Fresno housing official’s comments called racist. So she apologized. But critics are skeptical

Listen as Commissioner Terra Brusseau addresses her comments about Clovis housing to Housing Authority

Listen as Commissioner Terra Brusseau addresses her comments about a Clovis housing development at the Fresno Housing Authority Board meeting Tuesday night, April 23, 2019
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Listen as Commissioner Terra Brusseau addresses her comments about a Clovis housing development at the Fresno Housing Authority Board meeting Tuesday night, April 23, 2019

A Fresno Housing Authority commissioner whose recent comments were criticized by some as racist apologized during Tuesday’s meeting “for pain that was caused by my words.”

“I know we will rise stronger from this moment,” Commissioner Terra Brusseau said Tuesday.

Brusseau came under fire after the housing authority’s March board meeting where she opposed a project in Clovis on Willow and Alluvial avenues. Brusseau said she believed there were “better areas for diversity” and pointed out children living in the area would attend Garfield Elementary, where a majority of students are white.

In the weeks after the meeting, community leaders called on her to resign from the appointed position as a board commissioner and called on Fresno Mayor Lee Brand to remove her. Brand, who appointed her, said he is confident she can continue in her role, and Brusseau on Tuesday again said she plans to continue serving as a commissioner.

Brusseau on Tuesday also stopped short of saying her remarks were wrong and said she wished those who were offended by her comments would’ve addressed the issue with her directly instead of going to Fresno City Council members and the media.

Staffer says she reached out

Brusseau’s latest remarks Tuesday rang hollow for at least one housing authority staffer who said she tried to meet with Brusseau before the issue went public.

Tiffany Mangum, special assistant to the housing authority’s CEO, said she didn’t reach out to the media and said Brusseau declined to meet with staff.

“I struggle with the authenticity of the apology,” Mangum said. “… It’s not only unfair, but it’s inappropriate for staff to usurp their leadership to reach out to a board member. I personally went through the proper chains of command to facilitate a conversation and those efforts were refused. This was prior to all of this becoming public.”

Commissioner Terra Brusseau apologizes at the Fresno Housing Authority Board meeting Tuesday, April 23, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Mangum said she’s not sure Brusseau understands why her comments were offensive. “Time will tell,” Mangum said.

Brusseau: ‘Everything seemed fine’

Brusseau refuted Mangum’s claims and said Mangum never called her or reached out to her. She was unaware who on staff was offended by her comments or that Mangum personally had a concern with her. Brusseau also noted that staff and board members frequently have conversations about “anything and everything.”

Two days after the March meeting, Brusseau met with Commissioner Adrian Jones, the board chair, who told her some people were offended by her comments. It was never communicated to Brusseau who specifically was offended, she said.

“It ended there,” Brusseau said. “Everything seemed fine after that.”

Tense day after comments

Preston Prince, the executive director and CEO of the housing authority, said he didn’t realize the gravity of Brusseau’s comments the night of the meeting. That changed the next morning when he gathered with staff in the same room and listened to their concerns.

“I cried with them as we talked about these things,” he said, noting staff expressed doubt about the board’s leadership abilities and whether the board could adequately represent the community it serves.

Jones apologized to staff members and community members for not challenging Brusseau’s comments during the March meeting.

Another commissioner, Sharon Williams, said she wasn’t personally offended by the comments and the board should acknowledge that sometimes there are challenges for families moving into new communities. Her family moved to Clovis and didn’t feel accepted, so they moved back to west Fresno. But, she said, other families should have a choice to live there.

“What’s offended me is that in 2019 we still have to have this discussion,” she said. “That’s what’s hurting me. People should feel they can move anywhere they want to.”

Commissioner Mary Castro, Fresno State President Joseph Castro’s wife, said her family lived in that neighborhood years ago and her children attended Garfield Elementary. “I drove by yesterday just to remind myself what exists there today,” she said. “It’s a lot different than when I lived there in the late 1990s. It’s still a place I would choose to purchase a home. If I would choose it for myself, I would choose it for our residents.”

Other commissioners gave props to Clovis officials who said they did not oppose the project and sent out a statement distancing the city from Brusseau’s comments.

Project goes on

The issue dominated Tuesday’s meeting, where commissioners and staffers doubled down in their support for the project. The commission also voted to continue a construction contract for the project.

Several housing authority employees spoke during public comment about their personal experiences in public housing and Fresno’s education system. Many reaffirmed their commitment to the housing authority’s mission.

Lucinda Walls, a resident services coordinator, asked the commissioners to keep an open mind when it comes to the needs of public housing residents.

“You’ve never even lived in it. You don’t know what people go through. You don’t know the challenges,” she said.

While California Gov. Gavin Newsom has grappled with how to address California’s housing crisis, Brusseau said at Tuesday’s meeting she believes the housing authority should focus more on resident services instead of new development.

Said Brusseau: “I really care about our residents. I really care about doing thoughtful projects and giving people the resources and tools they need to be successful.”

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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.