Lee Brand finds himself painted into a corner.
The question from political junkies: Who did that to Fresno’s mayor?
But the question from Fresno’s half-million residents is more basic and more important: Does Brand have the leadership skills to extricate himself and, at the same time, make the city a better place?
The fundamental issue, of course, is money.
In a nutshell, Fresnans are looking at two proposed measures to raise the local sales tax and use the proceeds to fund certain city services. Each measure needs two-thirds approval by the general electorate. Supporters of each measure are shooting for the November 6 general election.
The first measure is being pitched by an alliance of community groups and local activists. Among the better known names in this alliance are former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Assembly Member Joaquin Arambula and former Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell.
Their idea is to boost the sales tax in Fresno by three-eighths of a cent. This would raise an estimated $37.5 million annually. The time frame is 30 years. The money would go toward parks (the spending blueprint being the city’s relatively new Parks Master Plan) and programming within the parks.
The alliance – Fresno For Parks – is calling its idea the “Fresno Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Initiative.” Professional and volunteer signature-gatherers are currently trying to get the estimated 24,000 valid voter signatures necessary to put the measure on the November ballot.
Keep in mind that when it comes to City Hall politics and big-ticket policies, there aren’t many secrets. Gossip gets around real quick. That’s my prelude to noting that Fresno For Parks has been laying the groundwork for its initiative for a long time.
The second measure was formally introduced by the Mayor at a news conference on Monday. This one, according to a staff report, is called the “Parks and Public Safety Transaction and Use Tax.”
Brand’s proposal would boost the sales tax by a half-cent, generating an estimated $50 million a year for 15 years. Half would go to fire/police, half to parks.
Brand wants the City Council on Thursday to OK putting his measure on the November ballot. The Mayor needs five votes.
Again, it’s no secret that Brand for some time has been mulling over the wisdom of a public safety sales tax as a way to accelerate the keeping of his campaign promise to dramatically improve public safety infrastructure (not to mention getting the roster of sworn police officers up to the 1,000 mark).
I made some phone calls to certain council members on Monday. So did Fresno Bee City Hall reporter Brianna Calix. The result of this reporting (Calix did a superb job): Brand appears to have almost no chance of getting a four-vote majority on Thursday, let alone the needed super majority.
Steve Brandau said he is a no vote. Garry Bredefeld initially said he’d check with his constituents, then announced on Tuesday that he’s definitely against higher taxes. I’m told Clint Olivier is also a no vote.
Esmeralda Soria and Oliver Baines told Calix that the Mayor’s measure as currently worded isn’t to their liking.
In the nearly 22-year history of Fresno’s strong mayor form of government, I doubt that we’ve ever had a chief executive hold a much ballyhooed news conference to personally trumpet a major policy initiative, only to learn less than 24 hours later that his initiative is likely headed (best case scenario) for a 5-2 rejection by the City Council.
Brand by my calculations has a kitchen cabinet (including the city manager) funded with salary and benefits to the tune of $1 million a year, all of it designed to give him astute political as well as policy advice. Yet, no one in the Administration appears to know how to count noses, or that the concept of gauging legislative support before going out on a political limb is one of the game’s basic rules.
Of course, I’m assuming that short-term martyrdom isn’t part of Brand’s long-term plan.
On top of that, Fresno’s taxpayers would most likely appreciate all these policy experts getting together and producing a reconciliation of the two sales tax measures so that, come Nov. 6, they have a clear and concise idea of what they’re voting on. Two sales tax measures is one too many.
The mess Brand finds himself in has many facets. Take, for example, the notion of timing.
It appears that the measure pitched by Brand on Monday is dead on arrival in the Council Chamber. I’m guessing Brandau and Olivier are dead set against a higher sales tax, no matter how the measure is worded. And I’m guessing Soria and Baines won’t bite unless Brand’s measure gives Parks pretty much what the Fresno For Parks measure would generate.
That would mean Brand’s measure is stuck between a rock and a hard place, with time running out.
Fresno For Parks, on the other hand, is moving full speed ahead on gathering signatures. Team members tell me they’re confident they’ll get enough valid signatures to Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth in time to get their measure on the November ballot. They also tell me that their own polling indicates strong voter support for their measure.
The enabling documents for the Fresno For Parks measure are long and complex. They would forever change the way the Parks Department is run in Fresno. One might think Brand would not want to be on the sidelines should the Fresno For Parks measure become law in November. If he did stay on the sidelines and Fresno For Parks were successful, Brand on this issue would likely be remembered by voters as merely the confused mayor who got his head handed to him by the council way back on June 28.
There’s certainly good reason for Brand to reach a compromise with Fresno For Parks. Permit me an educated guess:
Fresno For Parks in any negotiations could be seen as having a strong hand. It can go the signature route to get on the ballot and ignore the council. Brand can’t ignore the council and still get his measure on the ballot, yet apparently isn’t close to having the necessary five votes. Fresno For Parks wants more than the $25 million earmarked annually for parks in the Brand proposal. Fresno For Parks also wants a powerful citizens advisory parks commission to be at the heart of a reformed Parks Department. Fresno For Parks just might be satisfied with a half-cent sales tax measure for both parks and public safety, with a 60-40 annual split ($30 million for Parks, $20 million for public safety). And in return for taking $7.5 million annually from Parks (based on Fresno For Parks’ current proposal) and giving the money to Public Safety, Fresno For Parks just might want an ad hoc citizens advisory committee to help implement and oversee the Community-Based Policing program that the Mayor himself is so keen on.
Thus, Parks is transformed, albeit a bit more slowly than under Fresno For Parks’ current proposal. Public Safety gets an extra $20 million a year, money it’s not likely to see under Brand’s current proposal.
If my guess is right, Brand by embracing such a scenario would turn himself into one of the initiative’s leaders, not a wallflower. As he said on Monday, both Parks and Public Safety desperately need additional millions every year to make Fresno great.
Brand no doubt would play a key role in getting the necessary five council votes to put the measure on the November ballot. He also would play a key public relations role in what figures to be an exciting fall campaign.
All of this collaborative groundwork could have been done long before Monday’s news conference. Instead, Brand, either of his own volition or based on advice from his Kitchen Cabinet, decided late in the game to blaze his own trail. He has ended up isolated (at least temporarily).
Meanwhile, Parks and Public Safety continue to cry out for more money.
I was able on Tuesday to chat briefly with former County Schools Superintendent Powell, chief spokesman for Fresno For Parks. Powell is convinced City Hall and Fresno For Parks will find common ground sooner rather than later.
“The heart and soul of this whole thing is that we want to find a way to make things better for the citizens of Fresno,” Powell said. “I’m 70 years old, and I’m not doing this because I’m going to see the personal benefits of it. I’m involved in this because I see what can happen for my grandkids and their grandkids and on down the line because this is a 30-year measure. I think if the Mayor and the broad-based citizen group that is bringing forward this proposal for parks work together, we all win. If we end up working together on a public safety proposal as well, that’s an even bigger win.
“I like to equate it to a family that is having a discussion about how to divide up the chicken at the family dinner. Somebody wants the leg. Somebody wants the breast. We’re trying to figure out how to divide this up so everybody still gets to eat, but at the end of the day it was a fun family dinner. That’s where we’re at. We’re not poking anybody in the eye. They’re not poking us in the eye. We’re saying eventually we’re going to end up where we need to be – and the citizens of Fresno win.”