Fresno’s parks measure failed its first test. City leaders need to try again

Even Measure P supporters knew their citizens initiative faced daunting odds of being approved, given that it needed two-thirds of voters to back it in Tuesday’s election.

Not only did Fresno’s parks measure fail that test, but it also appears it did not land a simple majority: of votes counted Tuesday, 48 percent approved it, 51 percent turned it down.

As to why that happened, several possibilities emerged:

Fresno voters simply did not want to increase their sales tax by three-eights of a percent. For them, Measure P was a pocketbook matter. Another consumer issue on the ballot was Proposition 6, repeal of the recent statewide gas tax. Fresno County voters backed repeal, even as the state’s voters overall decided against the proposition. Fiscal conservatism may have played a role in the city’s rejection of Measure P.

Measure P faced a phalanx of leaders from City Hall calling on voters to turn it down: Mayor Lee Brand, Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fire Chief Kerry Donis. Brand said Measure P’s tax hike was too big and had too long a life. The chiefs said public safety needed to be helped before parks.

Fresno’s infamous north-south divide may have played a role. Voters in north Fresno typically vote, and go conservative. Those living south of Shaw Avenue tend to be more liberal, but frequently do not vote. It will be a few weeks before precincts can be analyzed, but the divide may have been a factor once again.

The sad result is that Fresno’s parks remain in shambles, and there is not a plan in place to improve them and thus better the quality of life for many residents.

homeless park
A homeless person sleeps under a blanket on a bench in the tennis court area of Dickey Playground in Fresno on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. Measure P, the sales tax to benefit Fresno parks, will be decided by Fresno voters on Election Day. CRAIG KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee file

Brand issued a statement Wednesday morning expressing respect for the campaign waged by the Yes on P side, and asking them to work with him going forward. It was noteworthy that his request was framed not just around the issue of improving parks, but a host of things challenging the city. “I will call on my friends on both sides of this issue to join me in developing sensible solutions for Fresno’s biggest problems,” he said. “This means parks and public safety, but could also include homelessness, blight, job creation and infrastructure.”

With that, Brand just lost parks supporters. When he adds the other challenges to the mix, he is making clear parks will once again be secondary in the city’s priorities — as parks have been for decades for City Hall’s elected leaders.

Measure P would have devoted $2 billion over 30 years to first fix the parks Fresno has, then develop new ones as called for in the city’s parks master plan. It was audacious, but given the citizen-led push to qualify the initiative, and the fact parks are in such poor shape, The Bee recommended support of the measure.

Instead, Fresno is back where it has been, except for the notion by Brand and Dyer to create a combined public safety-parks tax to put before voters in two years. If they think the power of their personalities can pass that measure, then they haven’t learned a lesson from Measure P’s failure. Two of Fresno’s former mayors, Alan Autry and Ashley Swearengin, were firmly behind it, along with many community leaders, and they could not find victory.

One also wonders about the fractured relations among city leaders over Measure P. Once the sting of the loss fades, will pro-P leaders agree to work with Brand and his truncated view of what parks should be?

Both parks and public safety need to remain priorities for Fresno. It is incumbent on local leaders to get over any differences and realize Fresno’s potential to become a truly great city. And voters need to understand that improvements do not come for free.