A small but vocal group of protesters greeted Fresno Mayor Lee Brand as he prepared to address the Fresno Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
Fresno resident Shannon Kurtz, armed with a megaphone, served up a medley of chants on the sidewalk along with several other people outside The Grand 1401 at Tuolumne and Fulton streets.
Brand was there for a brunch session to discuss his business-building plans, and the protest took place as business professionals filed into the ballroom.
But it was Brand’s comments to The Bee last month declaring Fresno is not a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants that stirred Kurtz’s passion.
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“We demand sanctuary,” Kurtz shouted as other protesters held signs silently. Brand, she said, “is scared of the federal government” and “is not fit to be our mayor.”
“Deportation is genocide,” Kurtz added.
Inside the ballroom, where the chants were almost inaudible, Brand brushed off the complaints.
“No matter what I say, people are going to be offended,” Brand said.
“Fresno is not a sanctuary city,” he repeated. But, Brand said, Fresno continued to have a 15-year-old policy in place “that the Fresno Police Department doesn’t participate in enforcing federal immigration laws.”
“Our policy is similar to 90 percent of cities that call themselves sanctuaries,” Brand said.
Brand acknowledged he is walking a fine line between the Trump administration that has threatened to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities and a California government that is considering legislation to become a sanctuary state.
“I feel like I’m the captain of the Titanic trying to navigate between icebergs,” Brand told the audience. “The oath I took is to protect and promote the city of Fresno. … I don’t follow ideologies; I follow what’s best for 520,000 people.”
The protesters disbanded soon after the event, which included swearing in the chamber’s new board members, got underway.
By Tuesday afternoon, a Fresno talk-radio station seized upon the controversy and launched a petition drive asking Brand to not make Fresno a sanctuary city – effectively a call for the status quo to continue.
For Brand, sworn in as mayor last month after eight years on the Fresno City Council, the brunch was an opportunity to discuss his priorities for the city, and he thanked the chamber for its support of his first major accomplishment, creation of a rental housing inspection program.
“This was one of the most difficult legislative acts I’ve had to do,” Brand said. “I had to bring two diverse organizations, tenant advocates and the apartment industry, and I was somehow able to pull them together with a lot of teamwork” before what he called the City Council’s “historic vote” to address the issue of substandard rental housing throughout the city.
On a campaign pledge to establish a citizens’ public safety advisory committee, Brand announced that he will bring a proposal to the City Council within the next three or four weeks.
The idea, he said, sprang from the nationwide turmoil and racial tension over police shootings in other cities.
“I felt Fresno needed to be pre-emptive, to get a group of people together to help bring this community closer to the police department, to build a bridge of trust, to build accountability and transparency,” he said. “It also ties in to the (long-term) implementation of community-based policing. … Every neighborhood is going to be safer.”
And he talked about economic incentives that he engineered as a councilman last year. Two weeks ago, he said, the city council approved revisions to an incentive package worth up to $18 million over 30 years to entice cosmetics retailer Ulta Inc. to locate an e-commerce fulfillment warehouse – and about 1,200 new jobs – in Fresno; the city continues to await a decision by Ulta between several different sites under consideration.
“I’m flying to Seattle in a few weeks to talk to Amazon about bringing, hopefully, 3,000 jobs to Fresno, and there’s more coming,” Brand said.
As with Ulta, the Fresno City Council approved a $30 million, 30-year incentive package for Amazon should the e-commerce giant opt to build a large warehouse center and create 750 to 2,000 or more new jobs in the city.
“There are literally thousands and thousands of jobs out there,” he said, “so our challenge is to find the trained workers to get the one-third of our economy that’s perpetually in poverty, to find them a way to rise and participate in the American dream.”