Fresno City Hall is looking for a few good citizens who love controversy, have lots of spare time and are indifferent to money.
Mayor Lee Brand in mid-May began taking applications for his Citizens’ Public Safety Advisory Board.
The volunteer board’s job is to dig into police issues and make recommendations to Brand and the city manager. But Fresno in its 132-year history has never had anything like this. The board’s interests over the years almost certainly will move in directions no one can predict.
The board will have nine members. All will be appointed by Brand.
I stopped by City Hall on Tuesday to ask Communications Director Mark Standriff about the application process.
Standriff said some people have applied. He said he didn’t know how many. He said City Hall is expanding its outreach to potential applicants via social media.
Standriff also said the Administration would love to see more applicants from activist groups that have long lobbied for such a board.
Standriff didn’t elaborate on that last comment. But I couldn’t help thinking: Are local social justice organizations expressing their profound displeasure with the board’s restrained mission by boycotting the application process?
There’s good reason for such a question.
For starters, activist groups for many years have wanted some type of citizen oversight of the Police Department. Their goal, however, has been a review board with broad authority to investigate, not an advisory board.
Then there’s the structure of Brand’s board. Brand in mid-March asked the City Council to endorse his vision. But, the Mayor also made it clear that the council would have no role in any aspect of the board other than to occasionally be on the receiving end of reports.
Several high-profile activists at that council meeting voiced strong reservations with the board’s blueprint. They didn’t like that the board answered only to the Mayor. They didn’t like that the meetings would be closed to the public. They worried that the board would be pressured to be a rubber stamp for the Administration’s agenda.
Perhaps, I thought on Tuesday after my chat with Standriff, local activists have decided they don’t want to be associated with such a truncated effort at democracy in action.
Turns out I thought wrong, at least to a degree.
I left City Hall and walked to the headquarters of Faith in Fresno, on Fulton Street near Belmont Avenue. Chapter Director Andy Levine was in a meeting, but Lead Organizer Thomas Weiler generously gave me 15 minutes from his busy schedule.
Weiler said he knew of several people with ties to Faith in Fresno who had applied to be a board member. If there was a boycott of the application process among other activist groups, Weiler said, he hadn’t heard of it.
Then Weiler said something that got me to thinking again. He said Levine and the staff at Faith in Fresno very much want a citizens’ public safety board that is transparent. He said transparency is vital to building trust between neighborhoods and the police.
Transparency, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But Brand’s board is not subject to the state Open Meeting Law (it would have been if the city council had insisted on appointing some of the members). It’s not a stretch to suggest that Brand’s board will be less than transparent in the conventional use of the term.
I left Faith in Fresno’s office thinking:
- Brand will have to appoint at least one or two people from the activist community if his board is to have any credibility south of Shaw Avenue.
- Several council members at the mid-March meeting tried to soothe the activists’ frustration by predicting that time and events would move the board’s operations in a direction more to the activists’ liking.
- In a city as big and violent as Fresno, the police are always going to be at the center of controversial events.
- The first activists appointed to Brand’s board will be under considerable pressure from some quarters to conform to the Mayor’s wishes.
- Those trailblazing activists also will be under considerable pressure from other quarters to begin shaping the board in a manner more satisfying to their social justice colleagues.
- The board member application states: “Members serve at the pleasure of the Mayor and may be removed at any time for any reason.” In other words, fired.
- The application also states: “Any Board member may resign at any time by giving written notice to the Chairperson.” That obviously includes a whistleblower’s dramatic and very public resignation in protest.
The Mayor’s public safety advisory board is a powder keg.