Marek Warszawski

Fresno mayor lied to help defeat parks tax. Now we’ll see if he can actually lead

What now, Mayor Brand?

What are you going to do to make Fresno a better, more livable city by addressing its underfunded, ramshackle parks?

How are you going to repair the rift in our community that you helped widen?

A lot of us want to know. And we’re not going to let go of the stick.

It was one thing for Lee Brand and his cronies, using a strategy of fear-mongering and misinformation, to oppose a citizen-driven tax initiative designed to overhaul decades of neglect by politicians just like him. Measure P barely scraped 49 percent in Tuesday’s election, well short of the two-thirds majority it required to pass.

Brand did what he set out to do, so mission accomplished. But if I were him, I wouldn’t spend too much time patting myself on the back. Because now the onus of responsibility falls at his feet.

Instead of tearing down a grand idea — flaws and all — it’s time to lead.

The Measure P campaign tore open, or perhaps revealed, a deep divide in California’s fifth-largest city. Friends opposed friends. Neighbors opposed neighbors. Political allies opposed political allies. The Chamber of Commerce opposed business owners. The police and fire chiefs, as well as their unions, opposed ordinary citizens and activists.

What’s your plan to fix the damage, Mr. Mayor? Sure hope you have one. Slash and burn may help sway votes, but it doesn’t win over hearts and minds.

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Fresno Mayor Lee Brand was one of the most vocal opponents of Measure P, the proposed sales tax hike to benefit city parks. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

I’d like to remind Brand and his advisers of two numbers pertinent to this conversation. The first, 71,776, is the number of votes he received in the 2016 mayoral election. The second, 34,085 (and counting), is the number of “Yes” votes on Measure P.

Brand didn’t exactly become mayor by landslide. His margin of victory over Henry Perea came by 3,723 votes.

In two years, when Brand is up for re-election, I’m betting some of those 34,000-plus voters will remember how he lied to them about Measure P.

Yes, lied.

When I met with Brand about Measure P in mid-September, he talked about how $38 million per year was too much money for parks, arts, trails and freeway beautification. He felt the 30-year time frame was too long. He had issues with the initiative’s rigidness, how it didn’t give him the leeway to shift money around in times of need. He bristled at the clause that didn’t allow him (or future mayors) to trim the park’s general plan budget in case of a recession.

“You can make the argument that if you’re being overly prescriptive, how are things going to change in five or 10 years?” Brand asked me. “You don’t know, which is why you need some flexibility. That’s why you elect people who are accountable to the voters.”

These are all reasonable arguments, worthy of dissection and discussion. Except Brand didn’t use them in his No on P radio ads. Instead he told us that a “Yes” vote would take away money from police and fire. Which isn’t true. And he told us all the tax money would be controlled by a citizens committee with zero accountability. Which is a flat-out lie.

Did Brand even read the measure? Makes me wonder. It’s either that or he purposefully lied to the citizens of Fresno.

A lot of people reading this are probably thinking, “Wise up, Marek. All politicians lie, and the closer they get to an election the more frequent their lies become.”

(See Trump, Donald.)

Fair enough. But Brand isn’t a career politician. He’s someone who came from a working class background, made himself a success in business and entered politics later in life. I respect him for that. Which is also why I hold him to a higher standard. Or at least I used to.

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Measure P proponents stand up in support of the parks tax as the Fresno City Council voted to place the citizen-driven initiative on the November ballot during an August 2018 council meeting. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

In a post-election statement about Measure P, Brand tried to strike conciliatory tone. He told us the results were “bittersweet for me.” He told us he agreed Fresno’s parks needed to be “improved and expanded” and that he respects the “hard work and passion of everyone involved with the Yes on P campaign.”

“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,” Brand said.

“This means parks and public safety, but could also include homelessness, blight, job creation and infrastructure. We need a broad-based approach to address all of our city’s priorities reasonably and fairly.”

Look, I get it. Fresno’s problems and inadequacies run deeper than parks. And although Measure P failed, there’s a good chance the “Yes” votes will outnumber “No” by the time every mail-in and provisional ballot is counted.

Which means half the city’s voters were willing to tax themselves, for 30 years, to address a decades-old problem our politicians and bureaucrats have long ignored. That’s a sizable chunk of the electorate. There’s no getting around that.

Measure P supporters will now reassess what to do next. However, former Mayor Ashley Swearengin told me that Fresno’s parks are “too distressed” to simply walk away.

“The commitment is to keep going,” Swearengin said. “It might take a couple bites from the apple to get this thing passed.”

I’m betting Brand never imagined parks would become such a hot-button issue when he decided to run for mayor. But here we are. The problem is his now.

We’ve seen how Brand can distort the truth to help bring down an initiative he and his cronies don’t like. Now we’ll see if he can actually lead.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee
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