Here’s a tip on the likely winner of Thursday’s election for Fresno City Council president: Steve Brandau.
Short of a major change in council policy, the outcome is a done deal.
The council will kick-off the new year by choosing a president who will preside over meetings. Council President Blong Xiong’s one-year term ends when the vote is tallied.
The city charter requires an election, but past councils found this hard to do without causing a war. Nothing topped the fight in 1997 (first year of the strong-mayor form of government) when the council needed 26 votes to pick District 5’s Sal Quintero.
“Who says vaudeville is dead?” The Bee editorialized several days later. “The new Fresno City Council gave us a priceless flashback to that old American entertainment form just last Tuesday, when they took nearly an hour and a half to elect someone to preside over their weekly chautauqua meetings.”
Bee columnist Eli Setencich compared the seven council members to the seven dwarfs made famous by Walt Disney: “The only one missing was Snow White. Doc was there. So were Happy and Dopey and the others. By the time the clock struck short of midday, the audience was Grumpy.”
Setencich noted that the council president got an extra $16,000 a year, “not that that had anything to do with it.”
The council gained a measure of gravitas over the next few years, but not enough to make the election anything but a free-for-all. The council decided in January 2005 to end behind-the-scenes lobbying for the job. It would be rotated sequentially by district number, beginning in 2006. The election is now a formality.
The only wrinkle: The job would skip over a first-year council member. Rookies need some seasoning, council members decided.
Xiong represents District 1. Brandau serves District 2. District 3’s Oliver Baines awaits 2015.
The council in 2006 changed the pay for elected officials. The president now makes $70,170 a year while the other council members make $65,000 annually.
Brandau on Friday said he supports rotation.
The animosity that seems to be generated by a real election, Brandau said, “would lead to a real dysfunctional council. I’ve never witnessed it. But I’ve heard the reports.”
The council president works with the mayor and city manager to craft a meeting agenda. The president speaks last in a debate, which is catnip for politicians fond of drama but probably has never swayed a colleague’s vote. And the president would step into the chief executive’s shoes should the mayor die in office or be recalled.
Otherwise, there’s not much charm to the job other than the extra $5,170. Brandau said he’s giving no thought to the pay raise, and suspects it had been of no consequence to his gavel-wielding predecessors.
If this is true, then why do council members need to be saved from their coarse natures by the rotational system?
“It’s about political power,” Brandau said. “You could put on your biography: ‘I was there for eight years and I was council president for three years.’”
Perhaps the president’s most delicate job is maintaining peace and momentum during council meetings.
Citizens are limited to three minutes of public comment per agenda item. They sometimes have four minutes of thoughts. The president, in the name of equity, must nip this habit in the bud with tact and authority.
Things on the dais are sometimes more chaotic. Council members, staff, city attorney and city manager can get to jabbering away at each other in a roar that speaks poorly of democracy. The president steps in or slinks away.
It’ll be a busy year. Budgets are always tight. A decision on Fulton Mall looms. Something’s got to be decided on Bus Rapid Transit.
Brandau said Fresno’s legislative branch is ready.
“At the end of the day,” Brandau said, “I believe we have a council, as diverse as it is, in which the people feel good about working together. That is good for the city of Fresno. If it takes a rotation to have that happen, then I’m happy to be a rotational president.”