A grumpy politician recently struck a blow for governmental transparency.
Garry Bredefeld – take a much-deserved bow as we come to the end of Sunshine Week.
Bredefeld, of course, is the Fresno City Council member representing District 6. He was on the council dais on March 8 when Council President Esmeralda Soria opened up the “council member comments” portion of the meeting.
Bredefeld got his turn. His first words were a question to City Attorney Doug Sloan.
First, though, here’s some quick context.
The council in 2014 passed the Asset Management Act, authored by then-Council Member Lee Brand (now the mayor). City Hall owns lots of property. The act authorized the Ashley Swearengin administration to get professional management/strategic planning for these properties.
The council later approved a deal with a partnership consisting of two real estate firms. One of the firms is Cushman & Wakefield/Pacific Commercial Reality Associates. The general fund shells out no money to the partnership; compensation is based on sales and lease payments.
Time moved on. Pretty soon, the City Hall-Cushman & Wakefield contract needed an amendment. That amendment was approved by the council on March 1, 2018. Bredefeld made the motion.
Then came the March 8 council meeting and Bredefeld’s question to Sloan.
“Doug,” Bredefeld said, “if a council member or the council requests a city document, any city document, don’t they have the authority, the responsibility, the right to review any city document? Except, obviously, if it’s a legal issue.”
Sloan: “Yes. The council is essentially the board of directors of the city – it is in charge of the city. The council would certainly be entitled to see any document that would be subject to a PRA (state Public Records Act) request – a public document. In addition to that, the council would be entitled to see anything that’s not legally protected – certain personnel records, attorney-client privilege where the privilege doesn’t necessarily apply to them (council members) in that instance. That type of thing.”
Bredefeld: “So, when I request a document or a council member requests a document, does it have to be reviewed by the administration before I get that document? Does it have to be reviewed for content, fact, grammar, anything related to my desire to get that document?”
Sloan: “Well, if it’s a document the council is entitled to see, that would be without qualification.”
Bredefeld: “Without qualification. OK.”
Bredefeld then turned to City Manager Wilma Quan-Schecter. The issue he raised involved a report and accompanying documents provided to the council in December 2015 and generated by the partnership overseeing the city’s real estate assets.
You no doubt can tell where Bredefeld was headed – he had asked the Brand Administration for documents connected to the December 2015 presentation, but alleges that he didn’t get all he had asked for and deserved.
Bredefeld: “Then I’d like to know from you, City Manager, what is your policy when I or other council members request documents regarding any issue in the city?”
Quan-Schecter: “Council Member, if the document exists, we get it to you right away. I assume you’re speaking about the real estate ….”
Quan-Schecter: “So, we provided to you last week the Real Estate Strategy Report that was presented to council in December of 2015 along with the list of properties associated with that document and how that document was formed. I’ve offered to meet with you on that. But we are working from that document with Cushman & Wakefield on our real estate asset strategy, and I’m happy to meet with you. I’m not sure exactly what you’re looking for. So, if I have it I will provide it to you.”
Bredefeld and Quan-Schecter then got into a brief dispute over whether all pertinent documents had been given to the council member.
Quan-Schecter: “Can we meet after the council meeting and you and I can sit down and go over exactly what it is that you’re requesting?”
Bredefeld: “I think I’ve been very clear what I’ve been requesting.”
Quan-Schecter: “I think it would be helpful if you and I had a few minutes to talk.”
Bredefeld: “That’s fine. But it is my expectation that when I request things I don’t need it screened by the city administration to get it. As the City Attorney says, we have every right – this is the elected body that represents the city. Every document should be able to come to the City Council without the city manager, the mayor or anyone else screening it for us.”
Quan-Schecter: “There is nothing that has been screened. You have been given everything that I have.”
Bredefeld: “No, I wasn’t.”
Quan-Schecter eventually got in the last word: “I think there’s just a miscommunication.”
What we’ve got here is the age-old fight between the legislative and executive branches. On top of that, Bredefeld and Brand (who also represented District 6) aren’t the best of buddies.
Who to believe, Bredefeld or Quan-Schecter?
I love Quan-Schecter’s statement: “You have been given everything that I have.” There’s a lot of wiggle room in that comment.
I also love Quan-Schecter’s request that she and Bredefeld go behind closed doors and discuss outside the public’s view whether one taxpayer-paid worker did something wrong to another taxpayer-paid worker.
Both of these tactics – 1.) Yeah, the public document you want might exist, but if it does it’s sitting on someone else’s desk so I don’t actually “have” it to give to you; and 2.) Let’s not air our dirty linen in public – are old hat among mayors and city managers at Fresno City Hall. This makes me think Bredefeld might have a legitimate beef.
Lee Brand talked the talk about transparency during his 2016 mayoral campaign against Henry R. Perea. Brand doesn’t walk the walk. That’s the difference between seeking power and acquiring power.
Here’s a personal example.
I learned at the end of 2017 that the Brand Administration had hired someone to replace Karana Hattersley-Drayton, who left City Hall in early 2017 after nearly 15 years as Fresno’s historic preservation project manager.
That’s news. So, I asked Communications Director Mark Standriff for the person’s name. I also asked for an interview. Standriff said he’d get back to me.
Six weeks and many requests followed. I kept getting put off, much like Bredefeld on March 8. Finally, in mid-February, I filed a state Public Records Act request asking to review the new employee’s contract. I didn’t care about the employee’s salary. I figured the contract had to have a name attached to it.
Turns out the new employee’s job title isn’t historic preservation project manager. The title is historic preservation specialist. The position doesn’t rise to the level of a contract, so there is nothing for me to review.
The City Attorney’s Office responded to my PRA request on Feb. 27, 13 days after I filed it. Chief Assistant City Attorney Francine Kanne very generously noted in her letter to me that Laura Van Onna is the city’s historic preservation specialist.
Standriff also on Feb. 27 informed me via email that Van Onna is now on board.
I had my answer two months after my request for a piece of information that common sense would suggest is of considerable interest to many in Fresno and which I initially figured was so innocent in nature that no administration could possibly raise a fuss.
What a fool I am.
To top it all off, the City Attorney’s Office and Standriff responded to my Public Records Act request a day after I had attended a Historic Preservation Commission meeting where Van Onna spoke at length.
The fight between reporters and a secretive/arrogant City Hall administration is age-old, too.
That brings us to Sunshine Week. This annual national teach-in (if I may use a term from the ‘60s) is sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Gridiron Club and Foundation.
This year’s Sunshine Week runs from March 11 through March 17.
Two themes are at the heart of Sunshine Week for a Fresno-based reporter like me.
The first is power of the law. The California Public Records Act and the U.S. Freedom of Information Act are the most common vehicles for local reporters to get government to open up.
The second is James Madison in Federalist 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the government; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Sunshine Week’s website connects these two themes: “…, freedom of information isn’t just a press issue. It is a cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels. It helps keep public officials honest, makes government more efficient and provides a check against abuse of power.”
I’m not saying Garry Bredefeld in the mayor’s chair would be any different than Lee Brand in the mayor’s chair.
I am saying: Thank you, Garry, for reminding us about the absence of angels at Fresno City Hall.