My old friend Bob Farrar and his colleagues on the Fresno Housing and Community Development Commission helped me relearn an important lesson.
There’s a big difference between holding our government accountable and holding our government in contempt.
The former – good. The latter – bad.
The commission (an advisory group of volunteers) on Wednesday unanimously recommended that City Hall reprogram the spending of about $1 million from federal grants.
The City Council will have the final say, but there’s little reason to think the lawmakers will buck the Housing Division’s proposal.
To be precise, we’re talking about $1,054,879 in federal Community Development Block Grant money.
The initials “CDBG” roll effortlessly off the tongues of city leaders and veteran City Hall reporters. This money is designed to aid low-income neighborhoods. For reasons too numerous to tackle here, Fresno City Hall often turns the spending of CDBG money into entertaining misadventure.
I visited the City Clerk’s Office several weeks ago and came across a document placed on the counter for public consumption: “Annual Action Plan – Substantial Amendment – No. 2017-02.”
The document came from the city’s Housing Division, which is part of the Development and Resource Management Department (what used to be the Planning Department).
The proposed deal was this:
The city in the 2016-17 fiscal year (which ends June 30) had already set aside $1,054,879 in CDBG money for four specific areas. There was $329,000 for the Highway City Community Center; $220,000 for Lead Paint Administration; $263,000 for Public Facilities; $242,879 for 2015 NRT (Neighborhood Revitalization Team) Administration.
That money is unspent.
City officials decided the $1,054,879 would be better allocated this way: $210,000 for Housing Rehabilitation Administration; $263,000 for the Lead Abatement Program; $524,775 for HUD Section 108 Loan repayments; $57,104 for Senior Hot Meals.
The city had to give the public a full month to formally weigh in on this proposed change, hence the presence of the document in the City Clerk’s Office. The period for written public input ended June 12. As it turned out, City Hall received no written responses.
I’m always on the prowl for stories. It was the Highway City Community Center money that caught my attention.
Highway City, as you may know, is a neighborhood in the area of Highway 99 and West Shaw Avenue. Forestiere Underground Gardens is on the east edge of Highway City.
Highway City is a low-income area. It’s also home to a Parks Department community center that features a top-notch science center.
District 2 Council Member Steve Brandau represents Highway City on the north side of Shaw. District 1 Council Member Esmeralda Soria represents Highway City on the south side of Shaw.
I thought to myself as I read the CDBG document: “A third of a million dollars yanked from the Highway City Community Center; some two years ago, city officials couldn’t say enough good things about that community center; Brandau and Soria must be livid.”
The frustrating thing was the CDBG document. It provided context as to what the reprogrammed money would do. But it provided no context as to what the money was originally supposed to do.
How could the public provide written comment about the proposed amended spending plan if it didn’t know both the before and the after?
I needed to know more about the Highway City Community Center money.
I started making phone calls and asking questions at City Hall. Soria’s office never got back to me. The Brand Administration’s communications office simply ignored my requests to speak with City Manager Bruce Rudd. Brandau sent me a text that confused me; in essence, he said the community center in question isn’t in his district.
That’s odd, I thought. I know the Parks Department’s Highway City Community Center is in District 2.
Along came Wednesday, June 14, 2017. The Housing and Community Development Commission met at 5 p.m. to hold a public hearing on the proposed reprogramming of $1,054,879 in CDBG funds.
To make a long story short, most of the meeting went off without a hitch. Commission Chairwoman Barbara Fiske runs a tight but responsive show. DARM Director Jennifer Clark, Assistant DARM Director Kelli Furtado and Housing Manager Tom Morgan tackled complex issues with precision and conciseness.
As to the Highway City Community Center issue, it turns out the $329,000 was earmarked for a different center with no connection to the Parks Department. The group in charge of this center decided it couldn’t effectively use the money. City Hall, of course, had to reprogram the dough.
It’s here that I circle back to my opening theme: Citizens holding the people’s government accountable vs. citizens undermining the people’s government with their wrath.
As noted earlier, Wednesday’s meeting was a public hearing. Three people from the audience made formal comments.
I was the third person to speak. The first two, both women, spoke briefly. They said the process for reprogramming the CDBG money was confusing. That’s pretty much what I said, referring several times to the document I’d picked up in the City Clerk’s Office.
Fiske made sure that staff addressed our concerns.
Wednesday’s meeting was just about over. Fiske asked if anyone in the audience wanted to speak during the unscheduled oral communication period.
One of the women who had spoken earlier went to the public microphone. This woman ripped the commission in a most un-American manner. She said the commissioners were unresponsive to the interests of certain Fresno neighborhoods. She was abusive in her choice of words. She may have had a legitimate point; if so, it was lost due to her bad manners.
Fiske took exception to the abuse, but did so with admirable restraint. The five commissioners in attendance were Fiske, Farrar, Vice Chairman Brad Hardie, Marina Harutyunyan and Debra McKenzie. Fresno is fortunate to have a Housing and Community Development Commission with such dedicated and professional volunteers.
I left City Hall at about 6:15 p.m. and began my two-hour walk to my home in North Fresno. The meeting, especially the way it ended, was much on my mind. Is there something about Fresno or modern-day America that makes certain citizens think our government is an us-vs.-them proposition? As a reporter with long experience, I know government is prone to hide things. I know people in government sometimes do unwise or even bad things. I have often had to push government to be more transparent. On rare occasions, I’ve had government officials try to ruin my career because they didn’t like my pushing. I sense that is occurring as we speak in certain parts of City Hall.
But I’ve always operated with a basic belief in the integrity of government and the people who run it. I don’t see how Fresno – and America – can survive if the vast majority of us don’t believe that way. Otherwise, social order collapses.
My walk took me north on Blackstone Avenue. I was on the east side of Blackstone until I got to Dakota Avenue, just past Manchester Center.
It was here that I decided to cross Blackstone and head west on Dakota to Del Mar Avenue. Bear with me as I go into a bit of geographical detail; it’s important for the point I’m making.
I was on the northeast corner of Dakota and Blackstone. The traffic signal turned green for westbound traffic on Dakota. I began my trek across Blackstone.
At first my attention was focused on the traffic behind me. I didn’t want to get hit by a motorist turning from Dakota onto northbound Blackstone. When I got to Blackstone’s median island, I looked toward my destination – the sidewalk at the northwest corner of Dakota and Blackstone.
A guy was standing on that corner. He looked about 20 years old. He was looking directly at me. He was giving me the middle finger of his left hand. He was shouting something at me – something about “mother-f—er took my car.” He had his cell phone in his right hand. He was recording the entire scene of flipping me off while I crossed toward him.
He was full of fury.
But as I got closer, I realized I was wrong about one detail. The guy wasn’t giving me the finger. He wasn’t worried about taking a video of me suffering his abusive behavior. His rage was directed at a Fresno police officer sitting in a patrol car in the southbound lane of Blackstone.
The officer had a red light. He couldn’t move. There were cars on both sides of the patrol car. There were cars behind the patrol car.
The police officer no doubt saw what this guy was doing. The drivers and passengers in the other cars no doubt saw this guy. This guy no doubt knew he was making a very public spectacle of taunting a brave and dedicated police officer.
The punk wanted to create an incident, then claim to be a victim. The punk wanted to humiliate an officer who took an oath to protect the public. The punk wanted to harm the social fabric of Fresno.
The traffic signal for southbound cars turned green, and the police officer drove on. I continued on my way to Del Mar, and then to home.
I am sickened by what I heard from a fellow citizen at the end of Wednesday’s Housing and Community Development Commission meeting. I am sickened by what I saw and heard on the northwest corner of Dakota and Blackstone avenues on Wednesday evening.
Is civility dead in some parts of Fresno?