Just days before a key vote by First 5 Fresno County on constructing a new headquarters, two Fresno County supervisors bombarded the organization's executive director with pointed questions about the $15 million project.
Supervisors Debbie Poochigian and Phil Larson on Tuesday were unrelenting -- and at times sharply critical -- in their line of questioning about the proposed downtown Fresno building, which has been a continuing point of contention for some supervisors.
The bottom line: neither likes the project, and they feel it is being funded at the expense of the children First 5 is set up to serve. In more restrained comments later, Supervisor Judy Case echoed her colleagues, saying she wasn't supportive "at this point."
Executive Director Kendra Rogers, a possible political challenger to Poochigian, said she felt ambushed after the item was an 11th-hour addition to the board's Tuesday agenda. She came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation. She left after getting an earful.
But Poochigian said she and Larson had no choice, because the First 5 Commission will vote Friday on contracts for the building's construction.
Supervisors, Poochigian said, have been trying for a year without success to get definitive answers about the project from Rogers and others at First 5. It will be built on First 5-owned property along Tulare Street, between N and O streets, adjacent to the Fresno County Library. It is currently a parking lot.
"They've cut millions from children's programs at the same time they are building a palace with taxpayers' money," Poochigian said of First 5 in an interview that echoed public comments she made to Rogers.
Larson and Poochigian said the building would include amenities such as a balcony and a private bathroom in the executive director's office.
If nothing else, Larson said, the project will, at a time of great need among Fresno County's poor, stoke the anger of a cynical public that thinks government wastes money.
"Perception is reality," he said.
But Rogers denied the new building -- which will include a child care center, classroom space and a community conference room in addition to First 5's administrative offices -- would hurt any of the organization's projects.
"I have committed the last 13 years of my life to this work and would never move anything forward that would not be in the best interest of our kids," she said in an interview.
"This is not a big, fancy building."
Adding to the drama: In May, Rogers filed paperwork to challenge Poochigian in 2016, though Rogers has yet to definitively commit to a supervisor run. Poochigian declined to comment on the political angle and Rogers wouldn't speculate, though she did say "it's been interesting, the timing."
Supervisor Andreas Borgeas -- who refrained from taking a definitive position, saying he was new to the issue -- nevertheless noted the "significant undercurrents, political and otherwise," present in the meeting room.
First 5 Fresno County is an independent agency that seeks to bolster health and education programs for children ages 0 to 5 and their families. It's funded by California's tobacco tax and has a budget this year of around $11 million.
But both Poochigian and Case noted First 5's budget has been shrinking as fewer Californians smoke. In 2006, Poochigian said, the budget was $22 million. At the same time, she added, Rogers and others at First 5 haven't been transparent about how the money is being spent.
There were some especially tense moments during Tuesday's meeting.
At one point, after Poochigian complained that First 5 had yet to give an annual report to the supervisors, which usually happens in the spring, Rogers said she'd offered to meet with the supervisor.
"It's not about me, Ms. Rogers," Poochigian shot back.
At another point, as Rogers was being peppered with questions, she noted that the downtown Fresno project has been on the books for seven years. She also suggested it would be better to attend Friday's commission meeting -- which has been planned and publicly noticed -- to obtain information.
That led Poochigian a short time later to say of Rogers: "She's already made it clear she doesn't care what this board thinks."
But Rogers said she was in a tight spot, because she only found out late Friday that First 5 was going to be added to the supervisors' agenda and she didn't have a lot of time to prepare.
First 5 was an addendum to the board's agenda and it took a four-fifths vote by supervisors at the start of the meeting to add the item. Larson and Poochigian sought the addition.
The drama now moves to the commission, a nine-member governing board that will vote Friday on the building contracts. Supervisors appoint the majority of the First 5 board, and a majority of the supervisors made it clear Tuesday that they'd like the vote to be delayed.
Only Supervisor Henry R. Perea came to Rogers' defense. He is also the First 5 Commission's chair.
"I'm confident that it's moving in the right direction," he said of the downtown project.
To delay or kill the project, Rogers said, would cost First 5 around $3 million.
Beyond Friday's building vote, the biggest potential battle of all could loom, and it was briefly touched on Tuesday by Poochigian -- taking away First 5's independence and bringing the organization under county control.
When the agency was created after passage of the 1998 tobacco tax, Fresno County supervisors chose to make the organization an independent entity.
Some California counties made the same choice as Fresno County. Others put their First 5 agency under county control. And some have revisited their initial decision giving their agency independence.
Rogers said she'd welcome the conversation.
"I'd love to have the community weigh in to see if they'd like to have us move in-house," she said, noting that the agency is strong financially and has never had deficiencies in its annual audits.
If you goWhat: First 5 Fresno County Commission
When: 2:30 p.m. Friday
Where: UC Merced Building, 550 E. Shaw Ave., Inyo/Kern Room, Fresno
Reach the reporter at (559) 441-6320 or email@example.com.