Fresno County to weigh First 5 changes on Tuesday

The Fresno BeeJune 14, 2014 

For much of the past year, two Fresno County supervisors have targeted for major reform the First 5 agency that looks out for the health of youngsters and their families.

But try as they might, Debbie Poochigian and Judy Case McNairy failed to shake First 5, first in an effort to stop it from building a new downtown Fresno headquarters, then in a bid to take it over.

Turns out, that was just the start of the fight.

On Tuesday, First 5 is back before the board. A direct takeover isn't on the agenda, but more than a dozen proposed changes are to be considered. Several are noncontroversial and widely supported, but some key proposals would give supervisors far more control over the agency than they have currently.

"It's clear this is a blatant power grab to achieve a political vendetta while masquerading it as a piece of policy," said Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, the board chair.

Poochigian didn't discuss the First 5 agenda item in detail or address Borgeas' comments.

"The proposed changes contain many good ideas, which will make the organization more transparent and accountable to the taxpayer," she said.

Ironically, Supervisor Henry R. Perea — a First 5 commissioner and the one who pushed back hardest last fall against stopping building construction or taking over the agency — may support some of the controversial changes.

One change would take the agency's board from nine members to five. Borgeas said that Perea is behind the proposed reduction — not county staff. It will be discussed Tuesday.

Perea didn't return a request for comment.

Borgeas said the change would "essentially be cutting the voices of people that provide good input and expertise into this organization and neutering it to become a de facto county organization."

First 5 Fresno County is an independent agency that seeks to bolster health and education programs for children to age 5 and their families.

It's building a new $15 million headquarters on Tulare Street between N and O streets in downtown Fresno.

First 5 is funded by California's tobacco tax and has a budget this year of around $11 million.

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.

Proposal for new commission makeup

Under the proposed new commission makeup, two members would be from the public, two would be county workers with expertise in childhood development, and the fifth a supervisor.

And, Borgeas said, all five would be under the control of the Board of Supervisors.

In addition, the two public members must be from unincorporated parts of Fresno County, one from west of Highway 99, the other east of the north-south thoroughfare.

The current commission makeup includes five county residents — each with various types of expertise — who are appointed by each of the five supervisors, the two county department heads, a sitting supervisor and one at-large member appointed by the supervisors.

Another proposed change that has sparked controversy says that the commission's two public members and two county professional members — or their immediate family — cannot work for, consult for, or be on contract with an agency that gets First 5 funding.

That would disqualify three current First 5 commissioners from service — Central Unified Superintendent Mike Berg, Firebaugh Dr. Marcia Sablan, and Lisa Nichols, a Fresno Unified counselor.

Borgeas wondered why the proposed change is only targeted at First 5, while other agencies with similar relationships with the county, such as the Workforce Investment Board and the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, don't face a similar requirement.

"The selectivity of this proposal strongly suggests that it is not based on applicable principles but politics," Borgeas said.

In addition, the current proposal before the Board of Supervisors would make several changes to how First 5 operates. Among them:

Any organization that gets 25% or more of its annual funding or assets from First 5 would have to present its budget, bylaws and annual report to the supervisors every year.

First 5 would have to present its budget annually to the supervisors, as well as the county auditor and chief administrative officer 45 days before its approval.

The agency would have to contract with the county for administrative support services such as accounting, auditing and legal services "when economically feasible," according to a staff report on the issue.

Case McNairy didn't return a phone call seeking comment, and First 5 Executive Director Kendra Rogers declined to comment. But she has been critical of the proposal to reduce the commission members from nine to five, saying it would limit diversity in expertise, geography and ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Rogers — who has been with First 5 for 14 years and served as its head for the past five and who has talked of challenging Poochigian when she is up for re-election in 2016 — was a lightning rod last fall for criticism of First 5 and the building proposal. She is resigning to take another job.

Perea, as chairman of the First 5 commission, authored a letter on behalf of the entire commission that offers support for some of the supervisors' proposals, but concern over others.

For instance, the letter says the nine commission members believe the changes "provide clarity regarding the appointment process." And the commissioners like that those on the First 5 board agree to a code of ethics adapted from Fresno County's Code of Ethics,

But the letter at the same time expresses concern about the proposal that the public and county professional members can't be part of any organization that receives First 5 funding.

The First 5 letter to County Administrative Officer John Navarette says Proposition 10, which set up First 5 commissions around the state, has specific qualifications for commissioners, and allows them to recuse themselves from any action involving their employer.

Even Borgeas said he supports "about 80% of the changes proposed," including greater transparency and more accountability. But, he said, some of the more controversial provisions undermine the credibility of the entire proposal.

"This is not well thought-out," Borgeas said. "It is surgically articulated, but the cancer is everywhere."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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