By Kevin Hall
The climate change movement’s new demand of Congressional candidates and incumbents is that they refuse all contributions from fossil fuel interests and pledge to support the Green New Deal. While that must also hold true for local politicians, an equally important step for city council members and county supervisors would be to refuse all developer money.
That’s a tall order in Fresno politics, but that day might be near. A new movement led by local nonprofits is competing with the influence of developer campaign contributions by working to bring more people to the polls through Integrated Voter Engagement programs. Largely funded by the California Endowment—but with significant support coming from other foundations, a few unions, at least one politically ambitious billionaire and others—the focus is on community residents who normally don’t vote but will when engaged in meaningful ways.
The laudable goal of the effort is to improve public health policies and practices of local government and other civic institutions. But these system changes eventually boil down to votes by elected officials, and that is when these same politicians face realpolitik choices. Play it safe and side with the moneyed interests or dare to follow the community’s lead and stand up against the forces of institutionalized racism and systemic poverty.
Consider the still unfolding tale of Richard Caglia, an elected trustee of the State Center Community College District, and his 110-acre warehouse industrial development proposal for south-central Fresno. The saga took a surprise twist in January, when Caglia withdrew his request of the city and asked that the City Council rescind his permit applications. They did, relieving the city of its losing legal battle it faced at the hands of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in defense of the Council’s earlier approval.
However, the project isn’t dead. The land is still zoned industrial, and it’s safe to say that Mayor Lee Brand wants to see it developed, along with a broad swath of the city’s heavily industrialized and historically racially and economically segregated south side.
This tension between unfettered profit from industrial development and protection of people’s lives might be as old as the hills, but it’s best symbolized by the man-made mound known as the Orange Avenue Dump, which sits at north end of the Caglia property along Cedar Avenue, just below State Route 99.
The former landfill was recently topped with a large cross, fittingly giving it the look of a giant burial mound. It has been shuttered for years, but the contaminated aquifer beneath it still requires constant monitoring. Immediately next to it is the Cedar Avenue Recycling and Transfer station where the multi-generational Caglia family business in garbage hauling continues unabated.
A steady stream of diesel trucks arrives throughout the day; fires break out regularly from the large mounds of wet trash awaiting sorting, spewing toxic clouds of burning plastics and electronics; and next to which Mayor Brand wants to see people working in trucking centers that he euphemistically refers to as “e-commerce” centers.
The unanimous Jan. 17 vote by the City Council to honor Caglia’s request and rescind the permit applications was a profoundly important moment in Fresno history. It contains all the elements of old Fresno, from the family with strong political connections trying to avoid environmental regulations and the politicians who serve them, to the civic insurgency being led by groups such as Leadership Counsel, Fresno Building Healthy Communities, Communities for a New California and Cultiva la Salud and the new politicians who claim to represent their neighborhoods.
The emerging debate over industrial development throughout the area will be the defining issue for Fresno’s new City Council, which enjoys a 5-2 majority of Democrats, four of whom identify as Latinx and harbor greater political ambitions. The real test of their mettle is still to come.
The political ideology of the remaining Republicans, Steve Brandau and Garry Bredefeld, is set. They can be counted on to vote in favor of the lowest possible bar for industrial polluters. That’s the attitude, of course, that created this catastrophe.
A few years back, when Mayor Brand and former Council member turned city economic development director Larry Westerlund were shouting about cutting the red tape and “Fresno is open for business,” we now know they meant state-mandated environmental impact assessments were being ignored. Massive projects such as Amazon, Ulta, Caglia and the expanded Gap Inc. warehouse were being waived through.
However, now that Leadership Counsel has managed to stop this mad rush and even got the office of State Attorney General Xavier Becerra to weigh in, will real leadership emerge on the City Council?
A clue might be found in the example of former Council member Oliver Baines. This Democrat just left office after eight years of representing District 3, home to the Caglia project. He spent seven years as a large city representative to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the agency whose staff originally called on the city to conduct a full EIR for the project.
But last January, on the night before the Democrat-laden City Council’s unanimous vote to ignore well-established environmental law, Baines told Channel 30 reporter Cory James, “We’ve done everything we can as a city to mitigate whatever health impacts are going to be out there.” That statement was so far from accurate it would be laughable if not for the dangers posed to the thousands of people living in the immediate area.
It’s now time for the Fresno City Council to break from the developer-driven agenda that has shaped our community for the worse. However, in December the city signed a $1 million contract with consultants to revise the city’s General Plan EIR and develop an “Industrial Area Priority Specific Plan.” The first steps have been taken behind closed doors and the city plans to conduct no public outreach beyond the bare legal minimum.
But as Sandra Celedon told the City Council before its vote to rescind the Caglia proposal, “It’s not just about providing a space for further industrial development, but that we have an honest conversation about economic development that values not just the work that people are engaging in but also their lives and their health.”
Or as Leadership Counsel stated on its Web site announcement of the victory, “This and other similar developments must be done in an inclusive, thoughtful and strategic way that benefits the residents of Fresno, not harms them. The proposed development is bad business and a neighborhood killer.”
Kevin Hall hosts Climate Politics from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Fridays of each month on KFCF 88.1 FM. He is on Twitter at @sjvalleyclimate and @airfrezno. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.