Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin has, over the past seven-plus years, made her priorities pretty clear. She set out initially to rescue the city from dire financial straits, and then pivoted to other issues that will likely define her legacy – remaking the Fulton Mall as the centerpiece of downtown’s revitalization, bringing a bus rapid transit system to the city, and revamping a General Plan and development code that were sorely in need of an extreme makeover.
All of these big-ticket items, however, will live and die not on Swearengin, but on her successor. As she prepares to leave her post at the end of the year as leader of the state’s fifth-largest city, how to shepherd these issues will fall to her successor, be it City Councilman Lee Brand, Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, businessman Richard Renteria, community leader H. Spees or former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim.
As will about a hundred other things.
Talk with business, community and civic leaders around Fresno about the top issues ahead for Fresno’s next mayor, and the answers will be as varied as the individuals queried. If their input is any indication, there will be a lot of demands on the next mayor. And they won’t all necessarily be Swearengin’s current priorities.
Not surprisingly, advocates and city leaders are largely focused on their areas of interest, though issues such as crime and homelessness seem to cut across the political dividing lines.
On the other hand, former Fresno County Supervisor Susan Anderson offered an observation that transcended issues, and instead took on a simple, yet profound, philosophical bent that may very well sum up whether the next mayor will succeed or fail in the job.
“Do they have leadership ability?” she asked. “Can they bring people together? Can they get people to follow them? Are they honest? Do they have integrity? Are they fair? Do they care about people or do they just care about themselves? Sometimes it is hard to find these people.”
It does appear that, whether they like it or not, the next mayor will be confronted on day one about crime. It’s defined differently in different parts of the city. For instance, in the city’s southern reaches, gangs and violent crime are major concerns; in the Tower District, it might be prostitution or random gunfire; while in the city’s tony northwest neighborhoods, it might be increasing “crimes of opportunity,” such as the theft of gardening tools from a unattended pickup. Some in the north equate vagrancy with crime and say criminal incidents are up since homeless people started showing up.
Depending on its definition, crime is up. Police Chief Jerry Dyer says violent crime was up 16 percent last year and is up an additional 24 percent this year. But property crime is down 3 percent this year.
“Safe streets is always the No. 1 issue,” said Fresno resident and former Secretary of State Bill Jones, who is backing Spees. “If (residents) are safe, nobody talks about it. If not, it becomes the most important issue a government faces.”
Right now, Jones is worried.
Beefing up the police
It’s not surprising that each of the candidates has talked a lot about beefing up the police force.
Dyer already has said the department will restructure to downsize its “special units” and use those officers to rebuild the patrol ranks. If that isn’t done, Perea said he would order Dyer to add 50 more officers to the patrol division.
Brand and Spees, however, focus on the long term, saying the department needs to try and reach 1,000 officers as quickly as possible. The department bottomed out at 695 officers about a year ago after seven years of attrition that started during the depths of the Great Recession. By the end of June, the department will have 774 authorized positions, and Dyer said the department is “on pace to be fully staffed by July.”
Still, that’s well short of the 1,000 officers that Brand and Spees are targeting, and it will take millions of dollars to add the additional 251 positions. It’s even less than Fresno’s 2008 peak of 849 authorized positions.
Spees has pitched a California ballot initiative that would require the state to return 5 percent of income tax revenue to local governments. That money could only be spent on public safety. In Fresno, Spees said, that could mean $42 million annually, which could translate into as many as 200 additional police officers.
Brand has talked about selling some city property and putting the proceeds into an annuity, which would generate annual interest and make it an ongoing revenue source. He also has talked of putting up billboards in the public right-of-way, such as the Sugar Pine Trail that parallels major roads such as Willow Avenue, or Al Radka Park, which abuts Highway 180. Brand said that could generate $500,000 to $1 million annually.
And Perea said he isn’t ignoring the long term. He plans to pore over city contracts and look to trim back each maybe 5 to 10 percent, which could free up hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire more police officers. He will look for more opportunities for partnerships, specifically citing the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and Clovis police as two departments where shared resources could free up money for public safety.
So without a doubt, boosting police – and fire – is on the minds of the mayoral candidates, because it is on the mind of many Fresno residents.
But it’s not the only issue.
Thanks to hundreds of residents going without heat, gas and hot water last November at the Summerset Village Apartments, the long-simmering issue of substandard housing in the city exploded into a full-blown debate that has grown so big the mayoral candidates couldn’t ignore it.
“I think it is criminal,” said Steve Geil, a longtime Fresno business owner and Brand supporter. “It is not just immoral, it is criminal.”
The widespread problems of substandard housing were chronicled last week in a special Bee investigation titled “Living in Misery.”
Advocates for the poor say it is about time city leaders took notice. Now they want to build on the momentum by keeping the issue on the radar of the next mayor.
Bryson White, associate director of Faith In Community, a coalition of local faith institutions working for social justice, said the organization wants the next mayor to commit to funding a proactive interior inspection program for every rental unit in the city.
Jose Lopez, a tenant leader from the Lowell neighborhood, wants to know if the next mayor will continue the Code Enforcement Task Force – with tenant involvement?
“We are tired of you saying that this is bad and that you will eradicate this problem,” Lopez said. “Of course you are going to say that, so skip it. Stop the sound bites.”
Finding the money
Beefing up the city’s code enforcement program, of course, costs money. And there are a lot of competing interests.
Is it more police, or more code enforcement? Can money be found for both? If so, what about parks? Or street maintenance?
“The next mayor must be a superior steward of taxpayer funds and have the skill set to manage city finances through a myriad of potential economic circumstances,” said Michael Der Manouel Jr., a Fresno business owner and chairman of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County. He is backing Brand.
Brand is fond of saying the city came within one period of bankruptcy, and Perea has often said on the campaign trail that not only is another recession coming, the leading edge of it is already here.
That may signal the need for cautious budgeting.
There is broad agreement among several civic leaders of all political stripes, as well as the candidates themselves, that Fresno must create more jobs and diversify its economy.
More good-paying jobs not only raises the standard of living, it broadens the city’s tax base.
Jake Soberal, CEO of Bitwise, the Fresno hub for technology businesses, said that should start with continuing Swearengin’s policy of identifying ways to support and accelerate the growth of key industries, such as high technology and advanced manufacturing.
“For me, the most critical need in our city is to create new jobs in high-growth and high-wage sectors,” said Soberal, who has endorsed Spees.
And more jobs can help with many of society’s ills.
“From my perspective these things go hand in hand – housing, slumlords, joblessness,” said Marina Magdaleno, a Perea supporter and business representative for Stationary Engineers Local 39, which is the city’s blue-collar union. “They all go back to the ability to make a living.”
But Fresno businessman Bob Smittcamp said City Hall’s longstanding bureaucratic morass hinders the growth of business.
“I want to see Fresno being a business-friendly city, and it is not,” Smittcamp said. “I’ve been here 30 years. Every time I try to do something, I get nothing but roadblocks. Let’s be a business-friendly city or do something else. Every new administration promises to solve it and each administration never gets the job done, including my friend Ashley Swearengin.”
At the same time, social justice advocates wonder about the human cost of pursuing jobs above all else.
One of the recommendations of a comprehensive Faith In Community white paper put together for the mayoral candidates ahead of an April 21 forum recommended the next mayor be a champion of clean energy jobs. Advocates even point out the Nordstrom packaging and distribution center for online purchases that the city is pursuing would create a lot of pollution-spewing truck traffic, even as it would bring at least 1,000 full-time jobs to the region.
Speaking of clean jobs, Fresno developer Cliff Tutelian said the city has been handed a gift “by all of that infrastructure paid for through the high speed rail development program.”
Now the next mayor must not squander that opportunity.
He said the high-speed rail station, combined with the newly re-created Fulton Street, the convention center, Selland Arena, Community Regional Medical Center’s expansion, and Chukchansi Park, combine to offer a perfect opportunity to really drive the redevelopment of downtown. The next mayor can advocate and push for government programs that can assist the private sector in the effort.
“I’m a proponent of collaboration and cooperation between the private sector and the government,” Tutelian said.
One thing being pushed is to take the convention center’s managing contract away from SMG, because it also manages the Save Mart Center. It is better, say advocates of such a move, to set up an adversarial relationship in booking Fresno’s two major venues.
Then there are those who want the next mayor to actively push for more water for the Valley, if nothing else than by using the bully pulpit of the office.
Still others worry about the next mayor’s continued commitment to the recently updated General Plan. Political forces will likely always be there, nibbling at its edges or worse.
Perea commented at a packed April forum sponsored by Faith In Community that the document is only as strong as the votes to keep it intact. But he’s also said that while the new general plan focuses on infill, he would complement that with single-family developments on the city’s edges – even if it means building farther north of the Copper River development toward Friant.
Pay attention to the poor
More than ever, it seems advocates for the poor and politically powerless have made their voices heard this campaign.
The Faith In Community forum brought together around 600 people. No other forum has had attendance numbers even close.
Teams of advocates worked months tossing around ideas and formulating questions.
For all that, the message is relatively straightforward.
“The story is really that our city has failed, historically, to unite people across the city,” said White, Faith In Community’s associate director.
The southeast, southwest and Calwa feel ignored. And, advocates say, more is needed than simply attending a Sunday church service.
Rev. B.T. Lewis, pastor of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church and a board member of Faith In Community, has concerns about policing.
“We want to see our police department do even more to move even more to a true community policing model,” he said. “This is one of the things where we have a difference with the chief (Dyer) changing a few things, but changing a few things might not be enough to change the culture.”
Advocates want more minorities on the force and the police auditor position revamped so it is involved in the process of complaints at the start of an investigation, rather than at the end. They also want a special prosecutor assigned by Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp when there are questionable police shootings.
In addition, Dyer plans to retire during the next mayor’s first term, and advocates for minorities and the poor want the next chief selected from out of town and from a strong community policing background.
“We want the mayor to have a conversion in their perspective and how they fundamentally see people and how that affects them governing the city,” White said.
Ultimately, the task of running the city will take a mayor who can walk in all parts of Fresno and converse with the myriad competing interests, from the wealthy business owner to the pastor pushing for social justice, from someone who understands police as well as those on the streets who don’t trust them.
“We need somebody that can bring the private and public sector, and the education, and the nonprofits, together under one roof,” said Granville Homes President Darius Assemi, a Perea supporter. “Collaborative, inclusive, that will address the ills – which is public safety, poverty, infrastructure.”
While they’re at it, they can also work to improve employee morale, said Magdaleno, the Stationary Engineers Local 39 business representative. And yes, that includes employee raises, if for nothing else than to keep quality employees around.
And an overall positive attitude toward the job never hurts – especially towards the generation coming of age now.
Said Soberal, the Bitwise CEO: “The next mayor will need to articulate a compelling and hopeful vision for the future of Fresno such that our young people realize the positive things going on here and begin to envision a future for themselves in this place, and new talent from outside of our area chooses to come here and participate in one of the many good things going on in our city.”