By Kevin Hall
The central San Joaquin Valley with its economic base of industrial agriculture has been likened to a modern-day plantation system. As such, north Fresno is one of its antebellum mansions where the powerful few reside in comfort upstream and upwind from the many who struggle to exist with dangerous living conditions, abject poverty, and little opportunity.
The southern belle at the head of this house as city mayor for the past eight years was Ashley Swearengin. A Texas-born, Arkansas-raised, Fresno Christian High School graduate, anti-choice, anti-gay marriage (at least until she ran and lost for statewide office in 2014) Republican, she exhibits the requisite behavior and values of the people who feel right at home atop a caste system.
While Fresno started off 2017 ranked 149th out of 150 U.S. metropolitan areas for job opportunity ahead only of Detroit, Swearengin was crowing online about the city’s score as second lowest in the nation for pension fund obligations. Clearly, it never occurred to her that as mayor of the country’s most impoverished neighborhoods with the worst job prospects and greatest inequities, that draconian cutbacks to city staff and services would only exacerbate the multifaceted crisis.
Instead, throughout her time in office she forcefully defended and reinforced the city’s long history of racial and economic injustice both in policy and practice. From industrial polluters and slumlords to inequitable budget priorities for parks and transit, Swearengin not only ignored Fresno’s poorest neighborhoods, she figured out how to capitalize on residents’ suffering. She used their own demographics against them, arbitrarily choosing which data to use and which to ignore.
For example, by ignoring important pollution and racial data from these most impacted neighborhoods and relying instead on income levels of the entire city, Swearengin and her staff based land use plans and funding priorities on their disingenuous redefinition of “blight”.
This dilution was used by Swearengin to justify moving money meant to alleviate the dire conditions of people living in Fresno’s true hot spots of concentrated poverty to her favorite gentrification areas of the downtown Fulton “Street” and Blackstone Avenue corridor. This, despite the fact that residents of the most impacted neighborhoods in Southeast and West Fresno live much shorter lives than people living further north (a greater than 20-year difference in life expectancy), have absurdly high infant mortality rates in their African-American communities (three times that of Caucasians), bear the state’s worst pollution burden (triple that of north Fresno) and more.
Swearengin now heads the Central Valley Community Foundation, where she is well positioned to continue her discriminatory ways by attracting millions of dollars from state agencies and private foundations, such as Irvine, Hewlett, and Bechtel. When she started her new job in January, she didn’t come alone. According to the Fresno Business Journal, Swearengin brought along several members of her wrecking crew, including former downtown revitalization manager Elliott Balch (think Fulton Mall destruction), senior policy advisor Danielle Bergstrom, economic development coordinator Claudia Ruiz-Alvarez, Downtown Fresno Foundation executive director Gretchen Moore, and communications coordinator Miguel Ramirez. With the exception of Moore, these were all city employees at one time.
This apparent $500,000+ bump in annual payroll indicates either newfound support from major foundations or, worse yet, a backroom deal with Gov. Jerry Brown for a large chunk of the $70 million in Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds earmarked for Fresno but which state law allows to be allocated to private nonprofit corporations such as the one now headed by Swearengin.
And there is no reason to believe that past will not be prologue for the former mayor. The same policies perpetuating racial and economic injustices that characterized her time in office will continue at the foundation. She’s surrounding herself with the same people, and her views won’t change just because her address has. Any state agency or other organization to bestow her with money or power would be complicit in keeping the plantation mentality alive and well in our city by supporting policies that harm our most vulnerable neighborhoods and people.
Setting aside the major issues of the mayor’s relentless attacks on the homeless and her hands-off approach to dealing with one of the nation’s deadliest police forces (these will be addressed in future articles), a review of her time as mayor demonstrates her disregard for racial and economic justice.
The longest running, clearest example of racial inequity in Fresno is the Darling Rendering Plant. The facility has operated without proper environmental review and approval for decades. It regularly permeates the surrounding neighborhoods and schools with the stench of boiling down as much as 850,000 pounds of slaughterhouse refuse per day, degrading all residents’ quality of life and having very real impacts on people with asthma and other respiratory conditions. The plant also creates high volumes of truck traffic, which means heavy emissions of toxic diesel exhaust on West Fresno streets, and residents complain of leakage onto local streets of raw animal fluids from the delivery trucks.
When Swearengin took office, community activists from Concerned Citizens for West Fresno made a simple request of her: require the plant to submit an application for a Conditional Use Permit, the most basic legal requirement of land use planning, in order to assess health and safety impacts and identify possible mitigation, including relocation of the plant. After nearly four years of delay and obfuscation by the mayor and her crew, advocates were forced to sue the city. Another four years later and negotiations for a settlement are still underway while the plant continues to operate.
Not content to merely inherit and ignore major hazards, Swearengin actively supported new sources over the objections of residents, such as the Brenntag Pacific chemical plant, again in West Fresno. The City Council District 3 Advisory Committee unanimously opposed the project, and Brenntag failed to gain the support of the city Planning Commission. For the project to move forward after the commission’s vote, it could only be appealed by the district councilmember, Oliver Baines, or the mayor. Baines refused. Swearengin willingly obliged. And acting in classic Swearengin support mode, the city council voted along racial lines to approve the project: four white males in favor (Brand, Brandau, Caprioglio, Olivier) and three men of color opposed (Baines, Xiong, Quintero).
Darling and Brenntag are illustrative of Swearengin’s consistent failure to truly engage with community residents, particularly with people of color and low-income. This deep disregard ran consistently through her every initiative at city hall. Simply put, people from Southeast and West Fresno never had a meaningful seat at the table with Swearengin.
Accompanying this exclusion was a lack of transparency. From the General Plan update process to the deal cut with developers to gut Bus Rapid Transit, backroom deals were the mayor’s favorite mode of operation. Impacted residents were invited in only to be told what had been decided in their absence, that it was the best they were going to get, and so they’d better get behind it.
But the belle was sure to put some lipstick on this pig of a process. For the General Plan update, Swearengin created her own “community” organization, the Foundation for Fresno’s Future. It appeared out of thin air in 2014 in the lead up to the city council vote and drifted away soon afterward. This was a key part of her response to the considerable opposition from the residents she sought to ignore. Swearengin actively worked to undermine their voices by trying to dominate them with this astroturf group of predominantly white professionals. It was pure public relations engineered by an elected mayor who sought to talk over and shout down the genuine voices of people living in the impacted neighborhoods she was determined to forget.
Another strategy employed by Swearengin to undermine community engagement was the release of major documents, such as a significantly revised version of the General Plan, mere days before critical public hearings and votes. This effort at exclusion was compounded by timing these rushed votes to occur during busy holiday periods when working parents found it very difficult to participate and leaving true community organizations no time to meet with residents beforehand.
(Next month: The White Comfort Zone, slumlords, bus rapid transit, parks and more)
Kevin Hall is a former Fresno County Planning Commissioner and long-time clean air advocate.