Barbara Ann Hunt died on July 27 at the age of 71. Every veteran Fresno City Hall reporter came to know Barbara. Permit me to share a few thoughts about her.
First, check out the excellent Aug. 2 obituary written by Fresno Bee City Hall reporter Brianna Calix.
Calix wrote in her lede: “Stories in The Bee’s archives described Barbara Hunt as ‘ranter-in-residence’ and ‘gadfly’ at Fresno City Hall.
“In a 2008 story about her write-in bid to be Fresno’s mayor, Hunt told The Bee the race was personal to her. ‘I watched Fresno grow,’ she said.
“Indeed, she did.”
Like the rest of us, Barbara loved attention. She would have loved Calix’s frank and insightful review of her life.
That’s because Barbara in her heart of hearts didn’t see herself primarily as a commentator on Fresno’s municipal affairs, someone with the gumption and spare time to head down to City Hall just about every week and speak into the Council Chamber’s public microphone on key issues of the moment. She saw herself as someone more vital to Fresno’s future than that. She saw herself as a politician.
I know that’s an unusual choice of words to describe Barbara. So much of her commentary to the City Council consisted of a verbal roasting of the assembled council members and, on occasion, the mayor. Someone seeing Barbara in action for the first time might have thought she despised elected officials.
But Barbara knew that American democracy is about the transfer of the people’s sovereign power to elected representatives. It’s these politicians who have the opportunity to do great things. Barbara didn’t want to opine on great things. She wanted to do great things. She had the will to power.
“Ranter in residence” and her name spelled correctly, all in the first paragraph – the politician in Barbara would have viewed that as campaign gold.
But, except for a stint on the West Fresno school board, I don’t know that Barbara had much electioneering luck (and some would say election to that body back in the day was anything but a blessing). She certainly tried. As a City Hall reporter for The Bee, it seemed that I was interviewing Barbara every two years as she ran for either mayor or the District 3 council seat. She never won.
So, much of Barbara’s desire to be a player in municipal affairs was inevitably confined to the public comment portions of City Council meetings. That’s how the “ranter in residence” nickname came to be. She would become passionate about an issue. Her voice would rise. Clarity in her message would fade.
That was unfortunate because when it came to city government, Barbara knew her stuff. Sure, she liked to grandstand. There were long council meetings where Barbara and I would be the only audience members to stick it out from start to finish. She liked to comment on just about every agenda item, even those pulled from the consent calendar. Public Works is tweaking speed limits on selected streets? Barbara had an opinion. Finance can get a better interest rate on deposited funds? Barbara had an opinion. Public Utilities wants to reject all bids on a water well project? Barbara had an opinion.
But one topic invigorated and frustrated Barbara above all others – the Redevelopment Agency. The RDA is gone now, killed by Gov. Brown during the Great Recession. In its heyday, though, the RDA was a powerful tool in the attempt to transform the economic prospects of Fresno’s most challenged neighborhoods. RDA decisions influenced a lot of money for capital projects. That meant the RDA could influence, for good or bad, the unique and fragile societies that individual neighborhoods represent. Barbara listened to all the RDA promises over the decades. She was most unhappy if those promises weren’t kept. Barbara knew that money and public decision-making are a potentially toxic mix. She tried mightily to connect the dots, but not being an insider she could only speculate.
Hence her tendency to rant. I sympathized with her quest.
Council President Esmeralda Soria, her council colleagues and Mayor Lee Brand declared Aug. 9 to be Barbara Ann Hunt Day. Soria’s official document of recognition described Barbara as “an example of what makes Fresno a great city by exemplifying leadership and altruistic values that embody the Fresno Community.”
Barbara almost always sat in the Council Chamber’s front row, next to the center aisle. City officials have affixed a small plaque in Barbara’s memory to the chair. The plaque, in the words of Soria’s document of recognition, “will now be a historical piece at City Hall commemorating her life and legacy.”
Kudos to Brianna Calix and city officials. Rest in peace, Barbara.