City Council Finds Democracy "Too Expensive"

City Council Finds Democracy "Too Expensive"
Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr Creative Commons

By: Gary Lasky

At its February 11 meeting, the City Council voted 4-3 to ask Fresno voters to amend the City Charter in the June 8 election to prevent the City Council from expanding its membership when Fresno reaches 540,000 in population-even though voters rejected a similar measure just four years ago.

Fresno currently has seven City Council members elected from districts. The City Charter, as it now stands, would require the city to expand to nine members after the population passes the 540,000 mark. This is expected to happen sometime in 2012 or 2013.

The city’s entire district map will need to be redrawn when this happens. This is in addition to the redistricting that will take place, as it does once each decade, following the U.S. Census results, due out later this year. Redrawing district maps is always a time of nervousness for politicians because whoever draws the map-the district boundaries-holds the keys to future electoral success.

The proposed amendment would remove this automatic 540,000 “trigger” and replace it with a complicated process that is likely to leave us with no expansion in the future. Any expansion would be delayed until Fresno passes the 650,000 mark in population. Then, a rather extended process would replace the automatic trigger. A review process “will include significant public input, a study of peer cities, including demographic analysis, and public hearings.”

In the newly proposed amendment, a study would be made and a report prepared by the city manager and submitted to the City Council to see if the Council ought to expand from seven to nine districts. Next, the City Council would take a vote. Then, if the Council voted to expand, the measure would go to the public for ballot approval. Sounds complicated.

In 2006, a measure to stop the future expansion to nine seats was placed on the ballot by the Council and was voted down by the electorate, 53% to 47%.

At the February 4 Council meeting, this proposal resurfaced. After negotiations with Mayor Ashley Swearingen, the proposal was modified to its present form. It was presented by Council members Lee Brand, Andreas Borgeas and Blong Xiong.

The debate became heated as supporters of the proposed amendment developed creative efforts to sell it:

1. Democracy is expensive.
We wouldn’t want to have more representation per capita than other cities, according to Borgeas. Of course, he didn’t use those words. He described the expensive cost of City Council staff–$660,000 per Council seat at last count-and equated the
expanded Council with more staff.

Borgeas trotted out statistics: Fresno has 72,000 residents per City Council representative. Our peer cities in California (the Top 10) have an average of 98,000 residents per City Council member.

According to the Council majority, we need to be careful not to spend more money on city representatives than other cities. Borgeas stated, “This is an opportunity for us to match our peer cities in terms of representation.” Yeah. Less representation.

2. The proposed amendment is more democratic than the existing trigger.
I kid you not. The argument goes like this: It is more democratic for the Council to have control over whether that action should be taken than to have an automatic expansion to nine districts. And it is more democratic to postpone this decision until some unknown point in the future.

Never mind that the public voted down a 2006 ballot initiative to halt the expansion of the City Council from seven to nine seats. Proponents of this bill say that this time it is different. “Two entirely different animals,” said Borgeas.

As far as I can tell, there is little difference. Here’s what the two proposals (2006 and 2010) have in common: There would no longer be a guarantee of an expanded City Council. Without the Council’s approval in 2013, it’s not gonna happen.

Council member Mike Dages said, “It’s a little surprising, to be honest with you, with the Chamber [of Commerce] involved and the Lincoln Club. Wow. I did support this before.but I really resent the comment from Councilmember Borgeas that ‘the voters should decide.’ They decided twice already. What part of that don’t we understand?”

3. There was lots of community input into the proposed amendment.
This is a related point. After speaking out against the change on the grounds that the voters had already expressed their view at the ballot box, Councilmember Henry T. Perea reminded us that the voters had already voted to create and defend the existing City Charter policy.

“I’m hearing that there’s actually going to be a campaign now where special interest money has already been committed to keep the status quo set by City Hall insiders,” Perea continued. “I mean, that concerns me even more now that political donations and contributions have.already been committed by special interest groups to fund this campaign. The voters have already spoken twice on this, yet City Hall insiders don’t want to listen.”

Which organizations were approached by the proponents and approved the proposed amendment prior to the City Council vote? The Government Affairs Committee of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, the Building Industry Association, the Fresno County Lincoln Club, the Fresno Police Officers Association, the Fresno Firefighters Association, the Fresno City Employees Association and the Amalgamated Transit Workers.

Borgeas reported this effort as something of a mini pro-democracy movement. He used it to justify placing the amendment on the ballot, as if the failure for proponents of the measure to stop the expansion to nine districts, in 2006, somehow nullified the result of the election because they failed to do good outreach.

Borgeas appears to be straining to find credible arguments to sell the proposed amendment. He sounds more like a salesperson for the amendment. A pro-democracy measure?

How did this public input take place? What was the process? Answer: There were no public meetings. They took place before amendment opponents realized what was happening. By the time they found out, it was too late.

If the amendment proponents are going to cherry-pick which groups they will pitch the proposal to, then this is a corruption of city government. It is insulting for the public to hear that this is a “democratic process.”

There was almost no discussion before the Council of the merits of the increase in Council districts from seven to nine. This might be because of the extreme political implications. The proponents certainly do not want to signal why it is so important to them.

The Republican forces in Fresno are in trouble in the long run. Although they have a history of controlling city politics, they are now forced to confront the changing demographics in Fresno. Already, Fresno is a plurality Democratic voter registration. In Fresno County, the number of registered Democrats is growing and will likely outnumber registered Republicans this season. Historically speaking, here, as in California and America in general, we are becoming more diverse. This obvious fact is that the changing complexion of Fresno could have an impact on the ability of the powers-that-be to maintain their grip on power.

With 2010 Census redistricting coming soon to a neighborhood near you, we need to insist that the redistricting process be performed in an open, honest and transparent way, featuring community outreach to a wide array of organizations.

Residents need to resist efforts to thwart our democratic will. If the City Council and the mayor are serious about incorporating the public into planning the future of Fresno, then we must have open public hearings and presentations to a variety of organizations, not just to their likely friends, with pro and con arguments, not a whitewash.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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