When Fresnans go to the polls or mail in their ballots for the June 7 primary election, they should keep in mind that they will be selecting a mayor who likely will be in office for the next eight years.
Yes, a mayoral term is four years, but incumbency is so powerful that since Fresno switched to the strong mayor style of government in 1997, only three people have held the position.
Jim Patterson served one term under the previous city council/city manager structure – in which the mayor’s position was largely ceremonial – and one term as strong mayor. His successors, Alan Autry and Ashley Swearengin, won second terms by landslide margins against token opposition.
The upcoming vote is vitally important for our city, which is poised for better days after withstanding huge blows during the Great Recession.
A strong mayor wields immense power, similar in breadth and depth to those of a CEO commanding a major corporation. The mayor sets the vision for the city and proposes the budget. He or she becomes the face of the city and Fresno’s representative for lobbying efforts at the state Capitol and in Washington, D.C. A successful mayor can change, for better or worse, what millions of people think when they hear the word “Fresno.”
Here are some of the issues we consider important as Lee Brand, Henry R. Perea and H. Spees compete for your vote to be the next mayor.
▪ Fiscal management – Swearengin did an outstanding job of navigating the city through financial difficulties and even put down on paper future budget outlines that would continue to strengthen the municipal treasury while restoring services and improving infrastructure.
The next mayor must demonstrate by résumé and on the campaign trail that he has the chops to fund his vision for the city without being reckless with taxpayer money or saddling City Hall with a debt load that hamstrings Fresno for decades to come.
Autry came into office in 2001 wanting to get things done in a hurry but got caught up in the giddiness of the real-estate boom and made decisions based on the expectation that Fresno’s economy would expand for years to come. When the bubble burst, it was left to Swearengin to clean up the mess by paring public safety to the bone.
Each of the candidates must demonstrate that he has realistic plans to bolster the police and fire departments, build badly needed parks on the city’s south side and beef up code enforcement so slumlords either quit the business or provide safe housing.
▪ Education – The biggest stumbling block to stimulating and diversifying Fresno’s underperforming economy is a shortage of skilled workers.
When longtime Fresno businesses complain that they cannot find local workers with the proficiencies and traits they need to succeed, much less expand, it should be clear that Fresno Unified School District and State Center Community College District must step up their games.
Swearengin’s successor must slice through the often challenging politics of our local school boards and their executive leaders and build consensus on aligning educational and training programs to match the needs of the Fresno economy. It’s a given that Fresno Unified should construct a best-in-the-nation Career Technical Education high school – something that Swearengin didn’t push nearly hard enough.
▪ High-speed rail – Fresno’s economic future is closely tied to the construction of the $64.1 billion bullet-train system. In the short term, the project is bringing jobs to Fresno, where the path is being cleared and infrastructure is being built. In the long term, the system could bring new private investment to Fresno from Silicon Valley because of the shortened commute.
In addition, Fresno’s high-speed rail station will be critical to continued downtown revitalization and will further leverage the multibillion-dollar investments already made.
The next mayor must stand tall for high-speed rail and not be swayed by the obstructionists of progress who so loudly oppose it.
▪ Homelessness – City Hall’s current strategy for reducing homelessness aligns with President Barack Obama’s “housing first” initiative and has enabled people who were living on the streets to obtain shelter, get jobs and turn around their lives.
However, there should be more City Hall collaboration with groups that address the serious issues such as alcoholism and drug abuse that result in the loss of shelter. People need housing, but they also need the tools that will enable them to stay in housing. Also needed is temporary shelter so people don’t needlessly die on the street during winter.
We expect all three candidates to roll out in detail – including funding sources – their plans to significantly reduce Fresno’s homeless population, which we believe is undercounted during the yearly survey.
▪ Implementation of the newly adopted General Plan – We expect that there will be tweaks to the plan along the way, but our next mayor must be committed to curbing sprawl and seeing to it that Fresno grows up – instead of out.
The best way to do this is to fine-tune the plan in concert with builders and investors, and work overtime to ensure that our city receives its fair share of cap-and-trade dollars and other grants for urban revitalization and for improved public transportation.
Remember, decisions made by the mayor affect everyone when it comes to jobs, safety and quality of life. Learn what the candidates have to say. Follow the debates closely and examine their credentials. Past performance is the best indicator of future performance. And be sure to vote in the June 7 primary.