By Kevin Hall
Political power blocs in Fresno clashed last month in a $2.8 million electoral fight over Measure P, the apparently defeated Parks for All tax. Only “apparently” because a recent ruling by the California Supreme Court offers a slim but bright ray of hope for the 51% majority who voted in favor of the 3/8-cent, 30-year sales tax. (See “The 51% Tax Solution.”)
Patriarchy quickly emerged as a dominant theme in the $400,000 anti-P effort led by Mayor Lee Brand against the $2.4 million pro-P side headed by his predecessor, former mayor Ashley Swearengin, now CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation. David McDonald, former CEO of Pelco Inc., was the measure’s biggest backer with $850,000 in contributions.
Punishingly, Brand and his backers slapped the “no” back into FresNo, subjecting Swearengin’s FresYes backers to harsh political attacks the likes of which they had probably never experienced, including an especially egregious piece produced by developer and former California Transportation Commission member Darius Assemi for his vanity Web site, GVWire.
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fire Chief Kerri Donis were the No side’s official spokespeople. They led with a big lie and never stopped repeating it: passing the parks tax would somehow limit police and firefighters’ ability to protect the public.
Sandra Celedon, on loan from Fresno Building Healthy Communities to the campaign as field director, told Valley Public Radio after the election, “So this really boils down to just greed. They wanted to show force, they wanted to show that they’re the most important in town and they really wanted to make sure that they got every dime that comes into our city.”
A payoff, or paid-off chit, inside city hall brought a twist that smelled of old school Fresno corruption. The city submitted the wrong ballot language to the county clerk, according to a report in the Fresno Bee.
Voters received a truncated description, one that did not include language known to effectively address people’s two biggest concerns about adequate oversight and a clean expenditure plan. Tracking polls showed a 14-point drop in voter support in the days following the ballots’ arrival in mailboxes.
A pissing contest erupted between local big-dollar Republican donor David McDonald, architect and backer of the original Measure Z campaign to replace Roeding Park with an enlarged Chaffee Zoo, destruction still in progress, and Brand’s status quo coalition largely financed by Assemi.
Enraged by the mayor and police chief’s clear intention to negotiate in bad faith, McDonald more than doubled his original commitment of $400,000 to the Yes on P campaign to $850,000. He had earlier offered the extra money to Brand and Dyer to back a public safety tax in a separate election cycle but was rebuffed.
Paradoxically, a public safety tax will not earn 66% support among the Fresno electorate. Support is much lower among residents of the southern two-thirds of the city where the relationship between community and law enforcement is less genteel than that found in neighborhoods further north where mayors, police and fire chiefs, police officers, firefighters and city brass buy their homes.
Prejudice runs rampant in those same north-end neighborhoods where the “No-P’s” sought to hold their base with shrill dog whistles of fear and bigotry. Canvassers for the Yes campaign, who were almost all people of color, reported repeated instances of racist comments and harangues when knocking on doors in those red precincts. “Lower-class” voters were mentioned in one mailer, and the Assemi attack ad video made the preposterous claim that support for the parks tax would result in increased human trafficking.
Pressuring people into attack ads, particularly during political campaigns, reveals much about a person’s character. The exploitation of a deadly serious issue for cheap political gain shows a serious lack of judgment at best. The video even featured a survivor of human trafficking who now leads a nonprofit, Breaking the Chains, that has both Assemi and Dyer on its board, according to its Web site.
Payback also motivated Brand and Assemi. They opposed Swearengin’s sprawl-limiting General Plan Update, passed while she was mayor and Brand was on the City Council.
In his first round of retaliation, Assemi coordinated the City Council’s gutting of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system by getting funds diverted to the Shaw Avenue route, resulting in a half-built BRT and a blow to one of Swearengin’s signature projects. This time he undercuts her political community and her new position as head of a local foundation, all the while scoring points with Brand. The male mayor, for his part, simply resents his predecessor’s continued presence and influence.
Persistence and patience are the final two P words. The California Endowment has invested an estimated $3.5 million in local community organizations seeking to improve public health, and parks emerged as the top priority for young people when they were surveyed eight years ago.
The $2.5 million wasted in this election cycle has not ended the effort. Parks supporters have vowed to return the measure to the ballot, if the courts can’t resolve the issue before 2020. Because Fresno’s kids can’t wait.
The 51% Tax Solution
A ruling in late August by the California Supreme Court offers hope to backers of Measure P. According to a Los Angeles Times report, the justices ruled that “tax increases proposed by city and county elected officials should be treated differently than those put on the ballot through citizen initiatives.”
Measure P backers did just, gathering more than 35,000 signatures in April and May of this year. That petition was specific to the parks tax and had no allocations for police or fire. Ironically, the new legal precedent stems from a 2014 ruling regarding medical marijuana dispensaries in Upland.
The Times reported the following:
“Multiple provisions of the state Constitution explicitly constrain the power of local governments to raise taxes,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote in a 5-2 majority opinion. “But we will not lightly apply such restrictions on local governments to voter initiatives, ‘one of the most precious rights of our democratic process.’”
Kevin Hall is the host of Climate Politics, airing on the fourth Friday of each month from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. on KFCF 88.1 FM and can be followed on Twitter @sjvalleyclimate.