By Kevin Hall
Few were downtown at the Fresno City Hall on a cold morning in late January to witness the new City Council fail its first real test of character. The one that matters most in city politics; it’s a single-question exam: Do developers still run this town?
The new five-member, veto-proof Democratic majority on the City Council has raised the hopes of many locals. At long last, some say, our humble burg of half a million souls will be governed by a body with a greater interest in the needs of poor and working families, one willing to take on the special interests running roughshod over lives and futures.
The Council’s newest members, Miguel Arias and Nelson Esparza, represent many of the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods along the Blackstone strip, the McLane High area, downtown and West Fresno, including the Reverse Triangle in south-central. Like their fellow Democrats on the Council, Paul Caprioglio from north-central Fresno, Luis Chavez from the southeast and Esmeralda Soria from west-central parts of town, they answered the candidate questionnaires well enough to earn endorsements from unions and liberal organizations.
They can be counted on to often, but not always (see Chavez and Caprioglio), take the right position on social issues. That’s easy. They’re Democrats. It’s expected.
But they also sought and received support from a long line of business interests with an agenda typically centered on eliminating or ignoring regulations and blocking regulatory enforcement by government agencies, particularly those that protect public health but cost businesses money.
So, as Valleycrats, these Democrats work equally hard to push the destructive “business friendly” agenda of conservative interests, most frequently those of developers and waste haulers. The latter group operates heavily in these neighborhoods already overburdened with pollution of every type.
So when the dreaded developer Darius Assemi looked up at the seven Fresno City Council members and mayor seated together on the dais and demanded a refund ordinance (if the city does not complete tasks within the permitting process by certain deadlines, the developer can apply for a refund of the permit application fees), no doubt he could see on their foreheads figures representing the more than $200,000 the Assemis have contributed through the years: Arias $21,550, Mayor Lee Brand $36,000, Steve Brandau $60,000, Garry Bredefeld $14,150, Caprioglio $9,650, Chavez $19,300, Esparza $15,850 and Soria $40,950.
The Council’s collective response was, “As you wish.”
The five Democrats, along with the B.R. Bruhs—north-end City Council members Brandau and Bredefeld and Mayor Brand—all agreed that Fresno developers might one day deserve cash refunds from the city. Cash. Refunds. For developers.
If you’re new to the area and are unfamiliar with this place’s long, sordid history of corrupt land dealings and City Hall bribery, or haven’t followed in recent months the shady practices by city government to facilitate industrial development and urban sprawl while ignoring environmental law or charging developer impact fees so low they impair the delivery of basic services such as fire protection and water quality, then you’re not loudly laughing like the rest of us.
This ridiculous proposal doesn’t pass the straight-face test. As reported on Jan. 31 by Brianna Calix in the Fresno Bee, it was first floated a year ago by Bredefeld, that bottomless fount of horrendous ideas, and scuttled while the mayor pushed his own disastrous approach to make Fresno more “business friendly,” the eventual town tombstone inscription.
Oddly, the rookie Arias jumped out in front on the issue. “[The planning department] doesn’t have a sense of urgency when it comes to approving business permits. This proposal is long overdue,” he told GVWire on Jan. 29, the day before the vote. But the day of the vote he said, “I still don’t have an understanding of the scope of the issue,” according to a Calix article.
Caprioglio sounded just as hapless. “By the dialogue, we have no idea what we’re doing,” Calix quotes him as saying at the Jan. 30 City Council meeting. “I haven’t heard a real solution because we haven’t identified what the problem is.”
But they passed it. Unanimously.
In giving an interview to the pseudo news site owned by Granville Homes (GVWire), the flagship operation of the Assemi family’s fiefdom of residential development, agriculture, water and now medical interests, and by treating the developer refund fee proposal seriously, Arias was demonstrating his desire to play ball.
But he, along with the others, were being tested. The developers and the Chamber of Commerce brought this measure forth in the new Council’s first month for a reason: to ensure they were all in line.
All seven City Council members are always eager to prove their business-friendly ways, as evidenced by the previous Council’s willingness to ignore public health laws when unanimously approving waste hauler-cum-developer Richard Caglia’s ill-fated Reverse Triangle industrial warehouses, which they unanimously reversed at Caglia’s request after South-Central Neighbors United took action.
So when developers make a ridiculous, self-serving demand designed to pressure city workers into cutting corners, particularly those designed to protect public health, rather than have the backbone to simply vote it down, these business-friendly Council members give it serious consideration, offering amendments and negotiating back and forth like polished statesmen.
But Assemi doesn’t want or need a refund. He was testing his new City Council, and they all scored perfectly on his exam while failing the community interest one.
These young Democrats, now practicing the politics of pay-to-play, can be expected to carry out the interests of their other major backers. In Fresno, that means a long list of residential and commercial developers and their suppliers and contractors. Waste haulers are another important sector, primarily because their highly impactful businesses are located in the overburdened neighborhoods of west, south-central and southeast Fresno represented by Arias and Chavez. These Council members will need special watching by community activists.