Valley Voices

‘Business-strangling culture’ in Fresno is costly. What will City Hall do about it?

A culture that is unfriendly to business permeates the city of Fresno’s Planning Department and that attitude is blocking revitalization and economic development, says Councilman Steve Brandau.
A culture that is unfriendly to business permeates the city of Fresno’s Planning Department and that attitude is blocking revitalization and economic development, says Councilman Steve Brandau.

On March 29, 2015, Pete Dern, a captain in the Fresno Fire Department, crashed through a garage rooftop into an inferno. The results were tragic. Thank God, Dern is alive today.

It was a terrible moment for Dern, the fire department and the city of Fresno. A subsequent study of what went wrong revealed that the “culture” within Fresno Fire had slipped to an unacceptable level. Some firefighters had abandoned best practices. Required safety rules and enforcement of procedures had been relaxed.

Since then, the city has spent $1.7 million addressing this culture problem. Massive retraining within the Fire Department was the main expense. Additionally, upper-level personnel were told they would be held accountable for ensuring that the costly training was implemented in the field.

Fire Chief Kerri Donis is shaking up the culture and demanding accountability from the top down. She is living former President Harry Truman’s motto of “The buck stops here.”

The city’s Planning Department plays a different but extremely important role. Part of its job is to oversee building permits and site-plan reviews. It gives final permission to build anything from small projects to massive developments. If the department performs efficiently, our community can thrive.

Unfortunately, the required timeliness and efficiency are not there! And, again, the culprit is culture. Some employees don’t seem to have noticed or remotely care. Like Dern’s incident, this is tragic for our community.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin convened a Business Friendly Fresno Task Force to streamline planning. As a member of the Fresno City Council, I sat on the task force. Setting up time-based targets for project delivery and the ability to measure “metrics” were the main focus. The recommendation to invest in technology was the task force’s biggest outcome.

Regrettably, addressing the underlying sub-par culture was not a focus in any real way. If anything, the feeling was that the culture would change of its own accord when employees “bought into” the new vibe. However, the business-strangling culture continues.

Today the widely held belief on the street is that the city of Fresno is not business-friendly and, indeed, is “worse than ever.” This reality could be fatal to our city. Unlike fighting fires, where victims have no options, there are always alternatives in development and building – like moving to Clovis, Madera or Visalia.

As I predicted during the General Plan debate, many opportunities for economic growth have already left Fresno.

Why should the average citizen care? Because a mix of development that includes shopping centers, industry and housing produces tax revenue for our city. Growth means more cops, parks and jobs for Fresno families. Without new job creation and increased wealth, we are dead on arrival.

Any private company in America would quickly deal with these cultural problems by firing the worst offenders. In government, these employees are protected through their unions and, in some cases, are coddled with the effervescent hopes they might change of their own accord. This is like hoping unicorns might be born to zebras at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

Adding to the obstacle of culture change is our recently adopted General Plan. Its layers of Development Code and citywide rezoning of property are creating serious confusion in the community and within the Planning Department itself.

Often people are told different things by different department members. It’s a severe problem that gives even veteran builders splitting headaches. A woman approached my office recently asking why two different zoning codes were ascribed to the same property. It took a week to get her a simple answer.

Other residents are waking up to find massive parcels in their neighborhoods rezoned for much denser apartment complexes. My guess is that until serious clarification comes, these disputes will continue to derail plans and progress.

The cultural crisis in the Planning Department puts all growth in the city in jeopardy. Fresno families will have fewer jobs and less wealth, and our community will suffer with fewer cops, parks and amenities. Entrepreneurs and middle-class families will look elsewhere. Blight will continue to consume our neighborhoods. It’s already happening.

Planning has had its Pete Dern moment. What will Mayor Lee Brand and city leadership do about it?

Small businessman Steve Brandau represents District 2 on the Fresno City Council. Follow him on Twitter, @stevebrandau