decide once and for all who picks up the city's home trash.

Then again, probably nothing is forever with Measure G.

A year in the making, the special election features a one-question ballot: Should the ordinance outsourcing the city's home trash service to Mid Valley Disposal be adopted?

Both sides on Monday brought out their biggest celebrities for one last appeal to the electorate.

Vote no on G, said police union President Jacky Parks at a downtown news conference, because "something smells at City Hall -- and it's not the trash."

Vote yes, Mayor Ashley Swearengin said at a City Hall news conference two hours later, because "we have to stop the bleeding when it comes to public safety, and Measure G helps us do that."

To which Fresno's 220,000 registered voters can only reply -- Let's finish this!

Today's election concludes a fight that began at last spring's budget hearings when Swearengin first raised the specter of outsourcing to fix yet another general fund budget gap.

It was a rare City Council meeting since then that didn't include at least a reference to trash.

Public hearings and community meetings on trash became a habit.

Hundreds of pages of trash contract, trash background and trash explanation were printed and distributed.

All that occurred before outsourcing opponents gathered enough signatures to take the decision out of the council's hands and put it in the voters' laps.

The result over the past three months was to add political passion to bureaucratic complexity.

As she's done dozens of times already, Swearengin on Monday stood outside the council chamber in front of TV cameras and reporter microphones to list what has become her Big Four of outsourcing's benefits:

Rates drop while service remains unchanged.

Affected city workers get a job at Mid Valley.

The deal brings in millions ($1.5 million signing bonus, a net $2 million-plus boost to the general fund in the first year).

Mid Valley's money means no further cuts to strained public safety services.

Measure G, Swearengin said, is a "good deal" for Fresno.

Outsourcing's opponents have their own Big Four:

There's nothing wrong with the city's award-winning, low-cost service.

Mid Valley's reduced rates are a for-profit company's insincere teaser.

Hardworking city employees will see lower wages at Mid Valley.

There are better ways to fix the city's money woes.

Parks on Monday emphasized the last one, saying his union is offering as much as $9 million in contract concessions, yet getting only Swearengin's cold shoulder.

Parks dismissed Swearengin's talk of a fiscal emergency should Measure G fail as a "scare tactic."

The campaign's final week has been busy.

The No on G folks clearly were having the better time.

The Fresno Light Brigade, a performance-art group with a political bent, anchored two street corners in the heart of the Tower District on Friday evening.

"Vote June 4," said one row of signs.

"No on Measure G," said the other row.

A handful of singers calling themselves the "Raging Grannies" were there. They belted out pro-labor, anti-outsourcing songs.

The light brigade on Saturday evening moved to the corners of Blackstone and Nees avenues near River Park shopping center. No On G Man -- an outsourcing opponent dressed like a comic book super hero, complete with cape and make-believe sword -- replaced the grannies as primary eye-catcher.

The No on G folks on both nights shouted their message to passing motorists. Many motorists honked and shouted back their support.

The Yes on G folks took a more measured approach. They've always been the "just the details" crowd. By design, they don't want voters to confuse their somber message with a toe-tapping tune.

Top executives at three chambers of commerce -- Al Smith of the Greater Fresno Area Chamber, Tate Hill of the Fresno Metro Black Chamber and Dora Westerlund of the Fresno Area Hispanic Chamber -- gathered outside fire department headquarters on Wednesday.

Measure G, Hill said, "is really critical for the financial health of our community."

The defeat of Measure G, Westerlund said, "would be devastating" to Fresno.

Swearengin spent part of Friday at the Yes on G phone bank.

"Most of the people I talked to are in full support of Measure G," she said.

Voters get the final word.

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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