Local Election

Fresno mayor candidates address homelessness, police trust at forum

Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, who is running for mayor of Fresno, speaks at a candidate forum Saturday at Fresno State.
Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, who is running for mayor of Fresno, speaks at a candidate forum Saturday at Fresno State. tpope@fresnobee.com

Three of the five candidates for Fresno mayor were at Fresno State on Saturday for a forum to discuss local issues such as police trust and diversity, and one linked homelessness to pedophilia.

Fresno City Councilman Lee Brand, Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea and the Rev. H. Spees participated in the forum, in which each had 40 minutes to respond to questions.

The two missing candidates, former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim and businessman Richard Renteria, weren’t at the event because they weren’t viable candidates a month and a half ago when the forum was being planned, said Dillon Savory of the Central Labor Council, which put the event together. Savory said he offered Vagim a spot at the forum on March 18, but he didn’t come.

Hot topics of debate included police trust, high-speed rail, bus rapid transit, the privatization of public works and Fresno’s persistent homelessness problem.

“We had these horrible cesspools of humanity called homeless camps,” Brand said. “They were predatory – gangs came in – drug sales – they were terrible.”

Brand said that breaking up the homeless encampments was a positive move for the city, but the state prison realignment let a lot of “low-level” offenders onto the streets. He blamed Proposition 47 for decriminalizing certain offenses, which compounded the homeless problem by flooding Fresno with criminals.

Do you want your son or daughter going to a school when there’s pedophiles living a block away?

Lee Brand, Fresno City Councilman

There still is a lot to be done to fix the problem of homelessness, Brand said, but encampments can’t be allowed to fester.

“I don’t believe the answer is to return to homeless camps that are magnets for crime, filth – and whose neighborhood does a homeless camp go to?” Brand said. “Does it go back to northeast Fresno? Does it go downtown? Do you want your son or daughter going to a school when there’s pedophiles living a block away?”

When Perea was asked the same homeless question later, he expressed contempt for Brand’s opinion.

“I was a little surprised, and maybe it’s the attitude that prevails at City Hall, but when the comment was made that the homeless (encampment) is a human cesspool, I think that’s a problem,” Perea said.

“(A lot of things) take people to the point of being homeless. I don’t think anybody in this room would say that people are born, they’re young kids, they’re growing up, and then they say ‘You know what, I want to be homeless when I grow up.’ 

There are circumstances that happen in people’s lives that we have to be sensitive to, and we have to work with people to make their lives better.

Henry R. Perea, Fresno County Supervisor

Perea appeared to take offense at his opponent seeming to dismiss homeless people as criminals.

“There are circumstances that happen in people’s lives that we have to be sensitive to, and we have to work with people to make their lives better.”

Unlike Brand and Perea, who remained seated in a wing chair while speaking, Spees walked around while answering questions. Spees says there are four groups of homeless: people who have lost a job; those who have a disability or mental illness; urban campers who are aggressive panhandlers; and criminals who have been released from jail or prison to live on the streets.

Spees wants to put together a homeless task force with a judge, a defense attorney, representatives from the sheriff and police departments, and several people who have been homeless and know the issues that homeless face.

“We put together a task group and we come up with a registration plan,” Spees said. “If you want to panhandle – and you’ve got the freedom to do that – but you’re going to have to wear a registration badge. We’re going to have to know your name. And you’re going to have to have, in your hand – in your possession – a letter that says that you have the right to use a lavatory close by you.”

If you want to panhandle – and you’ve got the freedom to do that – but you’re going to have to wear a registration badge.

Rev. H. Spees

Community trust in the police as well as diversity in the Fresno Police Department brought passionate responses from the candidates.

“If you’re a police officer nowadays, you’re under siege. Everyone has a cellphone camera,” Brand said. The city is diverse, and the Police Department is working on becoming more diverse, he said.

Perea said that police need to do more outreach so people can see the human aspect of police and the importance and difficulty of what they do.

“I think we need more than Chief (Jerry) Dyer coming out into their neighborhoods and listening to them,” Perea said. “What they need is a mayor; what they need is a City Council; what they need is the leadership in their community coming out and saying ‘yes, we’re hearing you; yes, there are issues; yes, we will work with you on improvements.’ 

Spees stressed that diversification of the police force is key to helping people build trust in those who protect them. He wants to show children in K-12 schools the importance of public service jobs, and encourage kids from an early age to want to become police officers, firefighters, nurses, or hold other jobs that allow them to give back to their communities.

“Do we have Anglo officers? Do we have Latino officers? Do we have Asian officers? Do we have officers that really represent who we are?” Spees said. “Yes we do. Do we have enough? No we don’t.”

The primary is June 7. If a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the race is over. If nobody reaches that threshold, the top two primary finishers advance to the November general election.

The debate was recorded by CMAC and should run on their service in the next week or two, Savory said.

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