Politics & Government

Where's Bubba?

Where's the mayor?

Don't look for Alan Autry at Fresno City Hall. He's usually out of the office.

Autry, who is paid $100,000 a year, spends most workdays in his north Fresno neighborhood -- at the local Starbucks, Gold's Gym or his house.

Autry bristles when asked how he spends his time, but readily admits staying away from City Hall. In fact, he's proud of his unorthodox style. He says he works 12 to 14 hours a day, using cell phones and fax machines to lead the city without being downtown.

"Sitting behind a desk, giving the illusion of doing the people's work, is like trying to win the Indianapolis 500 in a covered wagon," said Autry, a former actor and professional football player who has portrayed himself as a nontraditional politician since his first run for mayor.

This attitude, however, rubs some civic leaders the wrong way. Interviews with a range of political, government and business leaders in Fresno showed little support for his management style. Some critics said it has weakened his relationships with other city leaders and undermined his ability to achieve his goals -- though few could point to specific failures attributable to his absence.

"When I want to meet with him, I have to go to Starbucks on Fort Washington and Friant," said City Council Member Mike Dages, who represents southeast Fresno. "I think the mayor should manage City Hall by being present."

The mayor often misses meetings outside City Hall as well, many say. While he worked hard to get Donald Trump to buy the Running Horse golf course, he rarely shows up when lesser-known developers are interested in Fresno, said Steve Geil, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. serving Fresno County.

Some developers and business leaders have decided not to locate in Fresno in part because Autry didn't meet them, Geil said.

"The mayor is the one person who can make or break a deal," he said. "In exit interviews, employers tell us that in the competitive cities, the mayor is at the table."

Autry's insistence on having a deputy mayor -- a position he created in his first term -- has added to the perception that he's not fully committed.

Jerry Duncan, the only council member to offer unqualified support for Autry, said Fresno has improved under his leadership, with crime and unemployment going down, and the Fire Department and other critical services expanding. Duncan represents northeast Fresno, where the mayor lives and spends much of his time.

"Where you are physically isn't as important as performance," Duncan said. "I don't think anyone would deny that the city is a better place than it was 6 1/2 years ago."

Autry's responsibilities are spelled out in the City Charter. The charter was amended by voters in 1993 after a group of civic leaders wanted to reduce rancor in city government by switching from a city-manager form to a strong-mayor system in which the mayor would provide "decisive leadership," according to the group's report.

Once essentially a member of the City Council, the mayor can now hire and fire the city manager, veto legislation approved by the council, and submit annual budgets for council approval. The city manager runs the city's day-to-day operations. Autry says that's one reason he doesn't spend more time at City Hall -- to avoid interfering with City Manager Andy Souza.

"The best use of my time isn't to sit here and look over Andy Souza's shoulder and tell him what to do," Autry said. "It's to set a vision and have a city manager to implement that vision."

But Jim Patterson, who became the city's first strong mayor during his second term in office, said the position required far more time when it became a chief executive spot, an average of 70 hours a week.

Patterson said he spent more than half that time at City Hall and the rest handling a variety of public appearances on nights and weekends. Patterson wanted department heads to know they could sit down with him whenever they needed.

"It's very difficult to develop a relationship of trust on dynamic matters unless you are looking at each other across the table, in the eyes, and seeing the body language," said Patterson, who is considering another run for mayor.

Mayors are expected to work at city hall because that's where they can connect with officials and voters -- and be held accountable, said Char Miller, director of the urban studies department at Trinity University in San Antonio. Miller has written extensively about city politics in the American West.

Collaboration remains a central part of politics, and that's why no other mayor of a major American city openly avoids working at city hall, Miller said.

"As an actor, one would think the mayor would understand the need for a stage," Miller said. "One needs to be seen doing the job."

The City Charter calls for the mayor's office to serve as a liaison between the city manager and the council, "fostering a sense of cohesion among the council members."

Autry maintains that he has a good relationship with council members, apart from Dages.

He said he speaks to council members whenever they need him.

And Duncan, a council member since 2001, believes that under Autry the council has a more civil and productive relationship with the mayor, compared to Patterson.

"The previous administration and the council were very dysfunctional, with a lot of bickering," Duncan said.

But his critics said Autry doesn't communicate well with council members, in part because he rarely works where they do -- City Hall.

"He needs to meet with council members more often, and he needs to meet with the council as a whole," Dages said. "We don't discuss issues, and that's a problem."

Since starting his second term in 2005 and through Aug. 21, Autry participated in 17 out of 124 City Council meetings, records show.

Because he's not a voting member, Autry isn't required to attend council meetings, except to present a budget, which he does every year. But Dages said Autry should attend council meetings and participate in the debates, instead of leaving the council to wonder whether he will veto or approve legislation it discusses.

Former Council Member Tom Boyajian, an attorney now in private practice, said Autry meets with council members who support him and snubs others.

Boyajian, who served on the council until January, said he had just a few meetings with Autry in the six years they both worked for the city.

"You don't really talk to the mayor," he said. "He sort of tells stories and you listen."

It's not clear what a majority of council members think about Autry's relationship with the council. Three of them -- Larry Westerlund, Brian Calhoun and Henry T. Perea -- declined to comment for this story.

A Calhoun assistant and Perea wouldn't provide a reason, while Westerlund said his comments wouldn't be "productive."

Other council members seem to have mixed feelings about Autry's relationship with the council.

Council Member Blong Xiong, who took office in January, said the strong-mayor system "creates an us-versus-them situation," but he doesn't fault Autry.

"For me, to second-guess what the mayor does isn't my role," he said.

And Cynthia Sterling said Autry has a pretty good relationship with council members but would benefit by spending more "face time" with them.

"He hasn't been around the office much," she said.

Autry's personality -- and not just his absence from City Hall -- keeps him from working more closely with council members, said Al Smith of the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Alan is a grand visionary. He's not an operator. He's not the kind to roll up the sleeves," said Smith, the chamber's president and chief executive officer.

"If I were to write his script for him, I would have him spend more time with the council."

Some think Autry's reluctance to work at City Hall has limited the mayor's effectiveness.

Smith and Dages said Autry could have had better luck getting some of his initiatives passed by the council if he had better relations with its members. They point to Autry's repeated failure to get an independent police auditor as an example.

The auditor proposal has faced opposition from police officers and a majority of the council. But if Autry had deeper ties to the council, he might have been able to change the minds of enough council members to get an auditor approved, Smith and Dages said.

Autry also has long pledged to bridge Fresno's north-south economic divide -- what the mayor calls a "tale of two cities." He also has made downtown revitalization a high priority.

But not only does Autry spend his time largely in the more affluent north part of town, he also has been absent from discussions over the future of downtown. When the administration made a long-awaited presentation about downtown revitalization to the City Council this year, for example, Autry wasn't there.

The presentation was made by an assistant city manager and the deputy mayor, a position criticized by some council members. Former Council Member Boyajian said Autry might not need a deputy mayor if he showed up at City Hall more himself.

Autry said his office is understaffed, and he needs a deputy mayor to attend meetings when he can't go.

A former actor and professional quarterback, Autry, 55, first ran for office in 2000 as a maverick. He's perhaps best known for his role in the prime-time TV drama "In the Heat of the Night," which ran from 1988 to 1994. Gov. Schwarzenegger and others call him "Bubba," the character he played.

Autry said he would consider future acting jobs if elected mayor. In 2000, he let voters know he wouldn't be bound to City Hall: "The thought of a mayor behind his desk, 24/7, micromanaging departments is not what we need now."

Since winning election, Autry has lived up to the unorthodox image. During the day, he sometimes wears sweat pants, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, looking more like the athlete of the past than the mayor of today.

Though passionate about causes that attract his attention, Autry also at times has expressed ambivalence about political life. At the end of his first term, for example, Autry declared that he had had enough and wouldn't run for re-election. He changed his mind only when his chosen successor, H. Spees, decided to become senior pastor at Northwest Church instead.

In an interview, Autry grew impatient with questions about where he spends his time, calling them "trite and banal." He said he wouldn't estimate how much time he spends at City Hall in an average week because it varies widely.

In an effort to learn how the mayor spends his time, The Bee made requests under the California Public Records Act for copies of Autry's calendars and cell phone bills. The city refused, saying they're not public records.

Schwarzenegger and the state's seven other constitutional officers take a different view, and will make their calendars available for anyone to see. Mayors of the state's four biggest cities -- Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose -- also consider their schedules public information.

Dages and other City Council members said they see Autry's car parked at City Hall about once a week. The City Council shares a dedicated section of the parking lot with Autry.

The Bee checked his parking place twice each workday for nearly two months and found his 2005 black Jaguar was there four times -- three of them when Autry was holding a press conference. "Probably four times too many," Autry later said.

On several weekdays, Autry's car was parked in front of his north Fresno home, sometimes in the morning and afternoon of the same day. He also was often at Starbucks, Gold's Gym and other businesses at a shopping center about a mile from his home.

Autry said he works out at Gold's Gym during the day if evening meetings get in the way. Executives shouldn't let work stop them from regular exercise, Autry said, adding that he works out while handling city business on a cell phone.

Asked where he bases his work, Autry replied, "I spend a lot of time near my house. Starbucks." Autry also spends time at his acting studio, in the same shopping center. He said he holds a Bible study there, although he has used it in the past for acting classes and auditions.

In a recent interview, Autry said family matters have played a part in his habits of working away from City Hall. Two years ago, his mother became ill and he had to put her in a north Fresno nursing home. Because he was an only child, he felt responsible for her and had to visit her up to five times a day.

When his mother passed away in February, Autry said, he decided to continue to spend less time at City Hall. He said he can be just as effective holding meetings at Starbucks and restaurants or reaching officials by cell phone.

Autry has little more than a year in office before term limits will force him out. He says he wants to focus more on his wife and three children. "I've spent too much time away from family," he said. "Too many meetings at City Hall. That is my lone regret. My family really got shortchanged."