Are hospitals killing Fresno? Has the House of Labor split asunder? Is the Democratic Party divided?
Why, yes, but that’s nothing new, it’s just much worse than anyone realized. Underlying the billion-dollar scandal rocking Community Regional Medical Centers and spurring a two-county debate over transportation sales taxes is the region’s most powerful special interest group: landowners.
Served by grasping politicians and feared by bureaucrats, the lords of property have long ruled Fresno—through divide and rule—and every generation sees an episode of gross overreach that crosses lines of both morality and legality. The 1980s saw a deceptive Measure C used to gouge Freeway 168 through the heart of town; it combined with Operation Rezone to subsidize White flight to Clovis and beyond.
Years earlier, competing developers enticed Valley Children’s Hospital to jump across the river into Madera County, courtesy of Freeway 41 and an offer of free land. St. Agnes similarly abandoned central Fresno and took the leap up to Herndon Avenue. Hell, even the Unitarian Church eventually joined “Alluvial Man” in the northern sprawl off Willow Avenue. It’s just easier to pave over farms or natural lands, and more profitable.
And freeways make it all possible. As do political silos.
Discerning local politics is to look down a kaleidoscope in which greed, corruption and ambition tumble into pleasing patterns. Political promises made by empty suits and public relations masked as philanthropy work like cheap mirrors and plastic shards to distort reality, confuse the eye.
Consider Farid Assemi and the explosive Fresno Bee expose written by Yesenia Amaro. It’s difficult to think of a family name more strongly associated with local philanthropy and politics. From raffling off houses for school districts—that just so happen to be building in the same new neighborhoods they are—to spending nearly $200,000 in the failed attempt to block Measure P for parks, they give record amounts of money. Amaro outlines their extensive agricultural and land development holdings from which those profits are derived.
Apparently, that’s not enough. Now Assemi has taken control of the community’s largest nonprofit healthcare system and may have already damaged the level of services being provided downtown. Conflicts of interest reflect in glittery red off several governing board members’ resumes.
With Assemi at the helm, the board appears to have shifted as much as $1 billion away from the downtown hospital to its Clovis facility. There you find an adjacent private operation owned by Assemi and another board member on land bought from a third, according to Amaro’s in-depth reporting.
The hospital industry’s long-standing dependency on freeway-induced sprawl was evident on the Measure C and Measure T renewal committees in Fresno and Madera counties. Assemi’s not-so-subtle agenda was represented by Community PR maven Gayle Holman, a former employee of Westlands Water District where another Assemi holds a board seat. Holman’s contribution to the Measure C debate was to call for better road “access” to hospitals, and she cast several votes to ignore community input.
Meanwhile, Valley Children’s Hospital played on both sides of the river with its staff serving on transportation sales tax renewal committees in two counties. Fresno’s Measure C executive committee was chaired by the hospital’s PR executive, Lynne Ashbeck, a Clovis City Council member; her colleague Tim Curlee sat on Madera’s Measure T committee. The Madera renewal effort excluded the community, has proposed a forever tax, and wants $375 million in road and highway subsidies for the new town growth area around the hospital.
Then there’s Labor and Democrats. Both groups are conflicted. In a series of votes held this summer by the county’s 15 city councils, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, the Fresno Council of Governments and the Fresno County Transportation Authority, few politicians voted against placing Measure C on the ballot. Yet the Fresno County Democratic Central Committee voted by acclamation—no roll call—in early September to take a No on C position. Not one union member or politician spoke in favor of the measure.
And while Carpenters Local 701 has joined community groups in the VoteNoMeasureC.com coalition, Chuck Riojas, head of the Building Trades Association, has signed the Yes on C ballot argument alongside Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims. The Operating Engineers have backed the Republican-led measure with $75,000 of its members’ money so far.
Rounding out the Yes on C ballot backers is none other than Henry R. Perea, a registered lobbyist for industrial developers with the City of Fresno, as reported in the September 2021 issue of the Community Alliance. He’s supposed to appeal to Latino voters and serve as a counter to former Assembly Member Juan Arambula who has signed the No on Measure C ballot rebuttal.
Because, despite the court ruling upholding the County registrar’s flawed decision to reject the No on C coalition’s ballot argument, the names of Arambula, former city planning commissioner Luisa Medina, Fresno Building Healthy Community CEO Sandra Celedon and the Carpenters Union’s Travis Alexander will appear on the ballot. The Libertarian Party allowed the coalition to submit the rebuttal argument that will appear directly below the Yes on C statement.
Freeways run through Fresno like veins of coal. Hollowed-out neighborhoods line their dark walls. Blackened lungs and damaged DNA are their legacy. With hospital boards and employees mixing their business interests with politics, and with politicians and unions willing to ignore the harm being caused to people’s health and opportunity, nothing can change.
This November’s votes on Measure C and Measure T will set the region’s economic and environmental path beyond the year 2050. Yet in 18 months of meetings, not once did either committee discuss climate change. The pro–Measure C crowd is striving to stay ignorant and campaigning to deceive the public. It’s time to say no to the same old status quo Fresno.
The climate future is here, now, and we must act.