Political Notebook

From the left, groups plan to push Brand to remember the disadvantaged as Fresno mayor

Fresno Building Healthy Communities and its manager, Sandra Celedón-Castro, have worked to highlight the city’s parks shortage and lack of parkland south of Shaw Avenue, under outgoing Mayor Ashley Swearengin. The group plans to continue its push, especially for an updated parks master plan, when Mayor-elect Lee Brand takes over in January.
Fresno Building Healthy Communities and its manager, Sandra Celedón-Castro, have worked to highlight the city’s parks shortage and lack of parkland south of Shaw Avenue, under outgoing Mayor Ashley Swearengin. The group plans to continue its push, especially for an updated parks master plan, when Mayor-elect Lee Brand takes over in January. Fresno Bee file

On the campaign trail Lee Brand consistently talked of inclusiveness, saying he wanted to be mayor for all of Fresno. Now the mayor-elect, it’s a message he is continuing to push.

Advocates for the city’s poor and disadvantaged say they intend to hold Brand to his word.

From police reform to parks to substandard housing and more, these advocates pushed Brand and his opponent, Henry R. Perea, for detailed answers on multiple progressive issues during the campaign. It was an effort that stretched back before the June primary, when the mayor candidate field was five.

Now that Brand has come out on top, these groups are pledging to continue their political activism and are gearing up to deal with the new administration. They’re not even waiting for Brand to officially replace termed-out Mayor Ashley Swearengin to start pushing their policy priorities, which largely focus on the poorer southern parts of the city.

The new mayor should make it known that he will support the entire city of Fresno.

Victoria Garrity, a leader for Faith in Community

“The new mayor should make it known that he will support the entire city of Fresno, especially communities of color and immigrant groups which are under attack, through his voice and action,” said Victoria Garrity, a leader for Faith in Community, a coalition of Fresno religious groups working for social justice.

Brand reiterated his pledge to cast a wide net and listen to everyone at City Hall – starting with his transition team. It will, he said, be a “diverse team that will include community leaders. It will include ethnic groups from Sikhs to Hispanics, African Americans, Hmongs, community activists. These are not people you would associate with a Republican mayor. This is a very diverse group. My message to the community is that this is a mirror of what the city is. This isn’t some exclusive group of people meeting at The Lime Lite with cigars and scotch.”

The transition committee will be led by community leader H. Spees, who finished third in the Juneprimary election and then endorsed Brand.

Moving forward, progressive activists likely will find some common ground with Brand. One of their top issues is community policing, and Brand said he already has talked with police Chief Jerry Dyer about implementing some community policing strategies as soon as he takes office. Another important issue is the city’s new General Plan, a Swearengin-era document that focuses growth inward and holds the line on sprawl. Brand, who voted for the plan as a City Council member, said he intends to implement it as approved.

Differing visions

All that said, the demands of these same groups may clash with other parts of Brand’s vision.

For instance, advocates want a powerful police auditor who has investigatory power and is involved in cases of questionable police behavior at the start of an investigation, rather than as a part-time review person as it is now. Brand is committed to having an auditor who is full time and local, but not with any investigatory power.

“I think right now the political reality is that would be hard to do,” he said of the activists’ goal. For one thing, it would be challenging to get four votes on the City Council.

This hands-on political engagement is new for some progressive groups. Others, such as the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, didn’t even exist in 2008, which was the last time Fresno had a competitive mayor’s race.

Faith in Community geared up for months ahead of the start of the mayor campaign, with congregations holding meetings to decide on issues important for its membership. The group then organized a massive mayoral campaign forum ahead of the June primary, and has over the past several months reached out to thousands of new and occasional voters to encourage them to participate in the political process.

The organization’s member congregations from across the city developed a list of issues they considered important for the next mayor, and then had both Brand and Perea give responses.

Groups also have popped up to advocate for more parks and to make sure poor areas of southeast and southwest Fresno aren’t forgotten when it comes to spending millions of state dollars coming Fresno’s way to help with fighting pollution and reducing greenhouse gases. They also want to create buffers between housing and industrial areas in the southern parts of the city.

With the election now past, these groups are looking to become a constant presence at City Hall, joining more monied interests that press their causes to both the mayor’s office and the seven City Council members.

This isn’t some exclusive group of people meeting at The Lime Lite with cigars and scotch.

Mayor-elect Lee Brand, addressing the makeup of his transition team

At the top of the list are two main issues: interior inspections for rental units and several policing issues.

Substandard housing has long been a concern in poorer parts of the city. It became a front-burner issue at City Hall a year ago when 1,000 residents at Summerset Village Apartments were left without hot water or heat for several weeks. The Bee addressed the issue in a project called “Living In Misery.”

“We want a proactive program, not a reactive program,” Lety Valencia, a Faith in Community organizer, said of pushing an interior inspection program for rental units.

Brand, however, is skeptical it can be pulled off.

“The bottom line is you want it to be effective,” he said of any inspection program. “You want it to work.” Brand has been a partner in a property-management business but plans to divest that interest as he takes office.

At Thursday’s Fresno City Council meeting, a resolution dedicated to attacking substandard housing was approved by a 5-2 vote. It consists of two initiatives: an Anti-Slumlord Enforcement Team and Landlord-Tenant Ombudsman.

But activists were almost unanimously opposed to the initiatives.

Andy Levine, Faith in Community’s executive director, said the changes approved by the City Council do “little to nothing to address the core problem.” He is hopeful that Swearengin will bring forward – and Brand will support – a proactive and baseline inspection program that will define the scope of the problem, which would help the city refine its focus on substandard housing.

As for policing, advocates want increased trust between residents and Fresno police, implementation of a community advisory board to review police misconduct, a stronger police auditor and restructuring a gun violence-reduction program to one that is community-based.

Brand has long been committed to the advisory board, though it is unclear how it would ultimately look. But he has not been supportive of an auditor with any investigatory power.

Faith in Community is holding a meeting Dec. 6 at Temple Beth Israel to get the ball rolling on its own transition committee, separate from Brand’s. Organizers also plan to draft their own 100-day plan, which often are products of newly elected chief executives such as presidents, governors and mayors when they first take office. Organizers will invite Brand to that meeting.

Still on the table: more parks

Parks also have been a simmering issue, thanks to advocacy groups like Fresno Building Healthy Communities.

Already, Building Healthy Communities has been active in pushing for more parks, including protesting outside a Swearengin State of the City address in the new Exhibit Hall downtown.

The group says many central Fresno neighborhoods fall far below the state standard of 3 parkland acres per 1,000 residents.

Sandra Celedon-Castro, manager of Fresno Building Healthy Communities, said Brand has said he supports completing an updated parks master plan.

“We interpret that to say he understands there’s a severe shortage of park space,” she said, adding that the updated General Plan that Brand supported recognizes the city’s parkland shortage.

Any master plan, she said, should take a short and long view toward adding more green space, especially in the southern parts of Fresno, and should not simply be an inventory of what already exists.

The city often has said there is fierce competition for general fund dollars, which includes parks. If new parks are built, they must be maintained, like established parks. It gets expensive.

Advocates are trying to think creatively for ways to fund parks. Among them: developer fees, a ballot measure proposal that, if approved, would provide a steady funding stream for maintenance and acquisition of parks, or assessment districts.

Veronica Garibay, co-director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit group focused on community health, said she suspects poor parts of southeast or southwest Fresno would welcome an assessment district and its costs if it meant more park space.

Celedon-Castro would like to see any parks master plan addressing funding needs and revenues but thinks it might be a bit too early to ask residents for more money. A more immediate solution, she said, would be for Brand to commit in his first budget to restoring some of the parks budget, which was deeply slashed during the city’s tough budget years of the Great Recession.

Garibay’s group also will be watching how Fresno spends $70 million in greenhouse-gas-reduction funding. Gov. Jerry Brown in September came to Fresno to sign a package of climate-change bills that supporters and advocates said would reduce greenhouses gases while directly benefiting poor regions of the state, such as the central San Joaquin Valley.

Given the city’s downtown revitalization push, and the coming high-speed rail station near Mariposa and H streets, Garibay said the temptation of city officials might be to spend that money on helping improve the areas around the station. She doesn’t necessarily have a problem with that, as long as a good chunk of the funds go to improving southeast and southwest Fresno, as well as helping residents who might be displaced by downtown gentrification around the high-speed rail station.

And, added Celedon-Castro, more parks. She said the $70 million is supposed to help transform communities affected by pollution.

“That can be new parks, not just housing and transportation,” she said, citing a specific need for “quality parks” in southwest Fresno.

Garibay also hopes the Brand administration is more aggressive in seeking grant money. Swearengin won a $16 million U.S. Department of Transportation award in 2013 for tearing out the Fulton Mall and restoring Fulton Street, but her administration also missed out on other state grant money that could have helped with restoring curbs and gutters. There is also grant money to be had for urban and community greening projects, Garibay said.

“Fresno is primed to receive a good amount of these dollars,” she said.