When Fresno County supervisors began discussing water problems in northeast Fresno on Tuesday, their stated intention was to learn the county health department’s role in assisting the city of Fresno.
But with Supervisor Henry Perea running for Fresno mayor and Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, whose district includes northeast Fresno, supporting Perea’s opponent, Lee Brand, it didn’t take long for the discussion to segue into politics.
Public Health Director David Pomaville emphasized recommendations his staff has made to the city about letting faucets with discolored water run before using tap water, running cold water from faucets for cooking and advising that parents of young children or pregnant women consider drinking bottled water or use a water filter certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
He said messages sent by his office are consistent with those made for other water systems where there are concerns about exposure to heavy metals.
Pomaville said the state has oversight over Fresno’s water system and that his department’s jurisdiction is limited to assisting the city.
But that limitation didn’t stop supervisors from making their positions known, leading to four gavel strikes by Board Chairman Buddy Mendes in unsuccessful efforts to stop both Perea and Borgeas from voicing their political views over the city’s water problems.
Borgeas said he asked Pomaville to discuss the issue because it involves his constituents who live in the city and to clarify the county’s role.
But he also noted that the issue has elevated itself in multiple political campaigns.
Perea said elected officials must safeguard the health and safety of the community, and providing safe drinking water tops the list.
It’s not something this board has jurisdiction over, so I’d like to just cut this off.
Buddy Mendes, Fresno County Board of Supervisors chairman
He cited a local poll that shows 75 percent of residents in Fresno believe the northeast Fresno water problem is a serious issue.
But Mendes said the poll of residents is not scientific.
Besides, he said, “It’s not something this board has jurisdiction over, so I’d like to just cut this off.”
But Perea interjected that “75 percent of people think it’s a serious issue.”
With a new water treatment plant going into operation in southeast Fresno in two years, he said, the city needs to ensure it gets its water chemistry correct or else it will affect residents in his district who live in older homes with older pipes.
Borgeas said Perea was “veering into the political,” which led to a brief chaotic back-and-forth with Perea and Borgeas talking over one another before Mendes brought down his chairman’s gavel.
“I think the idea was to get an update, not to use this for other political purposes,” Borgeas said.
Perea responded: “You opened the door … you’re the one that put this in a political context.”
As Borgeas and Perea began talking over each other again, Mendes brought down his gavel a second time.
He again reminded supervisors, “This isn’t even in our jurisdiction.”
Mendes pointed out that water coming out of the northeast plant is high-quality drinking water until it gets to homes and goes through pipes where the water becomes discolored.
When Perea responded that the water is bringing lead into some homes, both Borgeas and Mendes interrupted, leading to a third gavel fall. Perea then accused Mendes of being “uncomfortable” with the issue.
“I’m not uncomfortable with it,” Mendes said. “We have no jurisdiction over it.”
Perea said Mendes wasn’t respecting him.
Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, who has endorsed Perea, said the issue was political and degenerated into “a political drill and publicity stunt.”
This is an issue in our community, and it could be a growing issue if the southeast plant isn’t done right.
Henry Perea, supervisor and city of Fresno mayoral candidate
Borgeas said he was trying to get an update on the county’s role, adding, “I have not begun lambasting anyone who might be running for mayor.”
The pressure then was on Supervisor Brian Pacheco, who said he wasn’t taking sides and believed the issue shouldn’t be in front of the board. He asked Perea to summarize quickly.
Perea re-emphasized the need to ensure water from the southeast water plant will be clean for residents.
Borgeas then said Perea was ignoring the Orange Center Elementary School District – which is in Perea’s district – where lead was found in the drinking water.
Perea said the county assisted Orange Center, which was on its own well, not a county water system. The school, he said, will be tapping into water from the city of Fresno.
He noted that by bringing up the Orange Center issue, Borgeas was trying to help Brand. But neither Orange Center nor northeast Fresno are under county jurisdiction.
Borgeas interjected: “No one ever heard from you about this on the campaign trail at all.”
“Thank you for bringing this issue up,” Perea said.
That’s when Mendes struck his gavel a final time, ending board discussion.