Marek Warszawski

Power to the people: How Fresno community spoke out and helped sway two policy decisions

Panhandling proposal mostly panned at Fresno City Hall

Opponents and at least one supporter spoke out about Steve Brandau's panhandling proposal Thursday afternoon
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Opponents and at least one supporter spoke out about Steve Brandau's panhandling proposal Thursday afternoon

Your voice matters, Joseph O’Neal.

So does yours, Lisa Flores. As does yours, Steve Brudenell.

Same goes for anyone reading this. Anyone who feels strongly about a particular issue and thinks no one in government will listen.

Last week, right here in Fresno, that simply wasn’t true. Their voices, part of a loud community chorus, were heard. Loudly enough to sway two important policy decisions at the local and state levels, one dealing with air pollution, the other with street begging.

“It’s a reminder of the importance and power of community voices,” said Veronica Garibay, co-founder and co-director of Leadership Council for Justice & Accountability.

During last week’s Fresno City Council meeting, the 8-year-old Joseph joined the firm public rebuff of Councilman Steve Brandau’s proposal to levy fines on people who give to panhandlers within 200 yards of an intersection.

“People should not reject them,” said Joseph, who told the council he passes out water bottles to the homeless. “God made us for this.”

The measure was expected to pass the first of two votes necessary to become law. Instead, it was soundly defeated.

EPZPANHANDLING03
Joseph O’Neal, 8, speaks out against the proposal which would make it illegal for drivers to give out handouts to panhandlers. Photographed Thursday, March 21, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Flores and Brudenell are members of the AB 617 South Central Fresno Community steering committee, whose purpose is to help guide the Valley Air District on how to best spend $80 million in state money designated to curb air pollution.

Both were dissatisfied with the air district’s manner of discourse. Flores aired her frustrations at a recent meeting, which I scribbled down and included in a column read by officials with the California Air Resources Board. Brudenell drove to Sacramento to speak before an Assembly Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing.

“We cannot proceed if the district doesn’t play by the rules for effective discussion that they themselves laid down,” Brudenell said at the hearing. “We cannot achieve the goal of a plan informed by the community if the district disregards the will of the community.”

On this occasion, the people’s will won out. When the boundaries of the South Central Fresno Community were released, they contained most of the neighborhoods the steering committee overwhelmingly wanted.

Meaning southwest Fresno, the Highway 99 corridor, the Industrial Triangle and areas south of town that are now rural but have been zoned industrial will be inside the area that will receive state-mandated air pollution monitoring, reduction targets and enforcement.

“Community engagement and members of the community using their voices were the absolute game-changer in this process,” Garibay said.

Goes to show people do indeed have the power. When they choose to wield it.

California Air Resources Board in January 2019 OK'd a clean air plan to reduce air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley. Currently, air quality in the Valley is failing to meet four health-based standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

During last Thursday’s City Council meeting, the chamber was packed with residents panning Brandau’s anti-panhandling proposal. By one count, more than 100 people spoke out against the measure versus four who spoke in favor.

It must be noted that Mayor Lee Brand and Chief of Police Jerry Dyer also came out against the ordinance. Which certainly made it easier for Garry Bredefeld to vote “no” and Luis Chavez to abstain even though he was one of the co-sponsors. (Hmm.)

Credit to Brand and Dyer, but I don’t recall either making their positions known until it was clear the measure would face stiff opposition from faith leaders, activists and ordinary citizens.

Which tells me neither wanted to be seen as supporting an ordinance that drew the ire of such a wide swath of the community. Not a fight they wanted to join.

“It makes a big difference when people are saying ‘This is wrong’ and are able to articulate their points,” Councilmember Esmeralda Soria said.

A similar thing happened with the AB 617 local steering committee. It seemed pretty clear the Valley Air District was against expanding the community boundary to include southwest Fresno or much of the Highway 99 corridor. None of the three “boundary adjustments” released by the district at the March meeting contained those areas.

Kieshaun White, 18, has begun installing air quality monitors at Fresno Unified high schools so they can check air quality in real time.

The expansion was also opposed by Brand, who sent Economic Development Analyst Kelly Trevino to the oversight hearing in Sacramento to remind the politicians that Fresno needs jobs. (As if air pollution and jobs are mutually exclusive.)

But when the boundaries were unveiled, committee members and environmental justice activists received a pleasant surprise.

I asked officials at the state air resources board and Valley Air District what changed, and who made the final decision. The answer I got back was the air district and steering committee both made the call — after air district officials received notification from the state that expanding the boundary was consistent with AB 617.

In other words, by speaking up and sticking to its guns, the committee achieved its desired outcome.

“The community made its voice heard,” committee member and air quality activist Genevieve Gale said, “and I think the air district was unable to go back into that meeting and tell the committee they couldn’t expand the boundary.”

This is what democracy in Fresno looks and sounds like in 2019. Speak up, articulate your position and get other like-minded folks to join in. If the chorus is large enough, it won’t be silenced or ignored.

Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.

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