Fresno’s mayoral candidates clashed over discolored water, highway trash, municipal budgets and what to do about Chukchansi Park rent for the Fresno Grizzlies in the first of many debates leading up to the Nov. 8 runoff.
Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea drew first blood at the Tuesday debate, referencing the city of Fresno’s ongoing issue with discolored water in northeast Fresno. He rested much of the blame on his opponent, Fresno City Councilman Lee Brand, who represents that district. This likely did not surprise many in the sparse crowd at Pardini’s in northwest Fresno, or listening live on Power Talk 96.7, as Perea has shared similar criticisms through public comments and a recent advertisement.
Brand’s response was uncharacteristically bristling.
During the primary season, Brand generally defended himself against Perea’s claims without throwing many punches back. But on Tuesday Brand went on the attack, several times going off topic to assail Perea’s political record and the accuracy of his public statements. The normally cordial, even-keeled Brand appeared to come close to uttering an exasperated expletive during one of the more spirited back-and-forths between the two.
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That deal worked pretty well until Lee Brand got his hands on it.
Fresno mayoral candidate Henry R. Perea, on Chukchansi Park agreement
The moment happened about halfway through the two-hour debate, which was sponsored by Power Talk and The Fresno Bee. Perea and Brand are seeking to replace Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who is termed out.
Fresno Bee political beat reporter John Ellis asked Perea how he planned to deliver on a campaign promise to force the city’s minor-league baseball team, the Fresno Grizzlies, to go back to paying $1.5 million per year in rent to the city. City Hall cut the team’s rent in half in a new lease last year after the team expressed bankruptcy concerns.
Perea said the original deal called for the city to build and own the stadium and the Grizzlies to pay half of the $3 million annual upkeep costs – a great deal for Fresno, he added.
“That deal worked pretty well until Lee Brand got his hands on it in about 2011, I believe,” Perea said. “The Grizzlies came to him hat in hand and said ‘You know what, this is too tough. We can’t make the payment. We need a break.’ So, Lee gave them a break. He shifted $750,000 of Grizzly debt to the taxpayers. It’s really that plain and that simple.”
Perea said Brand should have sat down with the Grizzlies’ owners to work out a partnership that would benefit both the team and the city.
Perea said he would have that conversation with the Grizzlies, who would “go back up to what their deal was with the taxpayers of this city.” Ellis pressed him, asking if he planned to force the team into breaking its lease. Perea said the money the team would make in this partnership would make it willing to double its rent.
“Talk about fantasy – Jesus Christ,” Brand said, drawing sparse laughter. He accused Perea, who was on the council when the stadium plan was approved, of making a bad business decision that Brand had to clean up when he joined the council. There were two choices, Brand said: Lower the rent or have a vacant stadium.
Another heated exchange took place when both candidates were asked about cleaning up trash in the city.
Brand answered first, noting that most of the trash is on the highways, which are Caltrans’ responsibility. Caltrans is underfunded, he said, so the city would have to come up with some way to help it.
Talk about fantasy.
Fresno mayoral candidate Lee Brand, on Perea plan to renegotiate Chukchansi deal
Brand also blamed pickup drivers for most of this trashing, saying a lot of it comes out of the exposed truck beds. He recommended the city ramp up its efforts to impose its $1,000 littering fines, which could also help pay for cleanup.
Perea accused Brand of shifting the blame from the city to Caltrans. He promised, again, to form a partnership in which the city, county and California Department of Transportation would work together to clean the highways, possibly through community service efforts.
“What we owe you as citizens – just as you’re working every day and sending us your tax dollars – we owe you a clean, beautiful city,” Perea said. “And you’re not getting it when you drive down that freeway.”
The debate wasn’t all attack and defend. The two agreed on a number of things. They both believe that increasing public safety should be the first order of the new mayor, and that a public safety tax is not the way to do that. They think that the mayor should be outspoken and visible during a public crisis, such as the outrage of many over the Fresno police shooting of unarmed teenager Dylan Noble. They both gave favorable grades to Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fresno Unified School District Superintendent Michael Hanson.
However, the candidates differed greatly on how to accomplish these same goals.
Brand, who also owns a property management company, painted himself as someone who has and will continue to solve problems with legislative acts. Perea took the role of a great communicator, who speaks directly with those involved to get things done.
Brand talked several times about his Economic Expansion Act, which offers incentives for businesses moving to Fresno. He said that he would pay for things like more police and infrastructure fixes with money generated by more business.
Perea agrees that bringing business to Fresno is a top priority, but believes the city already has money to address those pressing needs. He also accused Brand of taking too much credit for the city’s growth after the recession, saying the city functioned just fine in the 100-plus years before his council terms.
Brand doubled down, saying at one point that Perea could thank him when he left his home and saw the streetlights turned on. Perea scoffed at this, saying he thanks the workers who perform the maintenance, not Brand.
The two are scheduled to square off around 10 more times before the election.