The petition drive is over. The “Fresno for Parks” coalition got all the valid voter signatures it needed. It now looks like Fresno voters in November will decide if they want to spend more than $1 billion over the next 30 years on improving their parks system.
Former Mayor Ashley Swearengin and dozens of supporters gathered at Central Fresno’s Radio Park on Friday to celebrate what can only be described as one of the more remarkable exercises in direct democracy in this city’s 133-year history.
Fresno for Parks wants to boost the local sales tax by three-eighths of a cent for the next three decades. That would generate about $40 million a year for parks projects and arts programs. The coalition of community groups needed about 24,000 valid voter signatures to get the measure on the November 6 general election ballot.
Fresno for Parks turned in petitions totaling 35,000 signatures. The Fresno County Clerk’s Office did the validating. City Clerk Yvonne Spence’s office learned late last week that the petition drive cleared the 24,000-signature hurdle.
A mind-boggling amount of political action awaits Fresno’s 525,000 residents over the next three months. But the Fresno for Parks folks decided on Friday to take a couple of hours off, lay out some free grub and invite friends over for a bit of mutual backslapping and good-hearted speechifying.
The media were invited, as well (maybe the event wasn’t quite as innocent as I’ve suggested).
“We have a heavy-duty agenda,” Swearengin told the audience, “and our first agenda item is this: We are here to celebrate that 35,000 Fresnans said yes to the petition. They wrote their names down on a piece of paper and said, ‘Yes, we want the chance to support the Fresno for Parks and Arts ballot measure.’”
Swearengin is president/chief executive of the Central Valley Community Foundation, a key coalition member. She along with former Fresno County Supervisor/Assembly Member Juan Arambula and former Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell are the measure’s co-chairs.
The celebration featured brief remarks from various coalition officials. Their basic themes were familiar to anyone who watched the grass roots parks effort gather momentum over the past decade: We need more parks; we need better-maintained parks; the cost-benefit analysis supports such a policy.
Sher Moua, program manager for Boys and Men of Color, said the petition drive’s young volunteers were “working to create ‘One Healthy Fresno.’ And when we say ‘One Healthy Fresno,’ we mean creating a city where all children and families have the things they need to lead a healthy, safe and productive life. That includes parks. We know that parks are important, because we’ve heard it continuously from the community residents and our young people.”
Dr. Venice Curry, a long-time parks advocate, said, “Healthy parks have a tremendous power that we all benefit from. They help prevent heart disease and diabetes by providing children and families with safe places to play and to exercise.”
Assembly Member Joaquin Arambula said the uneven distribution of parks in Fresno leads to a harmful polarization of neighborhoods: “I hope that this measure ensures that all people have equal access to parks, even those of us who may come from the ‘wrong side of the tracks.’”
Swearengin concluded the celebration’s formal part with a review of the Central Valley Community Foundation’s thinking and a look at what’s next.
The foundation, Swearengin said, is “supporting this effort thanks to a family who left dollars (some) years ago in the name of their father, who came to Fresno in the late 1800s, over 130 years ago, and spent a lifetime here. He built his businesses and invested back in his community. His priorities were the arts and parks.
“So, when his descendants passed and left money in his name, they said, ‘Every year we want to make sure these dollars go to support the City parks system and arts organizations.’ So, with that legacy and those dollars we stand here today and say, ‘We’re doing exactly what our donor, may he rest in peace, we’re doing exactly what we envision that he would want to see for our community.’”
Swearengin said the foundation’s focus is on the next generation.
“We’re all about leaving behind things that will benefit people that we will never know,” Swearengin said. “But we’re thinking about it today. And our city parks system is clearly in need of investment. Now, speaking as the former mayor Fresno, I can tell you this. I faced a lot of hard decisions in my time in office, decisions where my choices were ‘really, really bad and horrible – now, you pick.’ Those were tough times, and a lot of tough choices had to be made, and I’m thankful that we made our way through.
“But I’ll tell you right now, this is among the easiest decisions that I’ve ever had to consider. As a former mayor, I can tell you this is a clear choice. This is a measure that is well crafted. It’s based on three years of community input. It’s precise, it’s specific. Taxpayers want to know: ‘If we’re going to spend more money, you tell us exactly what we’re going to get for it.’ You read 20 pages of fine detail (the measure itself) on how these dollars will be spent and you will have the confidence of knowing these dollars can’t be spent for something else.
“They will go to the priorities of our voters, and they told us loudly and clearly they want to see their parks improved, our existing parks maintained. They want to see new parks added. They want trails to connect those parks. They want access to arts. You know, not every kid is going to engage around a soccer ball or some other round bouncy object. Some kids want to pick up a paintbrush. Some kids want to dance. Some kids want to write. So, of course, we added the arts to make sure our kids have access to things that are preventative and will help determine a positive future for them.
“This is a clear choice, and I urge the voters of Fresno to get involved, to support this measure and to vote for it in November of 2018.”
The only missing piece to Friday’s Fresno for Parks celebration was City Hall. I saw no one from the Parks Department. That’s sort of like having a wedding without a bride or a funeral without a corpse.
If you’re thinking this sounds like we’re headed for more stress in the near future, you’re probably thinking right.
I spoke with City Hall Communications Director Mark Standriff on Friday. He said Mayor Lee Brand’s No. 1 priority remains public safety. Standriff said the Mayor would not support the Fresno for Parks measure as currently written. Standriff said the Mayor is crafting his own plan for dealing with Fresno’s public safety and parks challenges.
Standriff said the public will soon know where the Mayor is headed.
Swearengin on Friday acknowledged that much remains to be done before the Fresno for Parks measure goes to voters (it’ll needed two-thirds approval). She said the next “procedural step” is a City Council vote on Aug. 9. She said the question before the council will be: “Should we review this matter further and then put it on the ballot? Or should we go ahead and refer it to the ballot now?”
It’s my understanding that there’s an Aug. 10 state deadline to get all procedural steps out of the way. If so, that suggests the Aug. 9 council meeting could be a political barnburner.
Swearengin, the veteran pol, knows how the game is played. She told the audience to reserve Aug. 9 for a trip to the Council Chamber.
Said Swearengin: “We’re going to need to show up with a lot of happy and excited Grandmas and Grandpas and kids and artists.”