The chief challengers to become Fresno’s mayor for the next four years traded verbal blows Wednesday in a two-hour debate, tackling questions on blight and development, law enforcement, fiscal policy and leadership.
The debate, co-sponsored by The Fresno Bee and broadcast on PowerTalk FM 96.7 / AM 1400, included Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, Fresno City Councilman Lee Brand, and H. Spees, vice president of Leadership Foundations. A crowd of about 80 people also watched the debate in person at Pardini’s Catering and Banquets in northwest Fresno. Bee political reporter John Ellis, opinion page editor Bill McEwen and PowerTalk host Trevor Carey peppered the candidates with questions during the two-hour debate.
All three cited public safety and economic development among their top priorities. But the issue of slums, substandard housing and blight, spotlighted in The Fresno Bee’s recent special report Living in Misery, was one area in which the candidates clashed early in the debate.
“When I was on the council, blight was a major issue,” said Perea, who served on the City Council from 1999 through 2007. “We doubled code enforcement during that time (and were) very aggressive about how we dealt with slumlords and other quality of life issues.” During that time, he said, the city adopted rules that held both property owners and their tenants responsible for blighted conditions in apartment complexes.
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Brand, who works in construction and property management, is wrapping up his second four-year term on the council. He countered that “slum housing has been here (in Fresno) for years” and added that “what Perea did for years didn’t work very well.” Brand said that the council has taken steps in recent years to beef up its ordinances to deal with vacant and blighted buildings.
Perea counterpunched: “In (Brand’s) seven years on the council, he cut code enforcement in half. That’s why blight has accelerated.”
Spees, a former pastor who deals with community poverty from the perspective of leading a nonprofit agency rather than government, said the continuing issue of slums in Fresno “indicate that it’s time for a change.” He called for working with nonprofit development organizations to help people move from renting to homeownership, and he pledged that the city would undertake a program of conducting interior inspections of rental housing “paid for by irresponsible landlords.”
More differences surfaced among the candidates when the debate turned to law enforcement and the future of Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer under their would-be administrations.
“As mayor, my first job will be to select a new police chief,” Perea said. “The mayor needs to understand that true community-based policing is responsive to every community.” He added that he would convene representatives from Fresno’s diverse ethnic communities as well as the religious community “to be part of the process of helping select a new chief.”
Brand said Fresno is not unique in dealing with rising crime and tension between ethnic communities and the police department. “I have confidence in Chief Dyer, and I’ll honor my word that he’ll be chief as long as he’s performing at a high level,” Brand said.
Spees said he believes rank-and-file officers within the police department want community-based policing, something he said “is a change of culture” for the department. But he did not commit to keeping Dyer on as chief. “Dyer has been a great chief,” he said, “(but) when I’m mayor, I will sit down and make the best choice for our city.”
Responding to a question about curbing gang activity, Spees said he would institute a mayor’s office of “faith-based and community initiatives” that would involve churches and neighborhood groups “to intercept young people before they get into a gang cycle.”
Brand and Perea said the solutions lie more in creating greater economic opportunities for families and young adults to relieve poverty.
“The best way to address poverty is to create jobs in the city,” Brand said, touting his measure recently adopted by the City Council to provide economic incentives for businesses to expand and hire Fresno residents. “I’m the only one with a blueprint to create thousands of jobs (and) create prosperity for the entire community.”
Perea said families must take the lead in dealing with gang issues. “Government can only do so much; there has to be personal responsibility at the family level,” he said. But the city can take steps to attract and encourage jobs for parents and young adults to ease the strain of poverty. “That’s when negative gang influences start to fade away,” he said.
Spees, Perea and Brand all addressed the need for the proposed Temperance Flat Dam to capture more water for the Valley. Spees said he would rally mayors across the Valley to challenge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to free up water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Perea and Brand both dismissed Spees’ idea as unrealistic. “Good luck; it’s a pipe dream,” Perea told Spees, adding that Temperance Flat won’t happen “by calling other mayors and saying, ‘Let’s go fight fish.’ ” Perea talked about his work as a county supervisor to secure money from a recent state water bond for the dam.
Brand agreed with Spees that progress will require a valleywide coalition, but added that the city must work with Sacramento and Washington to find solutions. “Simply chasing things like Don Quixote will waste our time,” Brand said.