If there were a low point in Ashley Swearengin’s eight-year stint as mayor of the state’s fifth-largest city, it probably was the day in 2011 when, sitting in a Dallas airport during the depths of the Great Recession, she cried.
Fresno was $36 million in the hole and the general fund reserve was down to $1 million. Had all the bills come due that day, the city would have been too broke to meet its payroll.
Bankruptcy was at the city’s doorstep.
Even now, it’s easy to forget that when Swearengin took office in January 2009, she walked into a major financial crisis.
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The city was on the hook for more than $30 million a year in debt service, some of which covered controversial efforts that predated Swearengin, such as loan guarantees for the failed Granite Park sports complex project and the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, as well as the lightly used Convention Center parking garage.
At the same time, the city had to repay around $25 million in “negative fund balances,” which was illegal borrowing from internal departments to balance the books after the city had overspent.
If this was a five-star rating, I’d give her six stars.
Former Fresno Chamber CEO Al Smith
Years of austere budgets followed as the city made around $100 million in cuts. The workforce dropped by nearly 1,000. Sworn police officer ranks shrank through retirements and voluntary departures by more than 100.
Surviving the Great Recession and getting the city’s financial house in order, which dominated Swearengin’s first term in office, certainly could be viewed as her legacy. Avoiding the same fate as Stockton and San Bernardino is a notable feat, especially considering some pundit predictions of the city’s imminent monetary crash.
As Swearengin prepares to leave City Hall early next month after two terms in office, it’s not what she sees.
Instead, she sees the legacy projects that blossomed as the city emerged from those dark days: Fulton Mall’s ongoing rebirth as Fulton Street, the city’s once and possibly future historic Main Street. A budding bus rapid transit system that may or may not ultimately coax more of the city’s car-loving residents on to public transportation. Recharge Fresno, a $429 million water system upgrade to wean the city from its reliance on groundwater and secure its water sustainability moving forward. An updated general plan and development code, which creates Fresno’s first mixed-use zoning districts along the city’s major transit corridors and focuses development inward with an eye toward renewing dilapidated neighborhoods.
Many of these projects, she says, were born even as the city struggled financially and flirted with bankruptcy. It started during the early years of her first term with community meetings, telephone surveys, public group presentations and council workshops. Not sexy. Definitely tedious. Absolutely necessary.
Even better for Fresno, Swearengin proved extraordinarily adept at seeking out grant money to pay for much of her vision. The general fund certainly was in no shape to do so, thus state and federal money not only paid for the big ticket items such as the Fulton Mall (a $16 million federal grant) and Bus Rapid Transit ($50 million, both state and federal), but also early planning efforts for downtown.
For instance, Swearengin, a Republican, managed to cultivate good relations with President Barack Obama at the federal level and Gov. Jerry Brown at the state level – both Democrats – even as she unsuccessfully sought partisan political office in a 2014 run to be state controller.
In total, the Swearengin administration brought in around $200 million in state and federal grants during her time in office.
All this was done as a working mother. Her children, Sydney and Sam, were 9 and 5 when she entered the mayor’s office. Now they’re 17 and 13.
“I’m pretty sure my husband, Paul, is eligible for sainthood now,” Swearengin says. “Our family has certainly had to make some sacrifices for our community, but this is our home.”
Swearengin’s supporters – and there are many – prefer to see her legacy in both guiding the city through hard financial times and pushing several high-profile projects.
“If this was a five-star rating, I’d give her six stars,” says Al Smith, the longtime Fresno Chamber CEO who retired last year. “I’m a big fan.”
Swearengin largely agrees with those who think she did a fabulous job leading the city. Could a few things here and there have been handled better? Probably. But by and large, Swearengin sees nothing but positive when she looks back. And her hope is that her successors don’t screw up her vision or the groundwork she says she has laid for them.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” she says. “I don’t see significant missteps. I think we pretty much nailed the significant steps we needed to take.”
Not everything is great
Critics, however, abound. They paint a different legacy for Swearengin, who is the third mayor since the city changed its governance structure and made the position a chief executive that oversees the massive bureaucracy.
“Ashley was in a very precarious situation when she took over the reins of the city of Fresno, but some of the things she did were not the right decisions,” says Marina Magdaleno, business representative for Stationary Engineers Local 39, the city’s blue-collar union.
Some of this is the usual tension between labor and management. After all, it was the city employees who suffered during the worst years of the recession. Beyond that, however, others say there have been additional missteps, though Swearengin’s culpability is debatable. Without a doubt, some criticism and second guessing falls on Swearengin simply because she is the mayor.
For instance, former Deputy Police Chief Keith Foster was arrested last year for allegedly participating in a drug-trafficking ring. Federal charges still are pending. The arrest still gave the city a black eye, as Foster was part of police Chief Jerry Dyer’s inner circle, and Dyer answers to Swearengin through the city manager.
Ashley was in a very precarious situation when she took over the reins of the city of Fresno, but some of the things she did were not the right decisions.
Marina Magdaleno, business representative for Stationary Engineers Local 39
There were other controversial issues:
Swearengin says she is concerned about the incidents and acknowledged their significance, but said department complaints are down since the police auditor began work.
▪ Discolored water in northeast Fresno, a problem that predated Swearengin and simmered through almost all her time in office, exploded as a major crisis in January. The city still is dealing with the issue, which was traced to surface water running through house pipes with a different chemical makeup than groundwater, which originally ran through the pipes. Lead was found in a few houses.
Swearengin has been steadfast in explaining how her administration missed this issue, just as Mayor-elect Lee Brand, a current councilman whose district covers the affected area, had to during his mayoral campaign.
There were about a half dozen families who had regularly complained, Swearengin says. The city provided them bottled with water, but staffers believed they were isolated incidents. It was only with the rise of social media that the scope of the problem became known, she says. That was in January, and the city has been working to solve the problem since.
▪ Substandard housing and slumlords, another long-standing issue, came to the fore a year ago when residents at the Summerset Village apartment complex in central Fresno went without heat and hot water for two weeks. Critics have called for the city to be more proactive and include an interior inspection program.
Swearengin will this coming week try to win approval for her rental housing inspection program. The proposed ordinance includes an annual rental property registry, a three-year inspection cycle and an opportunity for self-certification. Registration and inspection fees are yet to be determined. Properties that comply could receive a business tax rebate.
▪ Largely unsuccessful legal battles with Madera County over housing developments north of the San Joaquin River.
▪ Bonuses for top members of Swearengin’s administration.
The largest bonuses, totaling almost $56,000, went to City Manager Bruce Rudd over 2014 and 2015. Assistant City Manager Renena Smith received $30,000 – $10,000 annually in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Dyer received $20,000 in 2015. Smith, Rudd and Dyer also received deferred compensation. Combined, Rudd’s money totaled more than $100,000.
Swearengin is still a fan of bonuses and says the City Council “overreacted” in prohibiting the process for top officials.
“Will they regret it?” she asks. “Probably. Will they admit to it? Never.”
The only mistake, she says, was to properly show the bonuses as part of the “Transparency In City Government Act.”
▪ Measure G, the end result of Swearengin’s effort to privatize residential trash pickup. She failed, suffering the biggest political defeat of her time in office.
Swearengin understands some of the criticism. A culture had developed in Fresno, and changing a culture, she says, isn’t easy and isn’t quick. She credits her predecessor, Alan Autry, with raising awareness with his “tale of two cities.”
What she did, Swearengin says, is set up a framework of change so it can happen. Now, she is passing the city to Brand, who served on the council the eight years of Swearengin’s administration and will take over as mayor next month. His job, Swearengin said, is to run with it.
“I think we have made the turnaround, but I think the next 10 years is all about continuing in this direction and really reaping the benefits of all the hard work and all of the things that have been sown over the last eight to 10 years,” she says. “I tell Fresnans often that I believe we’re 20 years into a 40-year fix.”
Out of nowhere
When Swearengin ran for mayor in 2008, there was no coronation.
There were 11 candidates, and then-Councilman Henry T. Perea was considered the front runner. Swearengin’s challenge was separating herself from other candidates such as then-outgoing Councilman Jerry Duncan and Jeff Eben, who had an inspirational life story and was popular with voters residing in Clovis Unified School District, where he was formerly a principal. These candidates were trying to separate themselves among north Fresno voters who weigh in heavily on electing the city’s mayors.
Swearengin made enemies with the Fresno Police Officers Association by pushing a civilian police auditor. She had support of several local business leaders.
“I talked about Fresno becoming known as a turnaround city,” she says.
In the June primary, Swearengin finished second behind Perea, who went on to serve in the state Assembly and left a year ago for the private sector. (His father, Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, lost to Brand last month in the race to replace Swearengin.) Not only did Henry T. Perea have union support, but he also had the Fresno chamber’s backing. Swearengin went on to beat him in November 2008, and came into office with instituting change on her mind.
Then reality hit, and Swearengin says now that few are likely prepared for what they encounter when they take over management of one of the largest cities in the state. She, however, was hit even harder by the reality she encountered.
“Certainly, as a candidate, I did not fully appreciate the depths of the city’s financial position, nor did anybody anticipate the length of the recession and the depths of the Great Recession,” Swearengin says today.
A $17 million cash reserve was there, but liabilities added up to $36 million. Of that total, $7 million went to reducing the city’s workforce, and the remainder was used to close the fund balance. The budgets in those years were ugly. There were layoffs, leaving positions unfilled and privatizing commercial garbage collection.
The city also had guaranteed loans for Granite Park and the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, which were failing. The city later approved a municipal bond package to finance debts from the two failed ventures, as well as to refinance existing debt, among other things.
For me, judging her based solely on public safety, I would probably give her a failing grade.
Former Fresno Police Officers Association President Jacky Parks
Jacky Parks, who stepped down in October as head of the Fresno Police Officers Association, is still unhappy with Swearengin.
“For me, judging her based solely on public safety, I would probably give her a failing grade,” he says.
Parks said the city lost 150 officers under Swearengin’s watch, and now as the city is working to rebuild its force it is losing officers to other cities because they offer a better pay and benefits package.
Right now, Parks says, the city has budgeted for 801 officer positions, but only has 746 on the force. That number, he says, is up just 48 officers from the city’s low point, yet 250 officers have been hired. That’s how bad the attrition problem has become.
“Public safety to me just wasn’t her priority,” he says.
Parks admits he is not a fan of Swearengin. Early on in her first term, Swearengin got the civilian police auditor she wanted. Parks vehemently opposed it. But Parks says it goes beyond that.
Swearengin says it is her job to prioritize the General Fund money that pays for police officers. It is Dyer’s job, she says, to recruit, develop and retain officers. If he needs help, she says, he can ask. He has, and Swearengin and the City Council, she says, have approved incentive packages to attract new hires.
Measure G: Political defeat
From 2011 to 2013, there were precarious budget times in Fresno.
The only time Swearengin cried – sitting in the Dallas airport – came just before she rolled out her “Fiscal Sustainability Policy,” which she says was setting the stage if the city had to declare bankruptcy. The city had to show it had taken every step to avoid it. The policy put more pressure on employees’ pocketbooks to relieve some of the stress on city coffers. Not surprisingly, the city unions hated it and viewed it as a declaration of war.
Looking back, Swearengin says the plan was to get the city to “bare minimum” in a decade – paying off internal fund debt and building a modest reserve. What has happened instead is the city has paid off the internal debt and built a $20 million reserve in just a fraction of that time.
The key was correcting the imbalance in the General Fund, which Swearengin says was whittled down to around $2.5 million by 2012. Swearengin’s solution: privatize residential trash pickup.
In late 2012, a deeply divided City Council voted to outsource the city’s home trash service to Mid Valley Disposal in exchange for a $1.5 million signing bonus and about $2.5 million in annual franchise fees.
Privatization foes in turn mobilized and forced the question to a ballot referendum that took place in June 2013. The proposal was narrowly defeated, with 50.7 percent of voters saying “no” and 49.2 percent voting “yes.”
At the same time, the city received good news – property taxes came in $2.5 million above expectations.
“Property tax came back at just the right time and just about the same amount of money,” Swearengin says now.
Eyebrows were raised at the coincidence.
The entire episode left lingering bitterness between privatization foes and supporters, and the city’s unions toward the Swearengin administration.
“I think that her biggest blunder was the attempt to privatize trash,” says Magdaleno, the Stationary Engineers Local 39 business representative. “That was the biggest blunder, and misinformation and inaccuracies given to the public.”
The two sides in the pitched battle combined to spend more than $1.26 million to get their respective message out to city voters. Of that, supporters of the privatization effort outspent opponents nearly 3-1 – and still lost.
Looking back now, Swearengin has no regrets about her privatization push. In fact, she still supports privatization: “I still think that trash collection can and should be done by the private sector.”
On the ensuing political battle, she says, “I look at Measure G as a really good, spirited, on-the-merits fight, or debate, and when I consider the opponents of Measure G, I respect that they genuinely to their core believed – and they still do – that municipal trash service should be done by the city government.”
Magdaleno has her own Measure G and privatization takeaway: “I will always be on my toes because of that.”
That said, Magdaleno says she likes Swearengin as a person. She is just disappointed that Swearengin was never “inclusive” with labor.
“We’ve never broken bread,” Magdaleno says. “We’ve never had coffee. We’ve never had lunch.”
Swearengin says there is a chain of command and she is at the top – the CEO. As such, she can’t step out of that chain and directly engage city unions.
But she says she likes Magdaleno as well.
Says Swearengin: “I will tell you this, on Jan. 6 (the day she leaves office), Marina and I will break bread.”
Vision for the city
As Swearengin waged her budget battles, she also worked on her vision for the city.
Early on, she says she “arm wrestled” with the City Council over things like the need for a Fulton Corridor Specific Plan or a Downtown Neighborhood Community Plan.
“Essentially it was an arm wrestle over whether or not inner city Fresno and downtown Fresno was going to be a priority for this city in a meaningful way,” she says.
I tell Fresnans often that I believe we’re 20 years into a 40-year fix.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
The Fulton Mall remake was approved in early 2014, the updated General Plan came later that year and was followed by the reworked Development Code. But the work started much earlier. For instance, it was 2010 for the General Plan.
“We engaged literally thousands of people, had community meetings, did telephone surveys, hundreds of stakeholder meetings, presentations to public groups, council workshops,” Swearengin says.
She says there now has been $100 million of additional investment committed to the Fulton Corridor area as a result of the remake. The next decade will see construction of the first high-speed rail station in America, and she expects a development boom around it.
In all, Swearengin is working to change the mindset of the city, often with the help of Democrats in positions of power such as Brown and Obama. And she still believes that one day soon there will be viable mixed-use projects that combine more densely packed urban living with ground-floor commercial businesses that cluster along transit corridors. It’s not the only housing option, she says, but one of many that still includes single-family housing.
“That says something because there is no ‘D’ behind her name,” Smith, the former Fresno Chamber CEO, says of Swearengin’s work to implement her vision without regard to political party. “Talk about checking boxes. Her relationships with the opposite side of the aisle have been great.”
Time will tell, says Granville Homes principal Darius Assemi, who emerged over the years as one of Swearengin’s main antagonists. He wonders, for instance, whether the General Plan’s focus on infill development actually will end up increasing regional sprawl as builders seeking to satisfy single-family home demand go instead to Clovis, Madera County and other nearby communities to build.
“The question for the residents of Fresno is will Mayor Swearengin’s key initiatives, such as where she invested both taxpayer money and a lot of local resources, such as opening up the Fulton Mall, installation of the bus rapid transit, and an infill-oriented general plan, bring more prosperity and safety to the residents of Fresno,” Assemi says. “We need to hold all policy makers responsible for their actions while they were in office.”
Without a doubt, however, Swearengin has been able to win over skeptics, though some – especially in the social justice community – remain unconvinced that she has done enough in the areas of homelessness, substandard housing, and increasing parks in the southern parts of the city.
One of those who likes what he sees is the Rev. DJ Criner, pastor at St. Rest Baptist Church and a board member of Faith In Community, a coalition of Fresno religious groups working for social justice.
Criner says as time passed, Swearengin became more involved with issues such as slumlords and substandard housing. He also supports her high-speed-rail work, and also that over her tenure she “listened and opened her ears” to the concerns of impoverished west Fresno.
“It’s not about the way you start, it’s about how you finish,” he says. “Do I wish that kick had been a little earlier? Absolutely. But I give credit where credit is due.”