It took a 4-3 vote last fall for the Fresno City Council to award a contract to consultants to gather citywide public input on the development of a long-awaited Parks Master Plan for the city.
But the composition of the City Council has changed since then, and now it appears ready to cancel the contract with Bertz-Rosa Strategy & Creative and subcontractors Catalano Fenske & Associates and Fresno Building Healthy Communities.
On Thursday, council members Garry Bredefeld and Esmeralda Soria will introduce a resolution to spike that contract and direct an estimated $150,000 in savings to be spent instead on deferred maintenance in parks.
Soria was among the council trio, along with Councilmen Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier, who voted against the contract in October. Bredefeld’s predecessor, now Mayor Lee Brand, was part of the council majority who favored awarding the outreach contract. Bredefeld now represents the potential fourth vote to reverse that award and cancel the contract.
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The original contract was for $172,757. To date, Bredefeld and Soria estimated that the city has received invoices for about $15,000 worth of work. Their resolution suggests that canceling the contract would save the city about $150,000. “The council believes the city would be better served spending those funds on park maintenance,” the two council members declare in the proposed resolution.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s last budget before leaving office earlier this month included about about $5.3 million in 2016-17 for deferred maintenance in parks. The $150,000 that Bredefeld and Soria are seeking amounts to less than 3 percent of that amount.
Swearengin’s successor, Brand, supported the contract as a City Council member. On Tuesday, Brand was noncommittal on whether he would be willing to veto the Bredefeld/Soria resolution – or have the authority to do so – if it passes. “We’re looking forward to a very open and robust public discussion on this matter and wait to see how things play out,” Brand said.
The contract with Bertz-Rosa and its subcontractors called for conducting surveys and public meetings to solicit opinions on park needs and priorities from at least 1,000 people. The outreach work, including canvassing neighborhoods to conduct surveys and using social media to get the word out about the plans, is in addition to about $86,000 in public outreach and engagement costs included in contracts with consultants preparing the Active Transportation Plan and Parks Master Plan.
Bredefeld said Tuesday that he believes the contract is a waste of money. “People are sick of spending money on consultants that the city doesn’t need,” he said. “They already have a parks master plan consultant doing outreach to the community, and there’s consultants doing a bicycle and pedestrian plan doing outreach.”
In October, Soria, Brandau and Olivier railed against the contract with the Bertz-Rosa team, expressing a similar concern about a duplication of services for which the planning consultants already were responsible.
“I’m actually a huge proponent of public outreach, and I can never say that we overdid outreach,” Soria told her colleagues in October. “But I also have to balance my role as a fiscal agent for the taxpayers.” She said she believes the money in the existing consultant contracts should have been sufficient to meet the city’s outreach goals.
“Public bathrooms in our parks are being closed so our families can’t even utilize them,” she said. Soria added that she couldn’t justify spending more on outreach “when we can’t even keep the bathrooms open at Quigley Park.”
Soria and Brandau joined Olivier in an unsuccessful effort in October to redirect the money to create a park ranger program with two ranger positions to patrol and clean up city parks instead of the outreach contract.
Brandau had another concern as well – that subcontractor Fresno Building Healthy Communities would be receiving city funds after the organization took the city to task in mid-2015 with billboard advertisements pointing out sharp differences in the volume of park acreage north of Shaw Avenue compared to south of Shaw.
The ads rubbed Brandau the wrong way. “I didn’t feel the message was healthy for the community, ironically,” he said last fall. “It’s not proper to create a division between north Fresno and south Fresno over parks.” He characterized Fresno BHC as “an activist organization … who already has an agenda when it comes to parks in our city.”
“To turn an activist group into part of a paid consultant of the city to go out and do the outreach, you’re asking the fox to guard the chickens,” Brandau said.
Under the cost breakdown of the Bertz-Rosa contract, about $92,000 worth of the contract value included work on direct community outreach. Fresno BHC’s specific share of the total contract was estimated at just under $23,000. That’s money the organization would lose out on if the council cancels the contract.
Fresno BHC expressed disappointment Tuesday in the Bredefeld/Soria proposal.
“One thing is that I think the council members do not fully understand the process,” Fresno BHC hub manager Sandra Celedon said. The consultants who are working on the Parks Master Plan “are doing a lot of the technical pieces” on the current park inventory and maintenance needs, “and holding stakeholder meetings, which are folks who are already connected.”
“Our goal is to make sure that everyday Fresnans are actually included in this process, that their opinions are gathered and their ideas about the future of the park system are included in the plan,” Celedon said. “I think some council members don’t understand the difference between stakeholders and the general public.”
She added that a second reason is likely to be “politicians playing with the future of our parks because of petty politics.A lot of these council members ran on a parks campaign, that the city wants and needs more parks.”
Coincidentally, Soria won her District 1 City Council seat in November 2014 by defeating Cary Catalano – CEO and founder of Catalano Fenske & Associates – in a hard-fought campaign, winning by about 5 percentage points.