It's been crystal clear for months, and now it's finally official -- the Fresno County Board of Supervisors opposes a new $15 million downtown headquarters proposed by First 5 Fresno County.
But in a contentious board meeting Tuesday, that opposition became largely symbolic. A related effort to force Supervisor Henry R. Perea -- the board's official representative on First 5's governing body -- to vote against the building, even though he supports it, failed.
That was just the start of the bad news for Supervisors Judy Case and Debbie Poochigian on Tuesday. For the last two months and several meetings running, they have been on the warpath against not only First 5's downtown building, but the agency as a whole.
The board had been scheduled to start a debate on the pros and cons of bringing First 5 under direct county control, but it never came to pass as it became equally clear that Case and Poochigian were the only supervisors even willing to entertain the notion of such a change.
Supervisor Phil Larson was the key cog in the entire political drama.
He opposes the building, and sided with Poochigian and Case in a 3-2 vote that put on the record what the three have railed on for months: They think the building is an opulent palace and waste of money that will end up hurting the children First 5 is supposed to serve.
If approved by First 5 commissioners, the building will be built on agency-owned property that currently is a parking lot along Tulare Street, between N and O streets, adjacent to the Fresno County Library. It will include a child care center, classroom space and a community conference room in addition to First 5's administrative offices.
Case had originally put the ideas together of opposing the building and directing Perea to vote against it in a single motion. That effort failed 3-2, with Larson voting with Perea and Supervisor Andreas Borgeas against the idea.
"This is America and I'm not going to tell anyone how to vote," Larson said.
Those two votes set the stage for the highly anticipated start of a debate on whether First 5 should remain an independent agency or be brought under the county's direct control.
Larson killed that discussion before it started when he said flatly, "I'm not going to vote to bring it back" under county control.
Case and Poochigian again talked exhaustively about doing what they said was best for children and about spending money wisely, but the packed chambers were 100% in First 5's corner. Not one audience member who spoke backed Poochigian or Case's point of view.
First 5 Fresno County is an independent agency that seeks to bolster health and education programs for children from birth to age 5 and their families. It's funded by California's tobacco tax and has a budget this year of around $11 million.
Both Poochigian and Case have pointed out that the agency's budget has been shrinking as fewer Californians smoke. In 2006, Poochigian has said, the budget was $22 million. As the agency's budget shrinks, Poochigian and Case say every dollar should be directed to children.
Even after Larson's declaration, Case and Poochigian kept the heat on First 5. They asked for a whole list of information from First 5, as well as a survey of staffing and governing body sizes at other county First 5 agencies in the state.
In addition, the agency is scheduled to make a presentation on its fiscal situation at the Dec. 3 supervisors meeting, which likely will continue the debate.
Tuesday's discussion also continued to expose deep rifts on the board, including the strongest comments to date from Borgeas, who basically said Case and Poochigian had created the First 5 controversy by "masquerading" a political motive as a reasonable inquiry.
The end result also sidestepped what could have been some sticky legal issues.
For one, Perea told his board colleagues that he had no intention in his role as a First 5 commissioner to cast a vote in opposition to the building, even if his fellow supervisors voted to make him.
Perea suggested they replace him if that part of Case's and Poochigian's push was successful, though it appears First 5's bylaws require a vote of four of the five supervisors to make that change.
If Perea remained as a First 5 commissioner, and voted in favor of the project, would his colleagues have voted to take legal action against him?
A second question involved the legality of the board taking control of First 5 Fresno County.
County Counsel Kevin Briggs indicated supervisors had the power to take the action, but former Fresno City Council Member Larry Westerlund, who is an attorney, disagreed.
Westerlund, who said he and his wife had seen firsthand the work of First 5 with the birth of their children, told supervisors there was a time when Fresno County could have put the agency under its control, but state law now shows that period has passed.
He then told the supervisors that he would represent First 5, for free, in any legal challenge to a county takeover.
"It is a monumental mistake to try and do that and I don't think you have the authority to do that," Westerlund said to applause.