When Fresno mayoral candidate Henry R. Perea looks back at his six-year Fresno City Council tenure, he sees the downtown baseball stadium as an accomplishment, a revitalization cornerstone that only came to fruition after tough negotiations that resulted in a deal that set the Fresno Grizzlies’ annual rent payments at $1.5 million.
When Lee Brand, Perea’s mayoral opponent, assesses his own time on the council, he also counts his work with the stadium as an accomplishment. Brand was the key negotiator who hammered out a revamped deal with the financially floundering Grizzlies that reviewed financial information of the team and its principals, among other things.
The fact that both candidates are staking a claim to success on the downtown stadium reflects the era in which they were on the Fresno City Council, said Jeff Cummins, a Fresno State University political science professor who closely follows local races. “Their accomplishments are a product of the political and economic environment in which they held office,” Cummins said.
Their accomplishments are a product of the political and economic environment in which they held office.
Fresno State political science professor Jeff Cummins
Perea was on the council between 1997 and the end of 2002, when government revenue was largely flowing and many city leaders were aiming high. Brand, who began the first of two council terms in 2009, came into office during tight financial times and had to help rescue the city from a financial abyss.
One thing is certain: The two men who are vying to replace termed-out Mayor Ashley Swearengin as head of the state’s fifth-largest city were part of councils that left their mark, and in Perea’s case, also a Board of Supervisors that oversaw Fresno County matters. These results are still evident today, be they something tangible like the northeast police substation, or something more esoteric, like political candidates having to provide more proof that they live in the district they want to represent.
Brand’s record on the council is nearly eight years. Perea’s time in office is much longer. He served a few years as a Fresno County Board of Education trustee before he won a seat on the council, where he served six years. In 2004 he won the first of three terms as a Fresno County supervisor. Both Brand and Perea will end their respective terms – Brand on the council and Perea on the board – at the end of the year.
As much as the decisions both made have led to change, they’ve also proven to be debate fodder on the campaign trail.
Stadium as issue
The $45.8 million downtown stadium is a perfect example.
Perea chides Brand for cutting what Perea says was a sweetheart deal that reduced the Grizzlies’ rent by half, a move he says cost the city badly needed revenue at the same time the police force was shrinking.
Brand says Perea started the problem because the council that approved the initial Grizzlies deal failed to do financial due diligence on the team. Without the lease renegotiation, rent reduction and accompanying financial requirements, Brand says the team would likely have gone bankrupt and possibly folded, leaving Chukchansi Park empty and the city on the hook to keep up maintenance and bond payments.
Cummins said a good measuring stick would be how Brand and Perea used their time in office to improve the living conditions of their constituents.
For Perea’s tenure on the council, that was almost certainly public safety. The high crime rates of the late 1980s and early 1990s were still on residents’ minds when he took office in January 1997. The city already had started a massive law enforcement buildup, a push that accelerated and saw the police force swell to more than 700 during Perea’s time in office, which was an all-time high. In addition, the city built a northeast police substation, and the Police Department got a much better helicopter.
Brand, on the other hand, took his seat as the nation was headed into the Great Recession and soon he and his council colleagues found themselves overseeing a city in survival mode. Swearengin spent just about all of her first term paying off lingering debt and trying to stave off bankruptcy, a task Brand also undertook.
The Police Department’s ranks were shrinking and the convention center had become a financial drain. Brand said some of the fiscal problems were hangovers from the rapid expansion of the police force, which was largely done through federal grants that eventually ran out, leaving the city having to pick up the full cost of officers’ salaries and benefits.
He pins some of that on Perea, saying he was part of a council that approved deals without enough review and expanded the police force with grants that would come back to haunt Fresno’s finances when the city had to start picking up the cost.
Perea, by that time a county supervisor headed into his second term, also says he was doing his own financial managing – and doing it better than the city and Brand. In 2008, he was board chairman, and said he was positioning the county to weather the coming recession by reducing the work force by 1,000 positions through attrition, getting a handle on retirement costs and trying to minimize any service reductions to residents. It helped that the county maintained a strong credit rating.
“During the same period, the city panicked and as a result decimated its police force, cut its fire service by 25 percent and was near bankruptcy with a plummeting credit rating,” Perea said.
Brand’s fiscal legacy
Brand probably is best known for authoring or co-authoring 19 legislative acts while on the council. He has made those actions a central part of his campaign pitch.
First up was the Better Business Act, which essentially requires any business or nonprofit group asking for city money or a loan guarantee to first prove it’s so well-capitalized that the public’s money would never be at risk. That first act grew out of previous council actions that guaranteed loans for Granite Park and the Met – which both failed – as well as building the Convention Center parking garage, which sits largely unused.
It was a requirement in the Better Business Act, for instance, that the cost of a baseball consultant during the Grizzlies contract renegotiation be paid by the team.
The Labor Management Act restricts the length of no-layoff clauses in union contracts and mandates more transparency in negotiations. The Council Residency Act requires candidates to provide more proof that they live in the district they want to represent.
One act – the Transparency in City Government Act, which requires the city to post on its website information about employee earnings and payments to consultants – was co-authored with Perea’s son, then-Councilman Henry T. Perea.
Former Councilman Mike Dages, who served with Brand from 2008 through 2010, opposed some of Brand’s measures and called them largely toothless efforts, and Perea has certainly picked up on that on the campaign trail, casting Brand as a no-action paper pusher and policy wonk who didn’t accomplish much.
But Dages, who left the council in 2010 and is now retired and living in Bass Lake, says that Brand’s “meticulous” nature would be an asset as mayor.
This upgraded credit status will save taxpayers millions of dollars in interest charges.
Fresno mayoral candidate Lee Brand on his City Council financial work
On the campaign trail, Brand often refers to his legislative acts, but he also has been highlighting other accomplishments. Not surprisingly, given Brand’s penchant for finance, many of those are fiscal in nature.
Among them, he says, was pushing for fiscally responsible budgets. When he came on the council, Brand says, the city was $40 million in the hole and has now paid off $36 million in internal loans and built a $20 million General Fund reserve.
The city’s credit rating also has been on the upswing, rising from junk-bond status.
“This upgraded credit status will save taxpayers millions of dollars in interest charges,” Brand says.
When it comes to Brand’s brick-and-mortar legacy, the city’s water capital plan, known as Recharge Fresno, might top the list, and Brand says “it may be the most important vote taken in the past 40 years. This was a massive water infrastructure project that had been kicked down the road for many years by previous councils, and our infrastructure was deteriorating.”
The plan’s centerpiece is a $159 million surface water treatment plant under construction near Armstrong and Olive avenues in southeast Fresno.
Brand says he “played a pivotal role” to make sure the project has stayed on time and on budget.
In addition, Brand points to his solution to copper-wire thefts targeting – and blacking out – streetlights. The city encased in concrete 24,000 ground pull boxes at $25 per streetlight, a solution largely engineered by Brand.
At the same time, Perea has his own list of accomplishments.
While he was on the council, not only did the long-planned stadium get built, but so did the new Exhibit Hall expansion of the Fresno Convention Center and the northeast police substation.
Perea also said code enforcement was doubled on his watch and Fresno earned the All-America City designation, an honor given to just 10 cities a year that best solve problems in their towns.
Previewing a Perea administration if he wins in November, he has said he would take a more regional approach to the mayor’s job. As part of that, Perea points to his civic involvement.
For instance, in 2007 University High School voted to add a Fresno County supervisor as its community board member. Perea took the post (though he no longer is a member). During his time as a trustee, Perea said University built its new high school building on the Fresno State campus.
This year we added the seventh line of service. The first addition in 15 years, so we are already achieving our goal of improving service and increasing ridership.
Fresno mayoral candidate Henry R. Perea on his work on a Valley Amtrak rail authority
Perea also points to his leadership position with Amtrak’s San Joaquin Valley service.
Three years ago, state legislation authorized a local authority to oversee and operate the Valley’s Amtrak. Perea represents Fresno County and serves as the board’s vice chair. The authority negotiated the transition of approximately $55 million from the California Department of Transportation to the authority, which has now contracted with Amtrak to operate the system.
“This year we added the seventh line of service,” Perea said. “The first addition in 15 years, so we are already achieving our goal of improving service and increasing ridership.”
Perea also has been a longtime proponent of the state’s high-speed rail system, and is co-chair of Fresno Works, which is seeking to bring the rail system’s maintenance facility to Fresno.
As a county supervisor, Perea’s most notable contribution may be First 5 Fresno County’s new Lighthouse for Children building on Tulare between N and O streets in downtown.
The building was controversial and pitted Perea against fellow Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, who tried to rally then-Supervisors Phil Larson and Judy Case McNairy to kill the proposal.
The building got built, even though Perea often seemed at a political disadvantage in fighting for it, and even as it frayed a one-time partnership between Perea and former First 5 Fresno County Executive Director Kendra Rogers. Poochigian has since endorsed Perea for mayor.
Also during Perea’s time as a supervisor, Fresno County built a psychiatric inpatient unit for children and is currently constructing a psychiatric inpatient unit for adults, and also won state money for an expansion of the downtown Fresno County Jail.
Perea said he is currently working with Children’s Hospital to build a medical facility at the Lighthouse for Children site.
As voters assess both Brand and Perea, Cummins – the Fresno State political science professor – says they should keep one thing in mind: As City Council members or county supervisors, they don’t get full credit for many of their actions since they are one person that is part of a legislative body.
“When they’re mayor,” Cummins said, “the accountability gets much stronger.”