This is the second installment of a four-part series on Mayor Lee Brand’s first year in office, entitled Year One. Read the first installment here.
Four accomplishments stand out as essential in judging Lee Brand’s first year as mayor of Fresno:
· The Rental Housing Improvement Act.
· The Citizens Public Safety Advisory Board.
· Upgrades in the city’s credit ratings.
· The Ulta Beauty and Amazon distribution centers.
The first two kept promises made on the 2016 campaign trail. The third reflects the city’s continued fiscal sobriety. The fourth is indicative of Fresno’s economic potential.
The Big Four show how Brand’s individual actions are designed to advance his grand strategy of putting Fresno to work.
The thinking goes something like this: Renters, many of them among Fresno’s most needy residents, must be assured of quality housing if they are to fulfill their destiny. The social order collapses if Fresnans aren’t safe and lack confidence in the men and women sworn to protect them. Sound credit on Wall Street is pivotal to maximizing the formidable resources found in the city’s billion-dollar-a-year budget. Fresno won’t break out of its cycles of generational poverty until it becomes a player in the 21st century’s diversified global economy.
Let’s first tackle the Rental Housing Act and the Public Safety Board, even though that’ll take us out of chronological order. The two have a common theme – government’s legitimate use of force, and the effort by Brand to soften and democratize this coercion.
The City Council approved the Rental Housing Act in February 2017 on a 4-3 vote (Steve Brandau, Garry Bredefeld and Clint Olivier voted no). The act was the latest round in a seemingly never-ending fight over the scale and scope of neighborhood code enforcement.
In a nutshell, the act requires that all residential rental units be registered with the city. All residential rental properties will be subject to inspections. A random sampling formula will determine which properties go under the microscope. Another formula determines how often the properties are subject to city inspection. Uncooperative owners of slum rentals will face immediate and costly consequences from a beefed-up and energized code enforcement division.
Property owners viewed the Rental Housing Act with a jaundiced eye. Community activists wanted something even more severe. Brand tried to split the baby.
Actual implementation of the act, Brand told me in a recent interview, “will be launched early next year. I won’t go into the details now, but you’ll be surprised with what we’ve come up with. In terms of how we’ll implement the act, it’s better than I thought it would be.”
Brand in March asked the City Council to bless his idea for a Public Safety Board. The request was a formality – Brand as mayor has the authority to create and staff all the advisory boards he wants. Still, Brand came away with what he sought (Brandau and Bredefeld voted no).
Then, in August, Brand announced the names of the board’s nine members. Debbie Hunsaker, a business owner, is board president. The board has already started meeting (the meetings aren’t open to the public).
The board’s name says it all: Nine citizens from varied backgrounds gather periodically (with appropriate city staff) to review in private the most controversial incidents involving Fresno police officers, then draw conclusions and deliver their policy advice to the Brand Administration.
But Brand at the August news conference added what could be the key to making the Public Safety Board work as intended. The Mayor announced that John Gliatta, a 27-year FBI veteran, would be Fresno’s new police auditor.
There are a lot of moving pieces here, all of them highly politicized. It’s sufficient to suggest that Gliatta’s interaction with the public, the Public Safety Board, Chief Jerry Dyer, the Fresno Police Officers Association, the City Council and the Brand Administration will go a long way toward making or breaking the Mayor’s dream.
Brand told me that he is proud the FPOA board supported the advisory panel.
“I think that’s a reflection of working with me, having new leadership there and basically having trust,” Brand said. “Essentially, the closing argument was: ‘I believe in you. I want you to believe in me and take a leap of faith.’ And they did.”
Brand referred to a recent officer-involved shooting to describe how Gliatta and the Public Safety Board could work as a team. Brand noted that Gliatta’s predecessor was a part-timer who lived in Utah.
“This (police auditor) model is a full-time monitor,” Brand said. “They have to live in the city of Fresno, and part of their duty is community outreach – get to know the community you live in.
“Within an hour of that shooting, John Gliatta, the police auditor, was at that scene, taking a look with independent eyes and ears on what just transpired. He will relay that back to this advisory board of citizens who will do a full independent review of what just happened. They will come up, probably in February, with their first public report on findings and recommendations – not on that (incident) specifically, that will probably take longer. But what I’m saying illustrates the difference between what we had and what we have right now.
“My goal is building a bridge of trust between the Police Department and our citizens. I think as time goes by this will be seen as a good move that brings the community closer together. Because, let’s face it, we’re in trying times.”
Let’s circle back to March 2017 and bring Ashley Swearengin, Brand’s predecessor, into the picture. Swearengin took office in 2009 just as the Great Recession hit Fresno with full force. Brand as the District 6 council member did much to right City Hall’s financial ship with his reform-based legislation. Swearengin, though, deserves most of the credit. She made the tough decisions.
Still, Wall Street’s credit-rating agencies were slow to show their love for Fresno’s discipline. Credit upgrades dribbled in. Then, on March 20, 2017, Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings raised Fresno’s issuer credit rating from BBB- to A+.
That’s a five-level increase. City Hall’s communications shop wasted no time getting the word out. This and other credit upgrades led to a refinancing of many bond deals (without extending their maturity dates) and a huge savings to the general fund over the next two decades.
“Go back to 2012,” Brand told me. We were at “junk-bond status. Time Magazine – Fresno is the next city (to go bankrupt). Well, that didn’t happen. We survived. We survived and thrived. We paid off $36 million in internal loans. We now have a $24 million reserve. We’ve done other things to improve our finances. We went from junk bond status to A-plus status. We refinanced $100 million-plus worth of bonds, subject to the act that I wrote which means you don’t extend the maturity date. That saves the city something like $40 million over 20 years. That’s the advantage of having a well-managed city.”
Last, but not least, we come to the new Ulta and Amazon distribution centers, located in a thousand-acre spot called the “reverse triangle” (due to the confluence of highways) on the south side of town.
Anyone who recalls the superb work of my old friend at The Bee, business reporter Sandy Nax, knows the narrative: Fresno is located on a major highway; a short hop to the north are the 10 million people of the Bay Area; a slightly longer hop to the south are the 20 million people of Southern California; Fresno has lots of developable land; there’s no place better than Fresno for Big Business’s distribution centers.
The rapidly growing world of e-commerce is turning the pitch into reality. It’s fair to say the Ulta and Amazon deals were in the mix before Brand took office. But the official announcements came in March (Ulta) and June (Amazon).
“They’re both going great guns on their construction,” Brand told me. The two centers when up and running represent “3,000 jobs, with the (Administration’s) goal of creating 10,000 jobs and a vision of transforming the city from the old narrative of generational poverty and high unemployment, high crime, high school-dropout rate. I want to change that narrative forever. And I think one way of doing that is to give people the opportunity to have jobs and a decent standard of living.”