I thought I was in trouble. Big trouble.
I have been sarcastic all of my life and as you can tell, it reflects in my writing. After posting a couple of articles outright insulting Fresno City Hall, the Alt-Right, the Alt-Left (I was sternly told they prefer to be called “armed ski-masked misunderstood individuals for peace” on Twitter), and anyone who doesn’t enjoy classical music as much as I do, I was toast.
On Friday, a day after my last piece on CVObserver, I received a message on my phone. “Georgeanne White has sent you a message.”
The former Chief of Staff for Fresno Mayors Alan Autry and Ashley Swearengin, and current Assistant Director of Public Utilities, had it with my pompous cavalier attitude and it was time for the Godmother of the Mayoral office to give this upstart editor a dose of reality. She wanted to meet and I agreed.
As I walked into the undisclosed location, I fully expected my demise to mimic Joe Pesci’s character Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. We had agreed to meet in a city that is mostly unknown to most North Fresnans, it’s called Clovis. You may have heard of it. The streets do not have any potholes and their school district is mostly drama free.
White met me with a nice greeting and we exchanged professional pleasantries. I decided to get right to my privately sanctioned censuring.
“What’s going on?” I said, fully expecting a Supervisor Buddy Mendes-esque tirade in return.
“Well Jim, I’m leaving City Hall,” she said as if it was a relief.
I was shocked. One, I was going to be able to see my family again. Two, wait, Georgeanne White was leaving City Hall?
Yes indeed, Georgeanne White, the gate keeper of all things mayoral for nearly a generation is leaving Fresno City Hall on October 3rd, 2017. She informed her staff this morning and is preparing for her next endeavor, being a mom to her 13 year old daughters and spending more time with her husband.
I have to be honest, usually when someone as seasoned as Ms. White is says they are leaving to spend time with family, I don’t believe them. In this particular case, I absolutely do. She was beaming from ear to ear as if it was Christmas morning when she described how much she is looking forward to simply being a mom and wife.
Over the next couple of hours I took the opportunity to take a trip down memory lane with her. Charlie Rose would’ve been proud of me. We discussed how she started with former-turned-current councilman Garry Bredefeld in 1998. How she only expected to work a couple of years for him and had no idea that she was on the path to being the right hand woman for two distinctly different mayors in two distinctly different times.
MEET THE BAD GUY
She remembers both tenures fondly. Starting with everyone’s favorite populist and friend, former Mayor Alan Autry. White reflected on how Fresno needed a cheer leader at the time of Autry’s election and he was the right guy at the time. That the Mayor wanted everyone to know in Sacramento and in Washington D.C that Fresno was not only a great place, but needed their help.
White learned quickly though that just because everyone loved “Bubba”, didn’t mean everyone was going to show her the same affinity for being Autry’s Chief of Staff. Being the “bad guy” came with the territory.
When the Mayor didn’t return a phone call or message in a timely manner, White found out that the person who had been promised lunch with “My good buddy from Riverdale”, that the mayor would not be blamed. The Chief of Staff was the gate keeper, she was mean, and it was her fault. It took her a year or so, but she finally came to realize to get over it.
While she was Chief of Staff and Government Affairs in the Autry administration, there was one title she did not have: Budget Director. While the Mayor and City Manager were playing whack-a-mole with city finances, White informed me it wasn’t until the final year or so that the at the time Assistant City Manager, now retired City Manager Bruce Rudd started sounding the alarms of a municipal financial crisis heading Fresno’s way.
“I had zero idea what a ‘negative fund balance’ was in 2009.” Georgeanne stated, For readers who don’t remember the fun times of the Great Recession and the City of Fresno’s near-bankruptcy, a negative fund balance was a practice of borrowing from internal departments to balance the books after the city had overspent in the previous administrations. Fresno was hurtling toward a financial iceberg, and it was getting a new upstart mayor: Ashley Swearengin.
“I originally was not going to be Ashley’s Chief of Staff. I was hoping for a government affairs position,” White said.
She had been told she was going to be the interim Chief of Staff while the Mayor negotiated with another candidate. She agreed with this arrangement. While interim chief for the newly-formed Swearengin administration, she got to take a look at the financial issues that were pouring in from the City Manager’s office.
“I wanted to vomit” White stated.
She knew the City’s financials were worse than previously explained and it was going to take a miracle to keep Fresno out of bankruptcy. More importantly, the situation demanded someone who was willing to work around the clock with the Mayor and staff to find a financial solution.
At the culmination of this realization, negotiations with the unnamed chief of staff candidate broke off and permanent chief of staff status was offered to White.
White knew she had to go from being the “bad guy” from the Autry administration to the “bad guy who’s a control freak” in the Swearengin administration.
THE BAD GUY FACES THE BRINK
The failed initiative to franchise Fresno’s residential waste collection and award it to Mid Valley Disposal. Full disclosure, at the time, I was employed by a not to be named competitor of Mid Valley Disposal’s and was not a fan of the ballot initiative. White and I discussed and debated the initiative. I won’t bore you with the details, but we disagree on some items and agree on others in regards to the meat and potatoes of Measure G. One thing we both agreed on was on the statement “I had no idea the personal relationship residents have with their garbageman.”
I asked White about the statement from the Mayor’s office at the time in which Mayor Swearengin said “If Measure G fails, this city will have to declare bankruptcy.”
I asked her if this was the Mayor’s “Mission Accomplished” moment. That Fresno voted no to Measure G and yet did in fact not have to declare bankruptcy. White’s response was surprising.
“After Measure G failed, we were one pay period away from municipal bankruptcy,” White said.
Thanks to a post-Measure G bounce in municipal revenue, the Swearengin administration steered the City of Fresno back on to a track of fiscal stability and improving credit ratings.
STEPPING AWAY FROM THE BATTLEFIELD
White began talking about how much of a physical and mental toll the politics and recession took on not only herself, but on her family. As Fresno started to emerge from the brink of financial disaster, she finally became conscious of the fact that the Mayor was termed out, that she was not willing to stay on as chief for the next, at the time, yet-to-be elected mayor, and that she had no idea what her role in the next administration would be.
She also knew that Fresno’s water issues were something she wanted to tackle. Last summer, she accepted the position of Assistant Director of Public Utilities.
“Fresno is on the verge of greatness because of our water entitlements,” she said.
White believes more businesses and people will be moving to the Valley because this is where the water is.
Her tenure working with Fresno’s Director of Public Utilities Tommy Esqueda was an enjoyable respite from the day-to-day in the Mayor’s office. She didn’t hesitate to add that no one is more knowledgeable about the DPU’s issues than Esqueda.
White realized there was a call for her beyond the doors of City Hall. As friends of hers discussed the comings and goings of their children, she realized that she had missed much of her daughters adolescence. Her husband, who is an attorney and has recently started his own law office, also realized this.
“It became crystal clear to me that being Mom was job number 1,” White said. She added: “I love sports analogies and one of my favorites is ‘Don’t leave anything on the field.’”
White feels she has nothing left to prove and has given her all to the city of Fresno.
I asked her a few final questions:
What do you say to the people who don’t like you or how you acted while at the city?
“The people who don’t like me don’t like me because I did my job.”
What do you say to the people that accuse you and Mayor Swearengin of running a sorority house?
“I was never insulted by that accusation. Were the Mayor and I in a sorority? Yes. Were team building and stress reliving exercises ‘sorority house-esque?’ Yes. But guess what, many of the leadership qualities that you learn in college sororities make you a better organizer and a successful leader. I’m proud of the job we did bringing the city back.”
Who would you like to thank after 19 years of service?
“Garry Bredefeld for giving me my first job there. Mayor Autry, Mayor Swearengin, Roger Montero, Bruce Rudd, Kelly Furtado, Cheryl Burns, Tommy Esqueda.
Do you ever think you will return to municipal government?
“Never say never, but at this point I don’t think so. I’m going to take the rest of the year and evaluate what I would like to do around my daughters schedules.”
I had a chance to reach out to White’s former boss, Swearengin, about her former chief of staff.
“Georgeanne has been a positive force in the City of Fresno for nearly 20 years,” Swearengin said. “No one could ever really know the level of work she did day in and day out, round the clock for almost two decades on behalf of the residents of Fresno. She was tireless for this community and she will be missed!”
Final question, Georgeanne: have you ever thought about writing? It’s something you can do around family commitments.
“You know, that’s not a bad idea. Do you know of anyone that is hiring?”
I do, Georgeanne. I absolutely do.