Political Notebook

Fresno mayor ‘won the battle but lost the war,’ Measure P allies say. What’s next?

Fresno voters will decide on a sales tax hike to benefit local parks on Nov. 6

Measure P is a local sales tax hike initiative that, if approved by voters, will help improve parks in Fresno.
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Measure P is a local sales tax hike initiative that, if approved by voters, will help improve parks in Fresno.

After the Fresno parks sales tax on the November ballot failed to receive the two-thirds voter approval needed to pass, Mayor Lee Brand resolved to bring proponents and critics together to draft a “more balanced” tax measure to fund both parks and public safety.

But some of the people involved say January 2019 is too early to begin work after bitter campaigns created a rift between longtime political allies, resulting in hurt feelings and broken friendships. Plus, not all Yes on P supporters voiced a willingness to work with the mayor, blaming him for Measure P’s failure.

“I think it’s going to take a little bit more time for hard feelings to settle down a bit for there to be open minds enough to look at a way to move forward,” said former Pelco CEO Dave McDonald, whose support gave a major boost to the Yes on P campaign shortly before the election.

Measure P on the Nov. 6 ballot proposed a 3/8-cent sales tax that would’ve generated $37.5 million annually for 30 years for Fresno parks and cultural arts.

Yes on P was buoyed by former mayors Alan Autry and Ashley Swearengin, along with other high-profile leaders. The coalition behind the ballot measure included diverse groups that spanned the political spectrum. The ballot measure also had a hefty list of endorsements from industries such as real estate, health, agriculture and more.

But some of the city’s heaviest hitters campaigned against Measure P, including the mayor, Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer, fire Chief Kerri Donis, the Fresno Police Officers Association, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce and Granville Homes President Darius Assemi.

The No on P campaign argued if Measure P passed, voters wouldn’t subsequently pass a public safety tax. And the language in Measure P would make cuts in the public safety budget inevitable in the case of a recession, according to the No on P campaign.

Measure P faced another stumbling block in the days leading up to the election. Because of a mixup at the city clerk’s office, the language that appeared on the ballot was a truncated, simplified version of what the City Council approved.

In the end, Measure P received 52 percent “yes” votes, well short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass.

City parks remain in bad shape, and likely will grow worse, along with the bill for deferred maintenance. The city’s police and fire departments also continue to face staffing challenges with aging equipment.

“Our parks are literally just about the worst in the whole country,” McDonald said. “It’s pretty obvious if you drive around the whole city. This is just an embarrassment.”

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A drone photo shows unkempt fields at Fink-White Park in west Fresno on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. Craig Kohlruss ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

What’s next for Yes on P campaign?

Despite Measure P’s failure, parks coalition members are optimistic and encouraged because more than 50 percent of voters still supported investing in parks.

“To me, this is just the beginning,” said Sandra Celedon, CEO and president of Fresno Building Healthy Communities. “I think we’re just getting started.”

The coalition still is regrouping after the election and weighing its options.

Court cases in other parts of the state are challenging whether tax measures should require a two-thirds majority vote, particularly if a measure is put on the ballot by citizens, such as Measure P. It’s not clear if the outcome of those cases will mean anything for Measure P.

“There is some interest from outside organizations who may want to pursue a legal analysis on this, but we are also aware this is a long and challenging path, and not one where our coalition will necessarily be focused,” said Natasha Biasell, the communications director for Yes on P.

Celedon said she envisions another try for Measure P in 2020. Yes on P hasn’t ruled that out, either, noting Measure Z to support Fresno Chaffee Zoo took three times to pass.

Can the mayor bring two sides together?

The day after the election, Mayor Brand committed to working with the parks coalition and public safety groups for a joint measure.

“Now the real work begins,” he said in a news release. “Starting today, I will call on my friends on both sides of this issue to join me in developing sensible solutions for Fresno’s biggest problems with the first of many meetings starting in January.”

In an interview with The Bee, the mayor said he plans to follow the parks coalition’s lead and put together a citizen-led initiative.

“Now we have plenty of time,” Brand said. “And it won’t be my deal. It will be the leaders of the community deciding: ‘Can we find a solution that will address the parks issue, address the public safety issue?’ And there’s other issues, like infrastructure and public works and a major issue with homelessness.”

Many of the people who campaigned for Yes on P blame the mayor for the measure’s failure.

“Look whose signatures were at the bottom of Measure A,” Paul Gibson said about the cannabis business license tax also on the November ballot. “They defeated it (Measure P).”

Gibson, the former owner of Guarantee Real Estate and a Yes on P supporter, said the campaign knew the road would be tougher with organized opposition, especially if it included the mayor.

After the election, McDonald made rounds of calls, pledging his commitment to improve the city’s parks. He also said it’s best if both sides works together, but he’s not sure what the outcome will look like.

Nathan Ahle, the CEO of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, soon after the election also voiced support for working together.

Dyer and Donis are counting on the mayor to lead the charge.

“I think the mayor’s leadership, in reaching out to the folks on the Yes on P side, to bring people together…is really the way to go,” Donis said.

Biasell said the coalition is willing to work with the mayor, but remains dedicated to one issue: parks.

“Our diverse group of citizens and local nonprofits is united over its dedication to improving our parks and opportunities for children — this is the glue that holds us together,” she said. “We are not united on our views on a public safety tax or a general fund tax, so I cannot speak on behalf of the coalition on this matter if that is the mayor’s only goal in working with us.”

Celedon doesn’t see a way Fresno BHC can work with the mayor moving forward. The No on P campaign he led eroded trust, she said. But she also said it’s City Hall’s responsibility to fix the city’s parks.

“I think it’s going to be really challenging for the mayor to pull people together because he has demonstrated that when the push comes to shove, he’s going to stand up for Darius Assemi,” she said. “He’s going to stand up for the Fresno Police Department, and he’s going to throw the rest of us under the bus. I think that makes it really tough to push anything forward.”

Through city spokesman Mark Standriff, the mayor declined to respond directly to Celedon’s comments.

Instead, Standriff provided a statement: “The mayor is focused on creating a better, safer and more prosperous future for the people of Fresno and is firmly committed to collaborating on solutions, which has been the guiding principle of his administration since day one.”

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Fresno Mayor Lee Brand Vida en el Valle file

Will public safety and parks work?

From the beginning, the mayor has been consistent in his belief that Measure P was an “overreach” with its 30-year sunset. He also has stressed that a holistic approach is needed to address the city’s needs.

Brand said it’s important for the community to lead the way and shape any potential measure. He acknowledged a general sales tax may not be popular because of the public’s general distrust in politicians to spend money responsibly.

“I do believe for us to achieve what we need as a city, in terms of having the parks done correctly, fire and police, all that stuff, we don’t generate enough revenue to do that,” he said. “So down the road, I think in 2020, that’s what we’ll look at.”

He noted that when he started his term as mayor, he had no intention to bring forward a tax measure.

So what will it take for members of the parks coalition to also support public safety funding?

Dyer said he hasn’t shone a bright light on the needs of the police department, but there’s a reason for that. His job is to assure the community the police department will keep people safe. He doesn’t want to send the wrong message to the city by saying the department doesn’t have enough resources.

“I believe all that does is give an upper hand to the criminals,” he said.

But by sharing the department’s needs in private meetings with the right people, Dyer said he may be able to garner additional support for a tax measure to fund public safety.

Damon Kurtz, the FPOA president involved in the Measure P negotiations, said there’s been talk about a public safety sales tax for about four years, but nothing has ever came to fruition.

“We recognize there are more issues than just public safety,” he said.

The union can’t be the face of a tax measure, either, he said. “Even with good intentions, the public can just turn around and say, ‘Oh, you just want raises,’” he said.

Celedon said she doesn’t believe parks and public safety belong together.

“They’re separate, and related, they’re absolutely related. But they’re separate,” she said. “I think the best approach is to have a community conversation about our police department.”

And, she said, there needs to be a viable spending plan to present to the public.

Politics and Measure P

McDonald said he was disappointed to see the issues – parks and public safety – pitted against one another.

“As it stands today, any kind of public safety initiative may be in a lot of trouble just because of all of the issues that were handled the way they were in the last campaign,” he said. “You can win the battle and still lose the war.”

Gibson said that even though Yes on P raised more money and spent more money than No on P, the opposition used more “political capital.”

“It’s hard to get back what they spent,” he said, “and that’s a very valuable thing.”

Brand said he understands there’s a lot of hurt feelings and still respects people involved with the Yes on P campaign.

“Some people, I realize, are not going to get over it, and I respect their feelings,” he said.

Dyer’s contract as police chief ends in 2019, but he’s committed to supporting public safety even if he’s not chief, he said. Kurtz also took a new job with the Police Officers Research Association of California, and the union has a new president, Todd Frazier.

In 2020, it’s possible voters will vote on a tax measure and whether to re-elect Brand as the mayor.

“Reconciliation is a very powerful thing,” Dyer said. “I’m hoping the people that were supportive of Measure P and opposed to Measure P can reconcile our differences so we can move forward for the betterment of Fresno.”

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